Richard Stallman (commonly referred to by his initials, RMS) is best known as the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the coder of the Emacs, GNU C Compiler (gcc), and GNU Debugger (gdb). He is now something of a personality in computing, he represents J. Random Hacker very vocally. He holds a lot of opinions very openly that are against even the liberal grain of Open Source, and many people think he is a raving lunatic.
Stallman's most important contribution to the world was forming GNU, which didn't start the free software movement (and RMS doesn't claim credit for it, either), but it was a rallying point and it formalized and solidified the concepts in free software. The GNU Project's stated goal is to write an operating system that is whose binaries and source code are free to own, copy, modify. The stipulations of the GNU GPL provide that this software has absolutely no choice but to remain free. Nearly an entire operating system is available for free because of GNU (less a working kernel, and a few other parts, but work is progressing towards the goal).
Stallman's other venture, the Free Software Foundation is the loophole that makes the free software plan work. Stallman realized that since he quit his job to write GNU, he was going to have to sustain himself. He decided on this "loophole": GNU software was free as in speech and thus as in beer, but if you could sell copies of it (copies, not the actual software) for any fee you wished. So he sold tapes of GNU Emacs for $150 through the FSF. The FSF actually makes money selling GNU Project work, and develops GNU software. FSF actually paid people to write software for the GNU Project.
Stallman has always been an individual rights advocate, and a very liberal thinker. He has always been very vocal and open about his views, to the point where most people consider him a zealot.
In the 1960s and 70s, MIT's AI Lab was a hotbed of computing, the best and brightest had gathered there and were developing software and concepts that would change the world1. When Stallman entered that world in 1971, he entered near the end of that era. He worked on staff at the lab while he got his physics degree at Harvard. When he began working there, the software industry was basically open and free, because businesses did not yet consider that they could get revenues from software, they sold you a very expensive piece of hardware with all the software you would need.
He got his BS in Physics in 1974 from Harvard and continued to work at the AI Lab, improving their system, the Incomprehensible Timesharing System. He wrote the first version of Emacs in 1975, and this became his editor of choice, as well as the editor of choice for many at the AI Lab.
By the 1980s, free software was a thing of the past. Stallman thought this was horrible. He could no longer ask someone for source code and hack it, he could no longer read the source code of the OS he was running. He decided something had to be done, and ruminated on an idea.
He decided that he would make an operating system himself, one that couldn't be copyrighted and protected because of stupid, pointless profit motives. So he quit his job at MIT in 1984, because MIT could lay claim on any operating system he released. He went with no job and began writing code. He decided the name for his project would be GNU, which stands for GNU's Not UNIX. This is a recursive acronym, which used to be very funny joke. It should be noted that at this time UNIX didn't mean the same thing it does today. UNIX was an AT&T OS that was sublicensed out to various companies, but first and foremost it stood for a particular OS (System V), not a type as it does today. There were lots of harsh legal agreements involved with UNIX, all very foreign to hackers and sysadmins. So calling GNU "Not UNIX" was a very revolutionist statement.
The first project he worked on was GNU Emacs. He had already written Emacs for ITS on the PDP-10, but the PDP-10 was long gone, so he rewrote it for UNIX so he wouldn't have to learn another editor to hack. He then had to decide on how to distribute the GNU system. First, he created an anonymous FTP site at prep.ai.mit.edu that is still used today. But at this time (1985ish) there wasn't a lot of FTPing going on and lines were slower and so on. The common thing to do back in that day was to copy it onto a tape and send it back to the person who wanted it. But Stallman needed cash, so he decided that while the GNU operating system would be free as in speech, he was going to sell tapes and manuals. He formed the Free Software Foundation to sell his work.
The FSF has always supported the GNU Project by selling GNU Project software and manuals. They use the money to fund the GNU Project's programmers. The FSF's mission is to further the GNU Project, so the two are interrelated. The FSF doesn't actually sell the software, but very similarly to any other modern software publisher, it sells copies, and the GNU GPL allows you to make as many copies as you want and distribute them for any price you choose as long as it is still freely available in some form.
The original plan for the GNU Project had the operating system within a few years. However, it has been more than fifteen years and there is still not a finished system. Why? Stallman released parts of the OS as they became available, such as Emacs. Emacs and all the other software wasn't even written to the GNU platform, but to the UNIX platform, so lots of proprietary UNIX owners got a copy and began using it and requesting features, many of them even ported the code over to a new OS. The end result was the FSF programmers (Stallman included) spent all their time supporting these applications, and were unable to devote time to writing new pieces of the OS. So Stallman took on the brunt of the load, becoming the main programmer of the gcc, gdb, and make.
In 1990, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. In 1991, he received the Grace Hopper Award from the ACM for the Emacs editor. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden in 1996. In 1998, he received the EFF Pioneer award with Linus Torvalds. He received the Yuri Rubinski award in 1999. He received a second honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow in 2001.
Today, the FSF has gained more responsibility as the GNU Project has further entrenched itself as an undeniably important part of computing. Stallman remains as president of FSF and the visionary of the GNU Project. He now mostly travels and spreads his vision of free software and the GNU Project.
Stallman spent his computationally formative years in the AI lab in its heyday and it wouldn't be entirely
incorrect to say that he wanted to go back to that culture and time period. But when business
came into the MIT AI Lab, it was forever changed, as was the hacker community. So he had to specifically
protect the rights that create free software with the GNU copyleft to keep patent and copyright out of
If software were produce, Stallman would be digging out in the backyard and growing his own rather
than going to the store and buying it. You cannot deny people the right to grow vegetables (at least in most
countries); you cannot copyright the ground, water, and sun. You can charge for the seeds, of course, but
once those seeds leave the store, they go out into the world and make vegetables. You don't own those
vegetables or the seeds they make. You give everyone the right to grow them as they see fit.
Stallman has always held that he was neither against selling the OS (seeds) nor did he want to profit (in
a both financial and philosophical sense) off the derivative programs (vegetables) unless they were created
from his seed. I don't think he intended to make everything made for the OS free (which is the case today) at
first, but he seems to believe that anything necessary to the OS should be free, and he considers just about
He is not against profit, although he is against unjust or excess profit. Of course, he has spoken
against a number of businesses for various reasons, but as a rule he is not against people financially
benefiting from their labor. But he is very liberal, and wants companies to play fairly and make money
for the right reasons (for example, FSF makes money for the right reasons).
He is also an individual rights advocate. A huge laundry list of issues is constantly updated on his
website2. These include civil liberties, copyright law, due process, etc. The page serves as
a great launching point for liberal and rights-minded activists.
His Opinions, Disagreements, and Public Flamewars
I believe Slashdot explains this side of RMS very well in their interview. They precede his responses with
the following warning:
Warning: The interview below contains mature concepts and strong opinions. It may not be
suitable reading for easily-angered readers whose views conflict with Mr. Stallman's.3
That sums up the volatility of Stallman's views and his manner of expressing them. While his arguments are
always well presented, he has a very harsh, no-bullshit tone that easily offends
people who disagree. It
often offends them into writing 10,000+ character replies and starting some of the net's best flame wars
Here are a few of the opinions he has championed that have caused many to think he's insane
RMS on Linux
During the time that the GNU OS was being developed, a curious thing happened. A programmer known to many as
Linus Torvalds created a kernel, that while not pretty, did the jobs a kernel needed to do and allowed
all the other GNU operating system parts to come together on a completely free system. Linux beat HURD to
the market and was swept up by tons of people who plugged the GNU tools into the Linux kernel (or the other
way around) and came out with a completely free operating system. While this may seem a victory, RMS felt it
was hollow, as all the predictions and hopes he had for GNU were now resting in the hands of Linux, even
though it used all the other GNU components to form the operating system. This is the cause of a major
controversy that RMS continues to battle. He would like to replace the term Linux (referring to the OS) with
GNU/Linux since GNU does the majority of the work. When receiving awards, making speeches, and particularly
in various emails, he makes a point to remind the audience that this is his baby, and that his tools enabled
this to happen, less that little kernel. While there hasn't been a lot of direct conflict with
Torvalds or other Linux monks over this, RMS has gone out of his way to make sure everyone understands his
RMS on Open Source
The other huge controversy surrounding RMS is the Open Source Movement. His antagonist in this one is
Eric S. Raymond, similarly contracted to ESR. RMS joined (and basically formalized) the Free Software
Movement in 1984; ESR founded the Open Source Movement (with the publication of The Cathedral and the
Bazaar) in 1997. The differences in the movements are not clear to most, as they are rights issues. RMS
says, "[The Free Software Movement] is concerned not only with practical benefits but with a social
and ethical issue: whether to encourage people to cooperate with their neighbors, or prohibit cooperation."
The Open Source Movement believes that Open Source is better than closed source, whether the software is
Free or not. The Free Software Movement agrees Open Sourced software is better in a practical sense (or
doesn't care, depending on your bend), but also believes it's better in a philosophical and ethical sense.
The real contention between the two is that the Open Source Movement, ESR included would like to ignore
the ethical issues, because they would like to appeal to businesses who hate ethical issues. But they
use GNU tools and usually the GNU/Linux OS, so they can't ignore GNU, FSF, and RMS, and the FSM (Free
Software Movement). Every chance RMS gets, he "embarrasses" the Open Source Movement by bringing up those
nasty issues in public. ESR is very eloquent, a much better writer and speaker than RMS and thus often
wins arguments. Of course, at the end of the day, he still types "gcc," "gdb," and "emacs."
Some Things RMS Likes Besides Free Software
Just to make you feel warm and fuzzy at the end of this bio, here are some things that RMS likes besides
arguing all day. RMS loves to listen to and play music. He usually carries a recorder with him. He also
likes books, and is reportedly a voracious reader. He loves to travel, which is good because he travels
nearly nonstop promoting GNU. Finally Stallman says, "I like sharing tenderness with someone I adore, but I
only occasionally have a chance to do that."
- For a good idea of this entire scene, you might read Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by
- That is a particularly good interview. RMS touches on many political and computing issues. It can be
found at http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=00/05/01/1052216
Because RMS is best known for his work on the GNU Project it would be very easy to
describe his achievements for the GNU Project in incredible depth, but I have decided to leave that to the
author of the GNU WU, and will try to focus on his accomplishments in a broader sense. Thus there will/should
quite a bit in addition to this on the GNU node.