Richard Stillman – Free Software VisionaryMay 2, 2020
Richard Matthew Stallman, commonly known in hacker and computer social circles as “rms,” is an American software developer, hacker, and advocate of free software. He was born in 1953 in New York City. After finishing high school, Stallman wrote his first computer program, a preprocessor for the PL/I programming language. He then attended Harvard University and in 1974 with a degree in Physics. After college, he enrolled in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but dropped out before finishing his degree in order to continue working as a programmer in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Not completing his graduate students did not stop Stallman from success; for his lifetime body of work, he has been awarded six honorary doctorate degrees and two honorary professorships.
As the hacker culture at the MIT laboratory declined with the instatement of password restrictions, Stallman decided to quit his full time job in 1984 to pursue his side project, Project GNU. In 1985, he published the GNU Manifesto, which articulated his motivations for creating a free operating system compatible with UNIX. Soon after, he founded the Free Software Foundation and popularized the concept of copyleft. In 1989, Stallman also released the first program-independent license called the GNU General Public License. By this time, most elements of the GNU undertaking were complete. However, the project was stuck on the advancement of the operating kernel. Simultaneously, a Finnish developer, Linus Torvalds, created a kernel called Linux based off of GNU development tools. With the integration of Linux into the project, the GNU/Linux operating system was born.
In addition to his software development body of work, Stallman has been an avid writer and political activist for the free software movement since the early 1990’s. In his interview, speeches, and writing, he values proper and accurate terminology with particular emphasis on “free software,” “GNU/Linux,” and avoidance of the term “intellectual property.” Stallman prefers the term “free software” because he claims “open source” does not reference the key component of freedom, which he believes to be a vital element of the debate. “Intellectual property” is confusing according to Stallman because it lumps the dissimilar categories of trademarks, copyrights, and patent law together, obstructing intelligent discussion with differing categories.
In his personal life, Stallman cares little for material wealth and has lived for years without a permanent residence, outside of his MIT office. His research affiliate position at MIT was also unpaid. Stillman is fluent in Spanish and French and has a “somewhat flawed” command of Indonesian.