Richard Stallman

Richard Matthew Stallman, a.k.a. RMS, (born March 16, 1953) is the founder of the free software movement, the GNU project, and the Free Software Foundation. He is also a renowned hacker, whose major accomplishments include GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, and the GNU Debugger. He is 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.

Missing image
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).

Since the mid-1990s, he 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 is currently supported by various fellowships and maintains a modest standard of living.



Richard Matthew Stallman was born in Manhattan to Alice Lippman and Daniel Stallman. In his programming 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".'

His first access to a computer came during his junior year at high school in the 1960s. 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 IBM 7094 written in the PL/I programming language. "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. (Williams 2002, chapter 3 (

After that job, Stallman held a Laboratory Assistant position 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." (Williams 2002, chapter 3 (

In 1971, as a freshman at Harvard University (graduated with a BA in Physics in 1974), Stallman became a hacker at the MIT AI Laboratory. He was hired by Russ Noftsker, a man who would later found Symbolics and become a bitter opponent for Stallman. Later, at the age of nineteen, he worked for a timesharing company in Westchester County with a desk adjacent to that of Eben Moglen, now a well known technology attorney.

Decline of the hacker culture

In the 1980s, the hacker community that dominated Stallman's life 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.

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 met, most of the remaining lab hackers gave LMI a year's grace, and then founded Symbolics. Symbolics recruited most of the remaining hackers — most notably Bill Gosper — and persuaded them to resign from the AI lab on the grounds of a conflict of interest. While both companies delivered proprietary software, Richard Stallman felt that LMI, unlike Symbolics, had tried to avoid hurting the lab.

For two years, from 1982 to the end of 1983, Stallman single-handedly duplicated the efforts of the Symbolics programmers to prevent them from gaining a monopoly on the Lab's computers. By that time, however, he was the last of his generation of hackers at the Lab. He was asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and perform other actions he considered betrayals of his principles, but chose instead to share his work with others in what he regarded as a classical spirit of scientific collaboration and openness.

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" [1] ( The phrase "software wants to be free" is commonly attributed to him; [2] ( however, no evidence can be found to confirm this. He argues that the primary goal of freedom is to benefit users and society rather than to improve 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 1989, Stallman invented and popularized the concept of copyleft, a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights for free software. By then, much of the GNU system had been completed, with the notable exception of a kernel. Members of the GNU project were working on a kernel called GNU Hurd, but a risky design decision proved to be a bad gamble, and development of the Hurd was slow.

By producing the software tools needed to write software, and publishing a generalised license that could be applied to any software project (The GPL), Stallman enabled others to write free software independent of the GNU project. In 1991, one such independent project produced the Linux kernel. By luck, this could be combined with the existing GNU software to make a complete operating system. This was a great milestone for the GNU project, but the simultaneous appearance of Linux and the GNU+Linux operating system created confusion, and most people used the name Linux to refer to both.


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 communities.

One of his criteria for giving an interview to a journalist is that the journalist agrees to use certain terminology. Sometimes he even requires journalists to read parts of the GNU philosophy before an interview. [3] ( This style has earned him a reputation of being "high-maintenance" [4] ( He also turns down speaking requests over some terminology issues. [5] (

Free Software

Over the years, people have tried to come up with a term for free software that does not have the ambiguity problem between having-freedom and zero-cost. The most well known alternative is "open source software". Stallman strongly objects to this term since he says it hides the goal of freedom. Support for this term was no doubt bolstered by some influential figures' dislike of Stallman's moral and political pronouncements. [6] (

For similar reasons, he asks people to say "proprietary software", not "closed source software", when referring to software that is not 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.


Stallman asks people to say "GNU/Linux", when referring to the operating system made by combining the GNU system and the Linux kernel. His reason for this term is that the connection between the GNU project's philosophy and its software is broken when people call the combination "Linux". [7] (

Copyright, patents, and trademarks

Stallman says the term "Intellectual Property" is designed to confuse people. By lumping together areas of law that have little or nothing in common, it is used to prevent intelligent discussion on a topic. Also, by referring to these laws as "property" laws, he says that 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" [8] (

Lesser terminology issues

To a much lesser extent, Stallman recommends the use of other terms such as "software idea patents" instead of the more common "software patents". His reason is that the latter gives the wrong impression that the patent covers an entire piece of software. He also uses the term "(UFO) Uniform Fee Only", as a replacement for "(RAND) Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory". His reasoning is 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 [9] (, but Stallman's term is not widely used. [10] (



Stallman has received numerous prizes and awards for his work, amongst them:

Links and references

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 [13] (
  • Stallman et al (2004). GNU Make: A Program for Directed Compilation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: GNU Press ( ISBN 1882114833.


External links


  • ( - Richard Stallman's personal homepage.
  • His weblog (
  • Free Unix! ( - The original GNU announcement
  • GNU philosophy pages ( - Contains around 50 essays, mostly written by RMS.



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