Story by David Bienenstock

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” —Henry David Thoreau

Richard Stallman first wandered into the artificial-intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971, an 18-year-old Harvard undergrad asking around for surplus programming manuals. He walked out the same day with a new job, and entrée into the epicenter of an emerging revolution in computer science. Best of all, everything was free.

“To help people understand the word free in the correct way, I often say, ‘Think of free speech, not free beer,’” Stallman explains. “Free software means the user has certain crucial freedoms, including freedom to run the program for any legitimate purpose, freedom to control the program by studying the source code and changing it to do what you want, freedom to cooperate with others by redistributing copies of the program, and freedom to publish improved versions.”

Free software was a way of life for Stallman at MIT. He worked on early operating systems alongside the greatest minds in the field, sharing code, technique and a community united in seeking utility from computers. Ironically, the first sign of trouble—the dead canary in the mine- shaft—came in the form of a “free” laser printer. The machine, an early prototype, was a gift from Xerox, but the code that ran it was a proprietary trade secret. So when the printer crashed, there was no way to fix it—even if you just so happened to be one of the world’s foremost experts in computer programming.

“The problems were the result of the fact that we were helpless. Our hands were tied,” Stallman recalls. “I was able to see free software as a way of life that was worth defending.”

The corporate alternative to free software—a wired world run by code the public can not examine, alter or understand—has come to pass. Imagine buying a car and being told that not only is it illegal to look under the hood, but that the manufacturer reserves the right to change the engine at any time, to take your keys away for any reason, and to track (and/or limit) the places you can drive. (Microsoft used to ask, “Where do you want to go today?” More fitting: “Go here, or else.”)

Now imagine an election where you can’t see the code that counts the vote. A browser that reports your Web surfing to the government. A word processor that secretly scans your unfinished manifesto . . .

Clearly seeing, and fearing, this future, Stallman resigned from MIT in January 1984 to begin the GNU Project, bringing together programmers from around the world to create the first operating system compatible with the philosophy of free software. Stallman left MIT’s payroll but never left Cambridge, Mass., where he currently resides in a rented third-floor bedroom, undecorated and furnished with a computer table and a single bed. Highwired met with him there, two hours before his address to an associate members’ meeting of the Free Software Foundation, which he founded in 1985 to raise money and awareness for the cause.

Starting GNU was “a revolutionary act,” according to Stallman, “an escape from a system of domination and subjugation.”

“To make your computer do anything, you need an operating system, and all
the operating systems available for modern computers in 1983 were proprietary.
I wanted to change that, but I couldn’t change it with a lobbying campaign.” Instead, he undertook a strategy of propaganda by the deed. “I have a lot of skill writing software, so I figured I could change the situation by writing an operating system. And this way it would be possible to use a computer system in freedom.”

GNU was completed in the early 90’s, but it lacked a kernel, the lowest-level
component of an operating system, which allocates the machine’s resources among
all the higher-level functions. Around the same time, Linus Torvalds had developed
a kernel called Linux, which he initially sought to protect but eventually released as free software, in 1992. Programmers quickly combined GNU with Linux to create a fully functioning operating system, GNU/Linux, which most people now know simply as Linux—a semantic oversight that obscures the very existence of the free-software movement that made it all possible.

“There were a group of people who promoted the system because they liked it technically, but they never particularly thought about the issue of freedom,” says Stallman, who was not involved in combining GNU and Linux. “People tended to look at Linus Torvalds as if he’d developed the whole thing, and he doesn’t agree with the political ideas of the GNU Project. He thinks technical decisions should be made on technical grounds alone.”

On technical grounds, of course, free software is impractical for many people. Free programs are available for many tasks (word processing, e-mail, Web publishing, etc.), but they can be far from user-friendly, and don’t always play nicely with the proprietary systems that are ubiquitous (including the one here at High Times). Stallman, however, sees these distinctions not just in technical and political terms, but also in moral terms. For him, free software is a basic human right in the 21st century and perhaps as important to the cause of freedom as free speech was in the last century. “People who don’t value their freedom will lose it. Look at how much freedom we’ve lost in the US in three years...I don’t hate people just because they use non-free software—I know that they’re more victims than victimizers—but they are playing a role in perpetuating this system, and I think they should stop.”

Meanwhile, the open-source movement, which developed among Linux devotees, offers a far more moderate approach: courting new converts with the promise of lower costs, increased efficiency and many of the “freedoms” demanded by the Free Software Foundation (without any of the underlying philosophy). To Microsoft and other giants of the industry, open source’s business-friendly approach represents a far more serious threat than Richard Stallman’s revolution. Linux has already been embraced and implemented by IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Google—not to mention Communist China.

Rest assured, Bill Gates has been paying attention. On the international front, he’s been lecturing the developing world on the danger of free and open-source software, a position loudly echoed by US trade representatives and hardwired into multinational free-trade agreements. Microsoft has also been fighting for its market share at home, actively supporting the litigious assault on all things Linux by the SCO Group, which claims Linux uses code swiped from Unix, their earlier proprietary system. Employing a tactic developed by the music industry, SCO has been randomly targeting Linux users for lawsuits, starting with DaimlerChrysler and AutoZone.

“Microsoft appears to be funding SCO to make outrageous lawsuits with the goal of scaring users away from free software. They have power and they want to maintain it,” Stallman explains. “The real threat is not if they win these suits, which seems very unlikely. The real threat is from software patents, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other laws that actually prohibit the use of free software to do specific jobs”—like playing a DVD, for starters.

Highwired asked Stallman if a war might eventually be fought over code, the way we’ve fought over gold, religion and oil.

“I don’t think even Bush would go to war over something like this, but economic conflict, yes. It’s part of a larger economic conflict between the governments that are in the empire and subservient to the global corporations, and those that are trying to resist.”

And who will win?

“How should I know? When people are fighting for freedom, it’s a silly question to ask who will win. Imagine visiting Gandhi, George Washington or Nelson Mandela and asking, ‘Who’s going to win this fight?’ It presumes that the outcome is decided, so what it says to the Republic is, ‘Don’t bother getting involved.’”

Get involved: Free Software Society, gnu.org;
Electronic Frontier Foundation, eff.org