Diving for shells with FSF Europe’s Loïc Dachary


Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick

Open Source people
Loïc Dachary will not be
satisfied until he saves the world. OK, he didn’t say that
explicitly, but when I asked him if he was particularly proud of any of his
accomplishments he replied, “I would like to say that I have already saved the world
but that is not true.” But as vice president of the Free Software
Foundation Europe
he can say that he is at least trying.On a perfect day he would “wake up and find that the Free Software
universe will happen, that nothing can stop it.” It’s a big goal for
someone who considers himself of average intelligence. In fact, this
self-determined mediocrity is something of which he is proud because,
he says in his thick French accent, it makes him more approachable.

“When you are too brilliant or too exceptional, people tend to see
you as someone they cannot take examples [from], but since I have an average
intelligence I do things the average way, I do mistakes and all that, it is much
more easy to convince people to be with me and to work with me because I am
like they are. Sometimes it is a drawback to be too brilliant.”

Then he pauses and laughs. “That’s the way I rationalize the fact
that I am not as brilliant as I would like to be.” No doubt, as
someone who has worked closely with Richard
for many years, he understands genius.

Dachary is indeed approachable but a mere glimpse at his resume would
spark debate whether that is due to any mental convention. Soft spoken and
amenable to my inquiries into his personal life, he is the oldest of
three children born to an oil company engineer and a pedologist. His
father, who worked for one of France’s biggest oil companies, TotalFinaElf,
was usually stationed somewhere in the Middle East. Until late in his high school
career, Dachary never spent more than two years in the same place.

The family lived in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, and sometimes if the circumstances did not allow for organized schooling, Dachary and his two younger sisters would study at home. Dachary went from high school to a two-year technology school called EPITA where he studied computer science from 1984 to 1985. He had discovered programming at about age 16 playing
Space Invaders on an Apple II. The game came with access to the code. It
was in Basic, which Dachary pronounces with a short “a,” like in cat. He poked
around inside the program until he understood some of it.

“It was fun but it was not a click, it was not a revelation. I have
a few friends who are really born hackers but I am not.”

Despite any lack of related genetics, Dachary was eventually hooked.
He spent so much time in the computer room that the manager of the still
nascent program (Dachary was a student its opening year) invited Dachary to
work at his new company, called Xanthos, where Dachary spent a couple of months
writing C programs and then a few more writing Lisp programs at a company Secia.

In 1987, a friend introduced him to Emacs.

“It was really amazing. I was surrounded by programs that did not
work at the time. I was a programmer and I want to fix them but I could not do
it. When I had a problem with Emacs I was able to fix it and then send an
email to report the fact that I fixed it, and this was really a discovery. A
new world opened at that time and I started to send copies to my friends
and to tell them that it was something you could fix and contribute to. And
this activity of copying things, it grew and grew and I spent a few years
distributing GNU tapes in France and then finally I [started] an association
to do that. The two activities were intermixed. As developer I was able to
hack code in Emacs and as an activist I was spreading the idea and the code
to my friends.”

He met Stallman in the late ’80s. Stallman was visiting
Paris and Dachary was distributing GNU tapes with the kind of gusto he now
applies full time to spreading the philosophy behind Free Software.
Philosophy is the operative word. It is the philosophy that, according
to Dachary, constitutes the difference between Free
and Open Source.

“Open Source is a word and a blurry definition. No, a definition, I
will not criticize it. It’s a word and a definition. Free Software is four
freedoms that define a philosophy
and it’s a movement that has a goal which is to enable anyone, who has any need,
to use Free Software. We work on the same thing, but we have a different
philosophy, mainly because Open Source developers do not have a philosophy.

“I have two sides in my activity. One side I am a developer and I
write programs. The other side I am the v.p. of FSF Europe and therefore I
fight for two goals: first is to complete the Free Software field so that
whatever you need to do you can find a Free Software that does it. This is not
something that will be complete in one year or even two years but it is
a goal we have. A second goal is to fight threats that could prevent
Free Software to exist, and there are many. Software patents is one of them
probably the most well known, but there also are other legal threats,
especially in Europe where the legal systems are many and the people
that do the law are not very aware of software and Free Software especially.
For instance, in Italy they made a law that requires that every software
that is bought is registered to the police. This is really a problem. If you
sell a Debian distribution for instance, you have to register every single
program it contains. And since the registration process costs money it
makes a huge price for every distribution and this kind of legal
problem has to be solved.

“Mostly, it’s a matter of talking to people. Once you get to talk to
them usually they do understand the point but it can take a long time. My
developer activity is to write software that is in the field of
information management, like indexing software, search engines or crawlers or
cataloguing software.”

What Dachary misses most about his childhood in the Middle East is
going to the sea every weekend. There they would spend hours in the warmth of
the sea looking at fish and diving to turn over rocks on the ocean floor.

“Under some of them you have a very nice shell but it takes a lot of
patience to find really nice ones and,” he pauses to reflect, “yeah,
this is something I miss — spending a lot of time to find something beautiful.”

Now, instead of turning over rocks, Dachary wades through countless
talks, presentations, meetings, treatise to make people understand the value
of Free Software.

“The biggest challenge is to make people understand, everyone, not
just hackers or CEOs, everyone. Much in the same way as nowadays everybody
understands what is the Internet. If you asked someone to explain to
you what Internet is they would not be able to give you an explanation,
nevertheless since it is so widely spread they have accurate picture of
what it could do and that it is useful and that we cannot turn back. It
became common knowledge and I would like the Free Software concept, the four
freedoms that drive Free Software, to become common knowledge and when
this happens, it is really something that will change the big picture.”

The activity has not changed but the reward has evolved from the
smooth and shiny surface of a shell, to the freedom users, developers and
business people will be afforded if and when Free Software is universally
understood and accepted.

About Loïc Dachary

Birthplace: Suresnes

Current residence: Paris.

Favorite food: chocolate.

Favorite movie: Brazil.

Favorite book: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

Favorite vacation: To visit his 10-year-old son, Erwan, in England.

Mantra: Users should be able to use, copy, modify and redistribute all


  • Open Source