Defending Richard Stallman

In Praise of Richard Stallman

The One True Richard

If you are reading this on a website, you can thank Richard Stallman. He is the guy that doggedly pursued the GPL and the GNU project until it became an important reality for us all. For the most part, the WWW runs on software whose availability is the result of work by Richard. Without Richard, none of this would have happened. See the picture on the right? It was used with permission by Jin Wicked. She essentially GPL'ed the graphic in deference to Richard. That means you get to see a nice painting of Richard and I get to go on with my article with a minimum of fuss. Thanks Jin and thanks Richard.

You can find lots written about Stallman on the Internet, but nothing properly comes close, in my opinion, to giving him his due. Certainly this is true in the mainstream articles you are likely to read. There are platitudes, but they always miss the mark. Richard was alone in the wilderness for many, many years and is still not properly credited for the enormous contribution he has made to us all. He has had to fight for every inch of ground against formidable opposition and their attacks have often been ugly and personal. Richard is a bit of a unique character. He is criticized for this, but unfairly so. First, you would have to be outside the norm to make this type of contribution. The contribution is outside the norm. Second, Richard does appear to be genuinely different in a way that is neither his fault nor under his control. So what? Do you think you can tolerate a little diversity from people who contribute so much to the public good? I can. He has personally described his weakness as his strength. I agree.

Here is what Richard has done for us all: He has created and protected the 'free software' movement. This has been a difficult task against great odds and he has taken a lot of unwarranted personal grief over the years. I was moved to write this article after looking at a very unflattering piece that had been written about Richard's (apparent) lack of co-operation in perverting a piece of code by causing an unnecessary branch in the code tree. The treatment of Richard during this episode was both unfair and unseemly personal. Having seen and read the work of his critics in that case, I can only say that they shamed themselves only. It was a sad episode and I've yet to see the appropriate apologies from his detractors. What is particularly galling is that Richard is a bona-fide programmer with a long history. He is the driving force and principal author of gcc -- a thing of great beauty and a tremendous accomplishment. Again, this was done against resistance over a period spanning more than a decade. To help with the output of gcc he made gdb a reality. Also a difficult accomplishment against the odds. Richard is perhaps most famous for the development of Emacs. It is the gratuitous branch in this software and the shameful treatment of its author that prompted me to write this document.

Stallman (rms as he is normally referred to, maybe Richard Stallman is his slave name or something(I'm joking)) was working out some of the finer points of programming when his critics were still peeing in their pants. It is pathetic to see a genuine master programmer being lectured by a journeyman. This happens constantly with Richard and it is unfair, unmannerly and in the long run simply shames the wannabes. On a side note, a novice programmer can't tell the difference between a journeyman and a master and even some starting journeyman can not tell either. Masters can tell pretty easily. If you have programmed for less than a decade seriously, you are still a journeyman cutting your teeth. Get over it. I have been programming for more than twenty years and I'm still learning. Mastery at a high level in any discipline is a lot harder than it looks. Your pal rms is a genuine master of programming. Let's show some respect.

Meantime, while contributing mightily to some of the most important code in the world, Richard's truly great accomplishment has been the GPL. This is the root of a tree that protects the free software of the world. Weasels attempted to co-opt the idea and then pervert it by marketing so called 'open source'. This fooled even me for a while. I used the MIT license here. I did so in the mistaken belief that a less restrictive license was a nicer thing to do. I won't change it, because I don't like to change the rules after the fact, but I won't do it again. I may find someday that I have to pay a license fee to someone just to get a new variant of my own code. No way. The GPL makes it so that you can't add your proprietary code and then restrict access to the new working code. New code added to a GPL codebase is also free. Other so-called 'open source' licenses allow you to poison a branch of the tree by embedding proprietary code. After that, it is no longer free software. This is just the precursor to an end-run around the GPL. The GPL is well thought out to accomplish a single purpose -- protect the code of the world so that it can't be hijacked and imprisoned. There may be other licenses that do the same thing, but who are you going to trust? Why re-invent the wheel. I trust Stallman to keep the GPL on track. This is where his stubbornness becomes your friend.

Whenever I am able, I use GPL'ed code myself. The GPL is the only way to ensure that software remains as free as the day it was born. Stallman has taken an extraordinary amount of flack for stubbornly sticking to his guns on this. His critics are wrong and a lot of them should (and I think do) know better.
Being stubborn and somewhat outside of normal social conventions has been both Richards' strength and his weakness. People working on projects find him unsettling at times. He is often quite abrupt and to the point in a way that rattles normal people. When he knows he's right (well, maybe he just thinks he's right), he won't compromise. You can thank your lucky stars that he has not compromised with respect to the GPL. He is a bit softer than I am, but I basically say that if it is not GPL'ed, it is a potentially poison branch.

It is possible that he has something akin to a mild Asperger's Syndrome or a related anomaly that makes it more difficult than usual to conform to normal conventions. I traded a few emails with rms some time ago and I found him to be fine. I was flattered that he answered my email at all. He is famous and I presume very busy. I am busy, but (mercifully) not famous. He is just a good guy doing his best. Know what? His best is pretty good. I can't say the same for the vast majority of his critics. Many writers dwell on Richard's difference as a deficiency requiring criticism. Shame on them. Richard should be praised for rising above it all. Good for him.

Here's something specific that Richard has been criticized for: He would like to dub Linux as GNU/Linux. Why? Because the vast majority of the code in a Linux distribution is either directly GNU code or comes from that tree. Linux owes almost everything to the GNU project and its very existence and especially its ubiquity is a result of GNU. There was plenty of hype and corporate support for 'Linux' as Linux and not a lot of support for GNU as GNU. This is unfair, ungracious and ultimately may lead to the poisoning of the system. If I had my ruthers, I would get the community to support a new kernel and simply release the GNU operating system as originally conceived. I'd call it the GNU operating system.

Action Items:

  • Send a note to http://www.gnu.org or http://www.theinquirer.net or http://www.theregister.co.uk or your favorite news organ and tell them that you support Richard personally and his mission. Recognize his critical contribution. I know that he has had much recognition in the past, but they all strike me as grudging lip service rather than genuine appreciation. Let rms know that he is truly appreciated.
  • If you have a well-trafficked site, post this article. Mike -- you know this means you.
  • Visit his site. He's asked for help on a few things. Why not lend a hand? He's done a lot for you, maybe you can return the favor in a small way.
  • Listen. Try to understand what makes Stallman's approach different and better. Try to comprehend how the carefully crafted GPL makes the world a better place and why the pretender alternate licenses may have hidden bombs. Support his terminology. I am not sure about Richard, but I despise the term 'Open Source'. It is essentially a covert attempt to derail the free software movement, in my opinion, no matter how well meaning some of the participants are. Let's trust Richard's judgement a little bit more. He has done well by us thus far. He deserves a little more respect and a better hearing than he has gotten to date.
  • If you are one of the past critics, send Richard a public note of apology and make amends. He deserves it and you'll maybe feel a little bit better about yourself. You were in the wrong. Confess to it; you'll feel better.
  • If you visit my site (not really recommended since I'm shy of paying for the traffic), note how demure I am in presenting myself. I'm a bit of a loose cannon myself, but have to tone it down or the corporate weasels will not allow me to feed my family. Bless Richard for having the courage to let it all hang out. Hopefully he will pave the way so that diversity will become more acceptable. I would like to speak my mind on my sites, but always have to bite my tongue for fear that my work, reputation and family will suffer. Richard has been a vigorous supporter of freedom of speech and expression for many years. It has been to his detriment and our advantage. Let's recognize that wonderful contribution rather than ridiculing him for being honest about his differences.

Richard: Many thanks for your kindness to me personally. Your enormous public contributions that have made my world a better place to live. This article is over-late and was a long time coming. I know that you will understand and forgive the delay, because you're that kind of computer guy. Me too. My very best wishes for your continued success and don't let the bad guys get you down. Even though people like me rarely pipe up, we are watching. I like what I see.


Copyright (c) 2003 Bob Trower. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License" at http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html

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