Chapter 8. "Free as in Freedom"

Richard M. Stallman, though a freshman at Harvard, began working for Russ Noftsker at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971. While still in high school (The Adams School through junior year, senior year at Louis D. Brandeis on West 84th Street) in New York, he had worked briefly at the IBM Science Center and at Rockefeller University.

As he put it,

I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.
The AI Lab used a time-sharing operating system called ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System) that the Lab's staff hackers had designed and written in assembler language for the Digital PDP-10... As a member of this community, an AI Lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system.
We did not call our software "free software," because that term did not yet exist, but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program.1

Less than a decade later, everything changed for the worse. "It was Symbolics that destroyed the community of the AI Lab," rms told me. "Those guys no longer came to the Lab. In 1980 I spent three or four months at Stanford and when I got back [to Tech Square], the guys were gone. The place was dead." (Sam Williams says that Symbolics hired 14 AI Lab staff as part-time "consultants." Richard was truly the "last of the hackers.")

We see here what Richard wanted: a cooperative community of hackers, producing software that got better and better.

"In January '82 they [Symbolics] came out with a first edition," rms continued. They didn't share. So I implemented a quite different set of features and rewrote about half of the code. That was in February. In March, on my birthday [March 16], war broke out. Everyone at MIT chose a side: use Symbolics' stuff, but not return source for development. I was really unhappy. The community had been destroyed. Now the whole attitude was changing."

In the essay cited above, rms continued:

When the AI Lab bought a new PDP-10 in 1982, its administrators decided to use Digital's non-free timesharing system instead of ITS.
The modern computers of the era, such as the VAX or the 68020, had their own operating systems, but none of them were free software: you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement even to get an executable copy.
This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, "If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them."
The idea that the proprietary software social system--the system that says you are not allowed to share or change software--is antisocial, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong, may come as a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless? Readers who find the idea surprising may have taken the proprietary social system as given, or judged it on the terms suggested by proprietary software businesses. Software publishers have worked long and hard to convince people that there is only one way to look at the issue. ...

I have quoted Richard at length, because I think that his "voice" should be heard. He has frequently said that "Software wants to be free." But in 1982 and 1983 his was a single, lonely voice. He duplicated the work of the Symbolics programmers in order to prevent the company from gaining a monopoly. He refused to sign non-disclosure agreements, and he shared his work with others in what he still regards as the "spirit of scientific collaboration and openness."

In September 1983, rms announced the GNU project. In January 1984 he resigned from his job at MIT.

He has written:

I began work on GNU Emacs in September 1984, and in early 1985 it was beginning to be usable. This enabled me to begin using Unix systems to do editing; having no interest in learning to use vi or ed, I had done my editing on other kinds of machines until then.
At this point, people began wanting to use GNU Emacs, which raised the question of how to distribute it. Of course, I put it on the anonymous ftp server on the MIT computer that I used. (This computer,, thus became the principal GNU ftp distribution site; when it was decommissioned a few years later, we transferred the name to our new ftp server.) But at that time, many of the interested people were not on the Internet and could not get a copy by ftp. So the question was, what would I say to them?
I could have said, "Find a friend who is on the Net and who will make a copy for you." Or I could have done what I did with the original PDP-10 Emacs: tell them, "Mail me a tape and a SASE, and I will mail it back with Emacs on it." But I had no job, and I was looking for ways to make money from free software. So I announced that I would mail a tape to whoever wanted one, for a fee of $150. In this way, I started a free software distribution business, the precursor of the companies that today distribute entire Linux-based GNU systems.

That's it. In September 1983, the first draft of the Manifesto announced Richard's intent; just over a year later, his $150 GNU Emacs initiated an innovative business model.

Thanks to Patrick Henry Winston, director of the MIT AI Lab from 1972-1997, Richard's resignation didn't have the expected consequences. Winston allowed rms to continue to have office and lab space at Tech Square. The AI Lab's computing facilities were also available for Richard's use.

In his Defence of Poesy (1595), Sir Philip Sidney contrasts the historian, who is obliged to be faithful to recorded events, to the poet, who is capable of depicting ideals, employing imaginative fictions. To Sidney, the poet's superiority lies with clarity of moral vision, whereas the details of events may result in the blurring of the historian's vision. Spenser (1552-1599), referring to himself as a "Poet historical," views historians as being forced to follow orderly chronology, where poets can move back and forth in time. All of this is to attempt to excuse my moving ahead to 1984, perhaps illustrating my drift between historian and "Poet historical."

Let me now move back in time and across the Atlantic.

1From Free Software, Free Society (FSF, 2002), p. 15.