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Richard Stallman

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An image of Richard Stallman from the cover of the O'Reilly book Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software by Sam Williams (2002).
An image of Richard Stallman from the cover of the O'Reilly book Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software by Sam Williams (2002).

Richard Matthew Stallman (frequently abbreviated to RMS) (born March 16, 1953) is the founder of the free software movement, the GNU Project, and the Free Software Foundation. An acclaimed hacker, his major accomplishments include Emacs (and the later GNU Emacs), the GNU C Compiler, and the GNU Debugger. He is also the author of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or GPL), the most widely-used free software license, which pioneered the concept of the copyleft

Since the mid-1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time as a political campaigner, advocating free software and campaigning against software idea patents and expansions of copyright law. The time that he still devotes to programming is spent on GNU Emacs. He supports himself by being paid for around half of the speeches he gives.



Stallman was born in Manhattan, New York, to Alice Lippman. His first access to a computer came during his senior year at high school in 1969. Hired by the IBM New York Scientific Center, Stallman spent the summer after his high-school graduation writing his first program, a preprocessor for the PL/I programming language on the IBM 360. "I first wrote it in PL/I, then started over in assembly language when the PL/I program was too big to fit in the computer," he later said.

Stallman was simultaneously a volunteer Laboratory Assistant in the biology department at Rockefeller University. Although he was already moving toward a career in mathematics or physics, his analytical mind impressed the lab director such that a few years after Stallman departed for college, his mother received a phone call. "It was the professor at Rockefeller," she recalled. "He wanted to know how Richard was doing. He was surprised to learn that he was working in computers. He'd always thought Richard had a great future ahead of him as a biologist."

In June 1971, as a freshman at Harvard University, Stallman became a programmer at the MIT AI Laboratory, where he became a fixture in the hacker community. During these years, he was perhaps better known by his initials, "RMS." In the first edition of the Hacker's Dictionary, he wrote, "'Richard Stallman' is just my mundane name; you can call me 'rms'." [2] Stallman graduated from Harvard with a BA in Physics in 1974. He then enrolled at MIT as a graduate student, but abandoned his pursuit of graduate degrees while remaining a programmer at the MIT AI Laboratory.

Decline of MIT's hacker culture

In the 1980s, the hacker community in which Stallman lived began to dissolve. The emergence of "portable software" — software that could be made to run on different types of computers — meant that the ability for computer users to modify and share the software that came with computers was now a problem for the business models of the computer manufacturers. To prevent their software from being used on their competitors' computers, manufacturers stopped distributing source code and began restricting copying and redistribution of their software by copyrighting it. Such restricted software had existed before, but now there was no escape from it.

In 1980 Richard Greenblatt, a fellow AI lab hacker, founded Lisp Machines Incorporated to market Lisp machines, which he and Tom Knight designed at the lab. Greenblatt rejected outside investment, believing that the proceeds from the construction and sale of a few machines could be profitably reinvested in the growth of the company. In contrast, Russ Noftsker and other hackers felt that the venture-capital funded approach was better. As no agreement could be reached, most of the remaining lab hackers founded Symbolics. Symbolics recruited most of the remaining hackers — most notably Bill Gosper — and they left the AI lab. Symbolics forced Greenblatt to resign too by quoting MIT policies. While both companies delivered proprietary software, Stallman believed that LMI, unlike Symbolics, had tried to avoid hurting the lab.

For two years, from 1982 to the end of 1983, Stallman singlehandedly duplicated the efforts of the Symbolics programmers, in order to prevent them from gaining a monopoly on the lab's computers. While Stallman did not participate in the counterculture of the 60s, he found inspiring its rejection of wealth as the main goal of life, and this may have played a role in his actions at this time. However, he was the last of his generation of hackers at the lab. He rejected a future where he would have to sign non-disclosure agreements and perform other actions he considered betrayals of his principles, and chose instead to share his work with others in what he regarded as a classical spirit of scientific collaboration.

Stallman argues that software users should have freedom — in particular, the freedom to "share with their neighbor" and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He has repeatedly said that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are "antisocial" and "unethical". The phrase "software wants to be free" is often incorrectly attributed to him, but Stallman argues that this is a mis-statement of his philosophy. He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society and not merely because it may lead to improved software. Consequently, in January 1984, he quit his job at MIT to work full time on the GNU project, which he had announced in September 1983. He did not complete a Ph.D. but has been awarded four honorary doctoral degrees (see below).

Founding GNU

In 1985, Stallman published the GNU Manifesto, which outlined his motivation for creating a free operating system called GNU, which would be compatible with Unix. The name GNU is a recursive acronym for GNU's Not Unix. Soon after, he incorporated the non-profit Free Software Foundation (FSF) to employ free software programmers and provide a legal infrastructure for the free software community.

In 1985, Stallman invented and popularized the concept of copyleft, a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights for free software. It was first implemented in the GNU Emacs General Public License, and in 1989 the first program-independent GNU General Public License was released. By then, much of the GNU system had been completed, with the notable exception of a kernel. Members of the GNU project began a kernel called GNU Hurd in 1990, but a risky design decision proved to be a bad gamble, and development of the Hurd was slow.

By producing software tools needed to write software, and publishing a generalised license that could be applied to any software project (the GPL), Stallman helped make it easier for others to write free software independent of the GNU project. In 1991, one such independent project produced the Linux kernel. This could be combined with the GNU system to make a complete operating system. Most people use the name Linux to refer to both the combinations of the Linux kernel itself plus the GNU system, a usage some view as unfairly minoritizing the value of the GNU project, as discussed below.


Stallman has no salary of any sort. He doesn't own a house or a car and lives in a way such that he doesn't have to depend on a source of revenue. He lives off speaker fees and prize money from awards he has won, such as the MacArthur Grant and the Takeda Award


Stallman places great importance on the words people use to talk about the relationship between software and freedom. In particular, he untiringly asks people to say "free software," "GNU/Linux," and to avoid the term "Intellectual Property." His requests that people use certain terms, and his ongoing efforts to convince people of the importance of terminology, are a source of constant friction with some parts of the free and open source software community.

One of his criteria for giving an interview to a journalist is that the journalist agree to use his terminology throughout their article.[5] Sometimes he has even required journalists to read parts of the GNU philosophy before an interview, for "efficiency's sake."[6] He has been known to turn down speaking requests over some terminology issues.

Free Software

Stallman accepts terms such as libre Software, FLOSS, and "unfettered software," but prefers the term "free software" since a lot of energy has been invested in that term. (For similar reasons, he argues for the term "proprietary software" rather than "closed source software", when referring to software that is not free software.)

The term "free software", however, can mean either "unrestricted software" or "zero-cost software" or both. Over the years, people have tried to come up with a more intuitive and less ambiguous term. See gratis versus libre and open source software.

Stallman strongly objects to the term "open source" to replace the term "free" since he says it hides the goal of freedom. He declines interviews for stories that would label his work as "open source," claiming that they would misrepresent his views.


While often closely associated with GNU/Linux, Stallman's relationship with it is occasionally controversial. Most notably he has insisted that the term "GNU/Linux" or "GNU+Linux" be used to refer to the operating system created by combining the GNU system and the Linux kernel. He claims that the connection between the GNU project's philosophy and its software is broken when people refer to the combination as merely "Linux."[9] This practice is described as "just ridiculous" by Linus Torvalds in the documentary Revolution OS. Nevertheless, Torvalds is also quoted as saying: "Think of Richard Stallman as the great philosopher and think of me as the engineer."

Copyright, patents, and trademarks

Stallman claims that the term "Intellectual Property" is designed to confuse people, and is used to prevent intelligent discussion on these specific laws by lumping together areas of law that have little or nothing in common. Although not a lawyer, he has argued that by referring to these laws as "property" laws, the term biases the listener when thinking about how to treat these issues.

These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues. Copyright law was designed to promote authorship and art, and covers the details of a work of authorship or art. Patent law was intended to encourage publication of ideas, at the price of finite monopolies over these ideas--a price that may be worth paying in some fields and not in others. Trademark law was not intended to promote any business activity, but simply to enable buyers to know what they are buying.

Other terminology issues

Stallman recommends avoiding certain misleading terms, and advocates using other terms instead, in particular:

  • "Software idea patents" rather than the more common "software patents", arguing that the latter gives the wrong impression that the patent covers an entire piece of software.
  • "(UFO) Uniform Fee Only" as a replacement for "(RAND) Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory," arguing that a mandatory royalty of any amount discriminates against free software because distributors of free software cannot count the number of copies in existence. This concern is shared by much of the free software and open source communities[12], but Stallman's term is not widely used.
  • Avoiding "piracy" for the act of copying information, arguing that "piracy" has always designated the act of robbery or plundery at sea, and that the term is misused by corporations to lend a greater importance to the act of copying software or other intangible things.
  • "Corrupt discs" or "Fake CDs" to describe digital audio CDs which employ Copy Control or other similar technology to prevent copying, arguing that they break the Red Book standard and noting that recently such discs are printed without the Compact Disc logo.
  • "Treacherous Computing" rather than "Trusted Computing," because Treacherous Computing limits the freedoms of users by denying them the ability to copy.
  • Stallman coined the term "cracker" (as in black hat, meaning CRiminal-hACKER) to avoid eschewing the word "hacker". Previously the word cracker had a more narrow meaning in computer security, referring specifically to copy-protection and password cracking, and not all black hat activities.
  • Stallman refers to "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) as "Digital Restrictions Management", because Digital Restrictions Management is about limiting what the user can do, not about granting the users more rights. He also suggests calling it "handcuffware", a term which has not caught on.

See also: "Words to avoid" page on the GNU website.

An example of Stallman recommending terminology to another person is this paragraph of an email by Stallman to a public mailing list:

I think it is ok for authors (please let's not call them "creators", they are not gods) to ask for money for copies of their works (please let's not devalue these works by calling them "content") in order to gain income (the term "compensation" falsely implies it is a matter of making up for some kind of damages).


Since the early-1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time as a political campaigner and his speeches reflect this. The three speeches he gives most often are "The GNU project and the Free Software movement," "The Dangers of Software Patents," and "Copyright and Community in the age of computer networks." In 2006, during the year-long public consultation for the drafting of version 3 of the GNU General Public License, he's added a fourth speech explaining the proposed changes. He has given numerous keynote speeches at conferences, including the first Wikimania conference, almost all the FOSDEM conferences, and LinuxTag.


Many people describe Stallman as extremely difficult to work with. Around 1992, developers at Lucid Inc. doing their own work on Emacs clashed with Stallman and ultimately forked the software, creating what's now known as XEmacs; an email archive published by Jamie Zawinski gives their criticism and Stallman's response.[14] Ulrich Drepper published complaints against Stallman in the release notes for glibc 2.2.4[15], where he accuses RMS of attempting a "hostile takeover" of the project, referring to him as a "control freak and raging manic." Eric S. Raymond, a popular spokesman of the open source movement, has written many pieces laying out that movement's disagreement with Stallman and the free software movement, often in terms sharply critical of Stallman.[16]


  • "Virtual Richard M. Stallman" is software that analyzes the packages currently-installed on a Debian GNU/Linux system, and report those that are from the non-free tree.
  • An aficionado of a wide range of music from Conlon Nancarrow to folk, Stallman is the author of the filkish Free Software Song. He has performed renaissance music and Balinese gamelan music, as well as international folk dance. He plays the recorder.[17]
  • Stallman is a science fiction fan and occasionally goes to science fiction conventions.[citation needed]
  • Stallman gave POSIX its name.[18]
  • In 1977, Stallman published an AI truth maintenance system called dependency-directed backtracking. The paper was co-authored by Gerald Jay Sussman. He jokes that "This is how the computer can avoid exploding when you ask it a self-contradictory question." [19]
  • When asked who his influences are, he has remarked that he admires Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich. He has also commented: "I admire Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even though I criticize some of the things that they did."[20]
  • Stallman speaks fluent English and French, moderately fluent Spanish, and flawed Indonesian. He has studied Latin, Chinese, Hungarian, and Navajo, but did not reach the point of being able to speak them. He feels he has mastered a language when he can make puns in it. [21]
  • In 1999, Stallman called for development of a free on-line encyclopedia through the means of inviting the public to contribute articles. See GNUPedia. [22]
  • Stallman endorses Ututo, a distribution of GNU/Linux, as a free operating system people could use.[23]
  • Stallman is on the Advisory Council of teleSUR, a Latin American TV station[citation needed]
  • Stallman notably produced the Emacs editor; its popularity rivaled that of another editor vi, spawning the editor wars; Stallman's humorous take on this was to jokingly canonize himself as "St. Ignucius" / "St. IGNUcius" (of the Church of Emacs). [24] [25]
  • In his online Personal Ad [26] he declares himself an atheist, reputedly intelligent, with unusual interests in politics, science, music, and dance.


  • 1990: MacArthur Fellowship
  • 1991: The Association for Computing Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award "For pioneering work in the development of ... EMACS"
  • 1996: Honorary doctorate from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology
  • 1998: Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award
  • 1999: Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award
  • 2001: Second honorary doctorate, from the University of Glasgow
  • 2001: The Takeda Techno-Entrepreneurship Award for Social/Economic Well-Being (武田研究奨励賞)
  • 2002: United States National Academy of Engineering membership
  • 2003: Third honorary doctorate, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • 2004: Fourth honorary doctorate, from the Universidad Nacional de Salta. [27]
  • 2004: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería del Perú


  1. Williams, Sam (2002). Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, O'Reilly Media. ISBN 0596002874., chapter 3. Available online, accessed on 18 February 2005
  2. Stallman's 1983 personal bio, accessed on 18 February 2005
  3. Various (1999). Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, O'Reilly Media. ISBN 1-56592-582-3.. Stallman chapter available online, accessed on 18 February 2005
  4. The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin by Peter H. Salus, accessed on 18 February 2005.
  5. Interview with, accessed on 18 February 2005
  6. Linux, GNU, Freedom by Richard M. Stallman, accessed on 18 February 2005
  7. Why "Free Software" is better than "Open Source", accessed on 18 February 2005
  8. What's in a name? by Richard Stallman, accessed on 18 February 2005
  9. What I Saw at the Revolution - A filmmaker captures the free-software insurgents, by Ann Marsh, accessed on 18 February 2005
  10. Did You Say "Intellectual Property"? It's a Seductive Mirage by Richard M. Stallman, accessed on 18 February 2005
  11. A Call to Action in OASIS, accessed on 18 February 2005
  12. Freedom, Power, or Confusion?
  13. Leader of the Free World, Wired Magazine, Issue 11.11, November 2003.

Publications by Richard Stallman

  • Stallman, Richard M. & Sussman, Gerald J. (November 1975). Heuristic Techniques in Computer-Aided Circuit Analysis, published in IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems, Vol. CAS-22 (11)
  • Stallman, Richard M. & Sussman, Gerald J. (1977). Forward Reasoning and Dependency-Directed Backtracking In a System for Computer-Aided Circuit analysis, published in Artificial Intelligence 9 pp.135-196
  • Stallman, Richard M. (1981). EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable, Self-Documenting Display Editor. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT. MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory publication AIM-519A. PDF HTML
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2002). GNU Emacs Manual: Fifteenth edition for GNU Emacs Version 21. Cambridge, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 188211485X.
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2002). Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1882114981. (Also available online in various formats, e.g. PDF [28].)
  • Stallman et al (2004). GNU Make: A Program for Directed Compilation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1882114833


  • Williams, Sam (2002): Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, O'Reilly Press. ISBN 0596002874. Also available over the web under the GFDL [29].)
  • Gay, Joshua (ed) (2002): Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Boston: GNU Press. ISBN 1882114981. Also available over the web: [30].)
  • Christian Imhorst, Anarchy and Source Code - What does the Free Software Movement have to do with Anarchism?, published under the terms of the GFDL 2005.



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