Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project


Author: Bruce Byfield

On September 27, 1983, Richard M. Stallman announced his intention to found the GNU project in order to build a free operating system. Now, 25 years later, the Free Software Foundation is marking the anniversary of the announcement with a month-long celebration. Looking back at the last quarter century, Stallman expresses some guarded satisfaction with the growth of the free software movement, but also some bemusement about how it has grown more complex as it has faced new challenges from within and without, and an awareness of how far it still has to go to reach its goals.

As Stallman remembers events, the GNU project started small, with “something like three, maybe four” developers besides himself. “But, once we started to release programs that people could use, that attracted more developers.”

Stallman has written and discussed many times how he started the GNU project out of his growing concern over the rise of proprietary software, starting with a compiler and moving on to GNU Emacs, the program with which he is most closely associated. Originally, he says, “Our emphasis was on recruiting people to write free software. We didn’t even have the core of a system, so the challenge was to write that. But it was written in the absence of any attempt to stop us. It was simply a task of programming.”

Still, from the start, the project had to look beyond mere development if it were to accomplish its goals. Its first programs were released under what Stallman calls “an early version of a copyleft license,” and in 1989, he produced the first version of the GNU General Public License, which was followed by the second in 1992.

Asked if he found the growing need to consider licensing and legal issues a difficult shift in his thinking, Stallman is matter-of-fact. “It just had to be done. It was just so clear that I had to do this that I did it. I’m not going to claim that I did the best imaginable job of it, but it was no problem at all.”

Much of the growing concern over legal matters was a result of new obstacles to free software, such as the efforts to copyright interfaces that was at the heart of the famous Lotus vs. Borland case and the rise of software patents in the mid-1990s.

Another issue was what Stallman calls “secret hardware” — hardware that uses proprietary drivers and BIOSes. “In the 1980s, it never occurred to me that hardware would be sold by companies that would refuse to tell us how to use it. I was really surprised when I found out about that in the 1990s. In the 1980s, it was still normal practice to document everything in the hardware.”

More recently, issues such as proprietary formats and so-called digital rights management (which Stallman refers to as digital restrictions management) have become threats to free software. “It seems that every time that we make progress in some areas, a new kind of obstacle arises or a new social phenomenon systematically builds up opposition to free software,” Stallman says ruefully.

In facing these challenges, Stallman suggests, the free software movement has not so much shifted its philosophical and political opinions or its tactics, so much as clarified them. For example, Stallman admits that “It took some years before I saw the need to carefully and firmly distinguish between free as in price and free as in freedom. Although, when I look at the specific decisions I made back then, I was always making them in terms of that distinction, but I didn’t have the distinction explicit. I had somewhere inside me the right idea, and was drawing conclusions from it, but I hadn’t learned to express it in a sharp and clear way.”

Another issue that arose in the 1990s, he says, was that “People started asking me whether these ideas applied to anything other than software. So, I thought and I concluded that other practical works that serve factual purposes in life ought to be free, such as educational and reference works.” Artistic works may not be free, in Stallman’s thinking, although he believes that, at a minimum, “you must be free to non-commercially redistribute exact copies.”

These are all large issues, and Stallman’s voice sounds faintly surprised as he looks back at the history of GNU. “It looks like I did a whole lot of fairly effective things back then,” he says. “But, in a sense, things have got harder since then. Back then, all we had to do was write programs.”

The state of free software today

In Stallman’s estimation, free software has reached the state where it is starting to be considered a serious alternative. Unfortunately, he says, people “still consider proprietary software as an alternative, too. In fact, most of them still use that. Even most users of the GNU + Linux system still use proprietary programs, because there are free software developers who don’t care about the ethical ideals of free software. Probably they describe themselves as open source supporters, and they let in non-free software. They don’t see it as unacceptable. They see it purely as a matter of what is convenient.”

For example, he cites the existence of drivers in the Linux kernel that require proprietary firmware. “For a long time, I just went on thinking that, even though Torvalds doesn’t agree with the free software movement, at least we have a free kernel. But then I found that proprietary firmware was being put into the source code of Linux. So, in fact, Linux as released by Torvalds is not free software.”

Such circumstances mean that the free software movement is “still quite a distance from the total liberation of cyberspace. We should have free software to do any job that anyone has to do,” Stallman says. “If the question is, what would be complete achievement of our goals, well, this is it: complete free software and free documentation in a world where the writing of proprietary software no longer seems reasonable or plausible, and nobody would be foolish enough to use it if it existed.”

New challenges

Stallman declines to speculate on what will happen in the future, except to say that he expects new challenges will continue to arise. “Microsoft is still quite wealthy and powerful, and still using its money to create new obstacles for us. At the same time, we face the new problems of non-free software in Web applications — both with proprietary software installed via browsers, and with Web servers themselves.”

Another major concern is mobile devices. “This is an interesting example of how new problems can arise with new technology,” Stallman says. “Ten years ago, I looked at cell phones, and there was no issue of free or proprietary software, because no one could install software in cell phones. But I looked at it, and said that this was Big Brother’s dream: Wherever you go, they know where you are.

“Then I found out that, once they became programmable, that it was possible to turn them on remotely to listen to people. But, in the last few years, cell phones have become more powerful and turned into computers on which people can install software, so, as a result, the free software issue is relevant to them, also. And, as it happens, addressing that issue helps us address surveillance and tracking as well. If you have free software, then the phone is controlled by users, and it is possible to tell it not to send any remote signals. Also, there’s at least a good chance that it will have security and won’t let someone turn it on remotely.”

Such issues help to explain why, in the last few years, the free software movement has become increasingly activist and attempted to make common cause with other social activists. These days, “we are not needed so much for simple free software development, because so many other people on doing. On the other hand, we saw threats like digital restrictions management that look like they would basically forbid free software, and we couldn’t fight digital restrictions management just by programming.”

Unfortunately, Stallman notes, “People who support human rights or a better society for most people don’t realize that there’s even an issue of supporting free software. And this is partly because open source has been so successful in hiding our existence. In the US, the propaganda that denies any solution to problems other than business solutions is very strong. It only thinks in terms of profit, and takes for granted that everything must yield to that.”

In fact, Stallman’s main criticism of the first 25 years of free software seems to be that the emphasis on user freedom was not more strongly emphasized from the first. “In the ’90s, writing free software took off,” he says, “but usually not accompanied by concern for the freedom that free software can give you. So now, our community is weak and vulnerable in various ways, because of lack of attention to this.

“That’s why I decided that the most important thing we could do is call attention to this issue of user freedoms, and thus build up a large group of people determined to defend freedom. People sometimes warn me that I’m going to be preaching to the choir, quote-unquote, but actually most of our choir has never even heard of the ideas of the movement. So it’s very useful to speak to people who are involved in the free software movement in some way, but who often don’t realize that there is any idea in it beyond the idea of open source.”

Clearly, Stallman believes that free software still has a long way to go. Yet, in talking about the last 25 years, he firmly denies being discouraged by the gap between reality and his goals. In fact, he says that, “in the rest of life, things are totally discouraging. The US basically seems to have made China its model, and practices every kind of disgusting thing you can imagine. It’s a strange thing, but at least in the area of free software, we’re making progress, whereas in all other areas of human rights, the world is getting worse. When I started it, I didn’t think that things would be getting worse for human rights in general except in the field of software. So it’s ironic and surprising that we’re making progress in software, while the framework of other human rights is collapsing around us into fascism.”


  • Free Software