Photo 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, published on March 1, 2002 under the GFDL.

Richard Stallman has played an enormously important role in shaping the world of software and computing, one that should be more widely appreciated. His most significant achievement was not in writing any particular lines of code, but in creating a mechanism to protect code as a public good, and motivating a massive number of persons to embrace it.

His signature innovation was once referred to copyleft or a hack on copyright laws. Using the rights automatically assigned to authors, and a license agreement, the GNU Public License, or GPL, authors and contributors to free software projects would share works publicly, but attach conditions to the use and modification of works, in order to protect the public against efforts to privatize the code through proprietary extensions and modifications.

I first talked to Richard Stallman in the early 1990s, during the negotiations over NAFTA. Richard had reached out to Ralph Nader, my employer at the time, to discuss the efforts to defeat NAFTA in the U.S. Congress, which was debating its ratification. Richard was concerned that NAFTA would be restrictive as regard the use of compulsory licensing of patents, which it was.

I had not up to this point thought a great deal about the international norms for copyrights, patents and other types of intellectual property, but that conversation, as brief as it was, motivated me to dig deeper. I was particularly interested in the ways that NAFTA and later the WTO rules and other international agreements were designed in part to limit and restrict the use of compulsory licensing and other exceptions in intellectual property regimes.

Over the years I kept in touch with Richard and we had a number of occasions to discuss issues on a variety of topics. Sometimes we were in agreement, and sometimes not. For example, during the negotiations on the WIPO Marrakesh treaty for exceptions for visually impaired persons, Richard was an opponent, while I was spending a good part of five years as an advocate for the treaty. Richard thought the treaty would weaken efforts to reform copyright laws, while I thought it was a long overdue reform to permit the cross border use of copyright exceptions for the benefit of a vulnerable population.

Richard also insists that people avoid the phrase “intellectual property,” his main point being that by lumping copyrights, trademarks and patents together, the purpose and role of each was muddled, and the term “property” itself had a polemic value that was anything but neutral. Richard had been generally supportive of trademarks, and famously had used copyright to protect free software from efforts to embrace and extend code. Software patents, on the other hand, were seen as a significant threat to the freedom to write and use code.

My own reaction to his critique of the use of the phrase intellectual property was grounded in the work I was doing in biomedical drugs, vaccines and other technologies, where the protections included a complicated array of patents, supplemental protection regimes, regulatory exclusivity for data used to register products, regulatory marketing exclusivity connected to “orphan” drug indications and pediatric testing, and the increasingly important barriers to access to biological resources, know-how and trade secrets. It was simply impractical to mention the whole set of these measures in every conversation about drug or vaccine monopolies.

Despite these and other differences, overall, it has been a rich and fruitful relationship.

Richard’s role in protecting the public is greatly underappreciated, particularly given the stakes and the scale of the mobilization he led.

Richards is the founder of a vast social movement to create and distribute software tools as public goods. He did this with limited resources, deploying ideas and a moral vision that resonated with an untold number of software coders. The moral vision was to provide a world where software code could be accessed, modified, distributed and used freely. The most important idea was the GNU General Public License, or simply the GPL. The GPL required users of licensed software to allow any derivative work to be distributed under the same or equivalent license terms that permitted end users to run, study, share and modify the software.

The GPL is a type of “reach-through” agreement, but with a twist. Rather than creating a private claim on future modifications of the code, the GPL created what essentially was a public right. Often described as a hack of the copyright system, Stallman used the strong rights associated with copyright to block efforts to privatize code initially released a global public good. This became known as a “copyleft” license, which was protective and reciprocal, as opposed to a permissive or open ended license.

Stallman had an early interest in writing and modifying software, and created an extendable editing tool for programmers named Emacs, which others, including James Gosling, advanced and ported to different platforms.

Stallman created the GNU Project in 1983, with the intention of creating a large body of free software.

Gosling at one point licensed his code to a company, UniPress, and the collaborations soured. Stallman then created a new version of Emacs, released in 1985 as GNU Emacs. Stallman also began to introduce new licensing agreements to prevent cases where someone could assert copyrights on modified versions of the software. In 1989, the first GPL license was released.

The significance of the GPL grew over time, and became far more important when Linus Torvalds released version 0.12 of the Linux kernel under the GPLv2 license in 1992, having been influenced by the GNU project and having earlier listened to a speech by Stallman. Linus has had his differences with Richard (who hasn’t?), but he does not see the decision to use the GPLv2 as a mistake.

“. . . I love GPLv2. I really think the license has been one of the defining factors in the success of Linux because it enforced that you have to give back, which meant that the fragmentation has never been something that has been viable from a technical standpoint . . . The GPL ensures that nobody is ever going to take advantage of your code. It will remain free and nobody can take that away from you. I think that’s a big deal for community management.”

At the time, the GPL was a highly controversial and emotional topic for a number of persons in the software industry.

In the beginning, the reach-through provisions of the GPL were aggressively attacked by its critics. In 2001, then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer referred to the GPL as “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”

Microsoft would eventually change its mind about the GPL and free software in general, supporting Linux services beginning in 2009, publishing the blog “Microsoft Loves Linux” in 2015, joining the Linux Foundation, using a number of free software program for its cloud services, and acquiring the software repository GitHub in 2018 for $7.5 billion.

Richard initially gained a following as a writer of free software code, including his role in the development of GNU Emacs, the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), The GNU Project Debugger (GDB), the GNU linker (GNU ld), and others, some discussed by Simson Garfinkel in a 1990 column in Computerworld. Richard says that in 1991 and 1992, he was “involuntarily self-promoted into management,” where he campaigned against software patents and on a number of other topics. Throughout, he was a prolific public voice who attracted an enormous following, and gave shape and direction to the free software movement for decades, and at a time when the Internet was emerging and its future was unclear. Through the written word and countless speeches around the world, he devoted his life to an important cause, to protect the public from the monopolization of the software essential tools that we rely upon every day to communicate.

The successes of the free software movement were most significant in the computers that run the Internet. In 2015, Steven Vaughan-Nichols asked “can the Internet exist without Linux: Yes, but it wouldn’t be the Internet you know,” an essay that concludes saying “In short, the Internet we use today really couldn’t exist without Linux.” Linux is also the operating system used by Supercomputers, Android phones, refrigerators, Roku media streaming devices, Kindle eBook readers, and for countless other devices and applications people use every day.

Not every free software program was licensed under a version of the GPL. The GPL, far from being “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches,” is often used in programs that work with non-GPLed software. The Android operating system, for example, runs under software that is licensed under the GPL, but also under the more permissive Apache License, Version 2.0, the BSD and MIT licenses and the Lesser General Public License (LGPL).

For many years, Richard’s role in the free software movement has been to motivate programmers around the world to contribute to the development of free software programs and to share works with other developers under the GPL. The wide adoption of the GPL was important, especially coming at a time when threats to monopolize or fragment the Internet were (and remain) real. The GPL became the gold standard for protecting a program from becoming private property. At some point, companies began to see the GPL in a positive light, as a protection against some other company hijacking the future of a project. Many businesses wanted to be a monopoly, but none wanted their competitors to have a monopoly. The GPL allowed parties that did not trust each other to work together. It still does.

Richard can be a polarizing figure, seen as uncompromising and judgmental by critics. In my experience, he is more complicated, willing to think through the consequences of actions, more pragmatic than some suggest, and willing to change his mind.

In 2009, I worked with Richard and the UK Open Rights Group (ORG) to ask the European Commission to block the Oracle acquisition of MySQL. Prior to Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Computers, MySQL had been operating under a dual licensing business model. The company released free versions of its software under the GNU GPL 2.0, and also under a different proprietary license for a fee. It was our fear, largely borne out over time, that Oracle had an anti-competitive conflict of interest and would slow the development of MySQL, which was steadily enhancing its ability to provide services that competed against Oracle’s pricey and proprietary software and services. Eben Moglen gave evidence for Oracle, defending the merger (which eventually went through, following intense lobbying the U.S. government), on the grounds that the GPL released versions of the software made it impossible for Oracle to prevent the success of a new and fork of the project.. But Richard, ORG and KEI said that this was naive:

“As only the original rights holder can sell commercial licenses, no new forked version of the code will have the ability to practice the parallel licensing approach, and will not easily generate the resources to support continued development of the MySQL platform.”

Richard’s position on the Oracle/Sun/MySQL merger surprised a number of people, particularly given Eben Moglen’s role in supporting the merger.

While Richard’s approach to free software was not without nuances and thoughtful views on events like the Oracle acquisition of Sun/MySQL, it was his uncompromising vision and charismatic leadership that stood out and had the most impact. The number of individuals who have had a significant impact on the development of the Internet as something that remains an open system are many, including names like Tim Berners-Lee, the co-inventor the World Wide Web, Linus Torvalds, the lead developer and highly skilled manager of key elements of the GNU/Linux operating system, and many many others. But RMS’s role was critical, coming at a time when companies were looking to own and control its key features and push its direction toward their own proprietary technology.

The risks facing the Internet today remain significant. But the highly effective advocacy for the use of free software and commons based licensing models plays a critical role in keeping the network open. This in turn owes an enormous debt to Richard Stallman, for his unique role in mobilizing a truly massive social movement for a software commons. and providing an important tool, the GPL licenses, as a gold standard to ensure that the systems that run our network will not become closed.

(I’m sure when Richard reads this, he will beat up on me for my use of terms like open source or intellectual property, and not referring to Linux as GNU/Linux. That’s fine.)

James Packard Love, January 3, 2022.

For those who don’t know of Richard Stallman’s work on free software, here are a few of the things he has written, from GNU.org:

Director, Knowledge Ecology International, an NGO working on knowledge governance