Leave Richard Stallman alone

Free software pioneer Richard Stallman gave a talk in London yesterday, on the topic: "It's free software and it gives you freedom". Normally, this kind of thing passes without comment, because Stallman has given hundreds of talks.

Free software pioneer Richard Stallman gave a talk in London yesterday, on the topic: "It's free software and it gives you freedom". Normally, this kind of thing passes without comment, because Stallman has given hundreds of talks. In this case, it led to him being mocked by people who have achieved nothing remotely as worthwhile. They don't usually mock his view of free software, of course, though not everyone agrees with Stallman about its ethical dimension. In this case, the cause célèbre has been the speaker notes he provides, which appeared online via mySociety's mailing list.

This prodigious "info packet" provides a brief overview of GNU and why Stallman is involved with free software and not open source. It also reveals that he doesn't feel the need to travel business class (he'd rather have the money, if possible), and that he'd rather sleep on someone's floor than stay in a hotel. Also, he'll drink non-diet Pepsi but not Coke, and he likes to stay with people who own parrots, as long as they're not acquired for the purpose.

This certainly has its amusing aspects, especially to people who haven't travelled very far, and are too young to be familiar with the Usenet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions file), which it greatly resembles. Stallman, of course, travels a lot, and also gives talks in Asia, South America and Africa. Many of the people organising these talks are not native English speakers, and are unfamiliar with what passes for civilisation in Boston, Mass. It does no harm if Stallman spells things out in accumulated detail, and it should help avoid disasters.

The 'Stallman slept on my floor' club

However, anyone who thinks that Stallman is somewhat precious or hard to get along with is wrong. I know this from experience. I've interviewed him a couple of times, first for the Guardian in November 1998 -- The code of the freedom fighter -- and he has slept on my computer room floor. (In normal suburban semis, our computer room is the dining room.) We both like Chinese food, so I've taken him to restaurants I like. Otherwise, he travels with what he needs, apart from a working internet connection. Provide that and he's no trouble at all.

In fact, if you're going to entertain a visiting speaker, it's better to have someone who carries his own bag, isn't scared of hiking up the Edgware Road in the dark, and prefers hopping on a bus to taking a cab. As internationally-famous speakers go, he's one of the least precious. And rather than having a hissy fit about The Stallman Dialogues, a website carrying made-up conversations based on his "info packet", Stallman has linked to it from his humor page.

Even if you think Stallman's speaker requirements are pushing it a bit, there are plenty of reasons to cut him some slack, including his long-running campaigns against software patents and so-called Digital Rights Management.

Stallman set out to write a free clone of Unix, single-handed, in 1983, and wrote the free Emacs editor, GNU C compiler and debugger and other programs -- a prodigious feat. He also founded the Free Software Foundation, and developed the GPL (GNU Public Licence) under which a great deal of free and open source software is released.

GNU and the GPL have been hugely influential, and in this context, complaining about the fact that (say) Stallman likes parrots is ridiculously small-minded and conformist. Harmless eccentricities should be celebrated, not disallowed.

Richard StallmanPhoto credit: Bill Ebbesen

Do you use Linux or GNU/Linux?

Of course, Stallman's achievements have been widely recognised with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the ACM's Grace Murray Hopper Award, and honorary doctorates from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, the University of Glasgow, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Universidad Nacional de Salta in Argentina, Universidad de Los Angeles de Chimbote in Peru, the University of Pavia, and Lakehead University in Canada.

The one thing that does bug some people is Stallman's insistence on calling Linux GNU/Linux, on the grounds that GNU (GNU's Not Unix) is the operating system while Linux is the kernel. Indeed, Linux was developed using Stallman's tools and released under Stallman's GPL, but it wasn't originally intended to provide the kernel that GNU still lacked. As Torvalds' initial announcement in comp.os.minix said: "I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu)".

That, in my view, gives Linus the right to call his operating system whatever he likes, even if most of the parts shipped with distros had previously been assembled under Stallman's direction. However, I also think people should get due credit for their contributions -- and Stallman's contribution has been massive. In a civilised society, people would be grateful for that.

Bullying and the web's "culture of disrespect"

Stallman is not alone in being attacked, of course. As Dave Winer ("Visiting scholar at NYU in journalism. Developed first blogging software, RSS and podcasting, outliners, web CMS") has pointed out in Why I stand up for Stallman, the web has a pervasive "culture of disrespect". It is, quite simply, bullying, and if you do it, you should be ashamed. Winer writes:

"I seem to have escaped it, mostly. But I still see it going on for Stallman, and that makes me feel ill. I think a guy like Stallman should be heard and we should think about what he says. And if you disagree, have the self-respect to express it with dignity. And if people start getting personal about it, there should be moderators around to put a stop to it at least stand up to it. No one should stand alone when being subjected to personal attacks."

What tells you everything you need to know about the "culture of disrespect" that pervades today's web is Winer's final update: "This piece is getting a lot of traffic and the comments have turned ugly, so I turned them off."

@jackschofield