Richard Stallman

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Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman at the 2005 Fosdem in Brussels
Born: March 16, 1953
Manhattan, New York
Occupation: President, Free Software Foundation as an unpaid volunteer

Richard Matthew Stallman (nickname RMS) (born March 16, 1953) is both an acclaimed software freedom activist and software developer. In the 1980s, he founded the GNU Project to create a free unix-like operating system, and has been the project's lead architect and organizer. Also in the 1980s, he founded the free software movement, and the Free Software Foundation. He co-founded the League for Programming Freedom. Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft and is the main author of several copyleft licenses including the GNU General Public License, the most widely used free software license. Since the mid-1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time as a political campaigner advocating for free software, as well as campaigning against both patenting software and expansions of copyright law. Stallman's renowned software accomplishments include developing the original Emacs, GNU Emacs, the GNU Compiler Collection, and the GNU Debugger.

Early years

Stallman was born in Manhattan, New York, to Alice Lippman and Daniel Stallman. His first access to a computer came during his senior year at high school in 1969. Hired by the IBM New York Scientific Centre, Stallman used 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.

During this time, Stallman was also a volunteer Laboratory Assistant in the biology department at Rockefeller University. Although he was already moving toward a career in mathematics or physics, his teaching professor at Rockefeller thought he would have a future as a biologist.

In June 1971, as a first year student at Harvard University, Stallman became a programmer at the AI Laboratory of MIT. There he became a regular in the hacker community, where he was usually known by his initials, "RMS" (which was the name of his computer accounts). In the first edition of the Hacker's Dictionary, he wrote, "'Richard Stallman' is just my mundane name; you can call me 'rms'." Stallman graduated from Harvard magna cum laude earning 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. 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."

As a hacker in MIT's AI laboratory, Stallman worked on software projects like TECO, Emacs, and the Lisp Machine Operating System. He would become an ardent critic of restricted computer access in the lab. When MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) installed a password control system in 1977, Stallman cracked the password system to reset passwords to null strings and sent users messages informing them of the removal of the password system. Although Stallman boasted of the success of his campaign for many years afterward, passwords ultimately triumphed.

Decline of MIT's hacker culture

In the 1980s, the hacker community in which Stallman lived began to fragment. To prevent software from being used on their competitors' computers, most manufacturers stopped distributing source code and began using copyright and restrictive software licenses to limit or prohibit copying and redistribution. Such proprietary software had existed before, and it became apparent that it would become the norm.

When Brian Reid in 1979 placed "time bombs" in Scribe to restrict unlicensed access to the software, Stallman proclaimed that "the prospect of charging money for software was a crime against humanity."

In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers at the AI lab were not given the source code of the software for the Xerox 9700 laser printer (code-named Dover), the industry's first. The hackers had modified the software on the other printers, so it electronically messaged a user when his job was printed, and messages all logged-in users when a printer was jammed. Not being able to add this feature to the Dover printer was a major inconvenience, as the printer was on a different floor, then all the users. This one experience convinced Stallman of the ethical need to require free software. At that time, it became clear that he wanted people to discard proprietary software.

In 1980, Richard Greenblatt, a fellow AI lab hacker, founded Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI) 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, the other hackers felt that the venture capital-funded approach was better. As no agreement could be reached, they founded Symbolics, with the aid of Russ Noftsker, an AI Lab administrator. Symbolics recruited most of the remaining hackers including notable hacker Bill Gosper, who then left the AI lab. Symbolics forced Greenblatt to also resign by citing 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.

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 where he would have to agree not to share source code or technical information with other software developers, and perform other actions he considered betrayals of his principles. He chose instead to share his work with others in what he regarded as a classical spirit of collaboration. While Stallman did not participate in the counterculture of the 60s, he was inspired by its rejection of the pursuit of wealth as the primary goal of living.

Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to "share with their neighbour" 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, and Stallman argues that this is a misstatement of his philosophy. He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society as a moral value, and not merely for pragmatic reasons e.g., because it may lead to improved software. 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 degrees (see list below).

GNU Project

Stallman announced the plan for the GNU operating system in September 1983 on several ARPAnet mailing lists and USENET.

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 started a non-profit corporation called the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to employ free software programmers and provide a legal infrastructure for the free software movement. The FSF is incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and is tax-exempt under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which allows donors who file US Federal Income Tax returns to get a deduction on their taxes for their donations. Stallman is the unsalaried president of the Free Software Foundation.

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 (GPL) was released. By then, much of the GNU system had been completed. Stallman was responsible for contributing many necessary tools, including a text editor, compiler, debugger, and a build automator. The notable exception was a kernel. In 1990, members of the GNU project began a kernel called GNU Hurd, which has yet to achieve widespread usage.

By producing software tools needed to write software, and publishing a generalized license (the GPL) that could be applied to any software project, 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, which Stallman claims unfairly disparages the value of the GNU project, as discussed below in GNU/Linux.

Stallman's influences on hacker culture include the name POSIX and the Emacs editor. On UNIX systems, GNU Emacs's popularity rivaled that of another editor vi, spawning an editor war. Stallman's humorous take on this was to jokingly canonize himself as "St. Ignucius" / "St. IGNUcius" of the Church of Emacs.

A number of developers view Stallman as being difficult to work with from a political, interpersonal, or technical standpoint. 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 documents their criticisms and Stallman's response. Ulrich Drepper published complaints against Stallman in the release notes for glibc 2.2.4, 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, who sometimes speaks for parts 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.


Richard Stallman giving a speech about "Copyright and Community" at Wikimania (2005)
Richard Stallman giving a speech about "Copyright and Community" at Wikimania (2005)

Stallman has written many essays on software freedom and is a voice of action in the free software movement. Since the early 1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time as a political campaigner and his speeches reflect this. He most often speaks on these three topics:

  • "The GNU project and the Free Software movement"
  • "The Dangers of Software Patents"
  • "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 topic explaining the proposed changes.

Stallman's staunch advocacy for free software inspired "Virtual Richard M. Stallman" (vrms), software that analyzes the packages currently installed on a Debian GNU/Linux system, and report those that are from the non-free tree. Stallman would disagree with parts of Debian's definition of free software. Instead, Stallman endorses 6 distributions of GNU/Linux for people to use, including Ututo, BLAG Linux and GNU, Dynebolic, GNUstep, Musix, and Agnula.

In 1999, Stallman called for development of a free on-line encyclopedia through the means of inviting the public to contribute articles. See GNUPedia.

In Venezuela, Stallman has delivered public speeches and promoted the adoption of free software in the state's oil company ( PDVSA), in municipal government, and in the nation's millitary. In 2004, Stallman attended a speech by Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, at a conference of Artists and Intellectuals in Defense of Humanity. In an encounter with Chavez, Stallman questioned recent laws passed over television broadcasting that challenged free speech rights. Stallman is on the Advisory Council of teleSUR, a Latin American television station.

In August 2006 at his meetings with the government of the Indian State of Kerala, he persuaded officials to discard proprietary software, such as Microsoft's, at state-run schools. This has resulted in a landmark decision to switch all school computers in 12,500 high schools from Windows to a free software operating system.

Personal life

By all accounts, including his own, Stallman has devoted the bulk of his life’s energies to political and software activism. Professing to care little for material wealth, he explains that he has “always lived cheaply… like a student, basically. And I like that, because it means that money is not telling me what to do.”

Stallman maintains no permanent residence outside his office at MIT’s CSAIL Lab, describing himself as a “ squatter” on campus. He owns neither an automobile, common in pedestrian-friendly Cambridge, nor a cell phone, having stated his refusal to own a device with proprietary software. Because his “research affiliate” position at MIT is unpaid, he supports himself financially with speaker fees and prize money from awards he has won.

His accomplishments notwithstanding, Stallman has frequently been the target of criticism and ridicule for his eccentric behaviour and supposedly inadequate personal hygiene. Even within the free software community, it is acknowledged that certain of Stallman’s habits, such as picking the knots from his hair and tossing them in the soup he is eating, might seem “crazy” to outsiders. Some worry that these “unusual behaviors” might impair the adoption of free and open source software. In one Forbes magazine article, columnist Daniel Lyons expressed concern that Stallman’s peculiarities would harm Linux’s reputation by association.

When asked about his influences, he has replied that he admires Mahatma Gandhi, 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.”

Stallman’s personal website includes a description of himself, in the guise of a personal ad, as a “reputedly intelligent” atheist. He has had “sweethearts” before, according to interviews, but stated in March 2006 that he was not then in a relationship.

Hobbies and interests

As a young adult, Stallman counted folk dance among his passions, and though he has since given it up due to knee injury, he still performs small dance steps as a matter of spontaneous habit. He enjoys a wide range of musical styles from Conlon Nancarrow to folk; he has performed Renaissance and Balinese gamelan music on the recorder. His best-known original composition, the Free Software Song, has attracted praise from his admirers as well as derision from those who consider it emblematic of his inflexible, tone-deaf personality.

Stallman is a science fiction fan. He occasionally goes to science fiction conventions and has written a few sci-fi stories, notably " The Right to Read". A native English speaker, Stallman is also moderately fluent in French and Spanish, and claims a “somewhat flawed” command of Indonesian.


Stallman places great importance on the words, labels, and groupings of topics people use to talk about the world, including 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 regular mis-understanding and friction with 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. Sometimes he has even required journalists to read parts of the GNU philosophy before an interview, for "efficiency's sake." He has been known to turn down speaking requests over some terminology issues.

Free software

Stallman accepts terms such as "software libre", 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.

In the English language, 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. 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.


FSF artwork of the gnu (GNU mascot) and the penguin Tux (Linux kernel mascot) representing their viewpoint on "GNU/Linux"
FSF artwork of the gnu (GNU mascot) and the penguin Tux (Linux kernel mascot) representing their viewpoint on "GNU/Linux"

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", which he pronounces "GNU Slash Linux", be used to refer to the operating system created by combining the GNU system and the Linux kernel. Stallman refers to this operating system as "a variant of GNU, and the GNU Project is its principal developer." 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." Starting around 2003, he began also using the term "GNU+Linux", which he pronounces "GNU plus Linux". This insistence has come under intense and heated criticism.

Copyright, patents, and trademarks

Stallman argues that the term "Intellectual Property" is designed to confuse people, and is used to prevent intelligent discussion on the specifics of copyright, patent, and trademark laws, respectively, by lumping together areas of law that are more dissimilar than similar. He also argues that by referring to these laws as "property" laws, the term biases the discussion 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 terms he considers misleading, and advocates using other terms instead.

An example of Stallman cautioning others to avoid common but misleading (or loaded) terminology, while also offering suggestions for possible alternatives, 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)."

See the "Words to avoid" essay on the GNU website. Here are a few examples:

  • "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 Licensing" 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, 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 plunder 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 compact discs 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," which limits the freedoms of users by denying them the ability to control their computers.
  • Stallman refers to "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) as "Digital Restrictions Management", because DRM is designed to limit what the user can do, not grant the user more rights. He also suggests calling it "handcuffware", a term which has not caught on. On this note, the Free Software Foundation has started the "Defective by Design" campaign to spread the word of inform the world about these issues.


Stallman has received much recognition for his work, including:


  • 1990: MacArthur Fellowship
  • 1991: The Association for Computing Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award "For pioneering work in the development of the extensible editor EMACS (Editing Macros)."
  • 1998: Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award
  • 1999: Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award
  • 2001: The Takeda Techno-Entrepreneurship Award for Social/Economic Well-Being (武田研究奨励賞)


  • 1996: Honorary doctorate from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology
  • 2001: Second honorary doctorate, from the University of Glasgow
  • 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.
  • 2004: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería del Perú.


  • 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. Also available over the web in HTML and PDF formats.
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2002). GNU Emacs Manual: Fifteenth edition for GNU Emacs Version 21. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1-882114-85-X. Also available over the web in different formats.
  • Gay, Joshua (ed) (2002): Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1-882114-98-1. Also available over the web in PDF, Texinfo, and Postscript formats
  • Stallman, Richard; McGrath, Roland; & Smith, Paul D. (2004). GNU Make: A Program for Directed Compilation. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1-882114-83-3. Also available over the web in different formats.
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