Richard Stallman: High School Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-Certified Genius

Richard Stallman was reading computer books before he'd ever seen a computer. When the Sixties Revolution was running out of steam, he was liberating MIT computers from behind locked doors and helping set off the next great Boomer movement. Though he disdained hippies and radicals in his youth, today, as the leader of the Free Software Movement, he's a long-haired rebel coder-writer with a cause, and an idealistic thorn in the side of the cyber world's killer-app capitalists.

By Michael Gross
Interviewed in New York City and Cambridge, Mass., in early 1999.

MG: So you were born 1953. Where?
STALLMAN: In New York. My mother was a substitute teacher. And my father started a printing brokerage business at some point in the ’50s, putting together the photographers and the typesetters and the platemakers and the people who owned the presses.
MG: Was he a serviceman? Had he been in the war?
RS: Yes. He avoided being in battles and getting shot at very much. But he had learned to speak French so well that he could pose as a Frenchman, and he did this before the U.S. was in the war because he wanted to use it to defeat the Nazis. So when he was in the Army, he did things for which knowledge of French was useful. For example, liaison with Free French battalions.
MG: Where did you grow up?
RS: Mostly Manhattan. West Side. 95th Street, 93rd Street, 89th Street.
MG: Growing up, did you go to public school?
RS: I went to public school for six years, and then I went to private school for five years, and then I went to a public school again. I was a discipline problem. I was very upset and miserable, and kids used to tease me, and it would make me enraged. I never believed that adults were entitled to give me orders. I considered them to be like any other kind of tyrant; they just had power.
MG: Did you have particular interests?
RS: Yes, I loved mathematics and science, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. I watched television then and I read comic books then, but I also studied advanced math whenever I could.
MG: So that probably made you something of an outsider in school.
RS: That did. But also, I’m weird, and I don’t know how to get along with people the usual ways. I’ve never really learned that.
MG: But didn’t you find that there were other people like that in school?
RS: No. I guess I was too weird. I did have friends, but I couldn’t fit into a school. So I was sent to a private school for people like that. But most of the people there were either insane or stupid, and I was terribly shamed to have been lumped with them. I wasn’t just too smart. Some smart people can get along fine with society. I couldn’t. It was something other than just being smart. In fact, if I hadn’t been smart, I probably would have been thrown in the garbage, basically. But because I was obviously smart, they couldn’t just say, “This is a manufacturing failure; get rid of it.”
MG: Were you in any way political as a kid?
RS: Eisenhower I wasn’t aware of; I was too young for that. But my mother was very political, and I became political, too, once I got more like 8 or 10. Remember, I was only 10 when Kennedy was killed. I didn’t know a lot about what was going on, but I have a vague picture of him as somebody who was trying to lead our nation, to do things that were great.
MG: Were you aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
RS: Nope. Didn’t notice it. I didn’t have the experience of being scared all the time about nuclear war that some other people say they had. I started to think about it a little later on, but I didn’t absorb it as fear as a child, or hysteria about nuclear war as a child before I started to actually think about it as an issue, as part of the world.
MG: When did you learn about computers?
RS: At that time all I could find was manuals to read. I didn’t see an actual computer. But as soon as I heard about computers, I wanted to see one and play with one. I loved building things. The neat thing about computers is that you can build something, but you don’t have to get bogged down in the details of matter. If you want to build something out of wood, the problem is, wood is limited. If you want to cut pieces of wood, you have to saw them, what are you going to saw them with, and you get all the sawdust. On a computer you can build something, but you’re building it out of words and numbers. I don’t know which year it was when I first got to see a manual at summer camp. I don’t know whether I was 9 or 10 or 11. The only computers that existed then were large. These were manuals for the 7094, which was the most powerful IBM computer of its day. A counselor had brought them. I was interested in some other things, too, but I had very little interest in any kind of sports, and I stopped liking Popular Music when the Beatles arrived. I didn’t like them.
MG: Why not?
RS: I just didn’t like their music. I don’t know enough about the vocabulary to describe that kind of difference in music. I just didn’t like them at first, and then everyone else started liking them and I thought they were stupid. And it seemed like a fad, and I tend to despise people who let themselves get caught up in fads. I at one point tried to form a parody band called Tokyo Rose and the Japanese Beatles. Not to actually play any music, I wasn’t a musician, but I just wanted to make fun of all those people who were crazy about the Beatles.
MG: During the later ’60s, ’65 to ’69, you’re in junior high or high school, and the counter-culture starts. Were you part of it?
RS: I wasn’t, because it was anti-intellectual and anti-science. It was, “Let’s believe whatever seems like a nice story.” They obviously didn’t understand the idea of Truth, and so I couldn’t respect them.
MG: And by Truth, you mean?
RS: The idea that there is a world out there, and that you can figure out how it works–or at least you should try to. There are stories you can tell which are wrong because they just don’t fit the facts. You can’t just wake up and declare peace, you can’t just wake up and declare that you can fly by flapping your arms. The world is a certain way. They wanted to believe in a fairy-tale. But at the time, there was a nice thing about them. which is that they wanted people to love each other and not hurt each other, which I thought was a good thing. But all told, I couldn’t be part of that. I didn’t want to get involved with the use of drugs, which I thought of as scary and dangerous and foolish. And clearly, they had no idea of caution. They were taking crazy risks because they didn’t understand that they could be hurt. I’d read that-supposedly–young people don’t believe they can die. Well, that never happened to me. I can’t understand how anyone can not believe that he can die. “Those things can’t happen to me.” It was so obvious to me that it could happen. Not only that, but for a while late in high school the thought of my death was such a horrible thing to me that I sort of wished I hadn’t been born. Because to be facing death was such a horrible thing, it seemed to me that nobody should be thrust into a world where you’re going to die. That’s cruelty.
MG: Did you have a circle of friends who felt the same way?
RS: I was friends with some of my teachers but after I was around 12 or 13, I basically didn’t have friends among my peers until I went to college. Because I outgrew what I did with my childhood friends. And I had no idea what would replace it. So I basically had no friends.
MG: What replaced it for many of us, I suppose, was politics…
RS: Well, I got interested in the politics, although I was also scared off by some things about it. I was very disturbed by the people who started wanting the North Vietnamese to win just because they were the enemy of the U.S. Government. Just because someone was the enemy of the U.S. Government didn’t make them good.
MG: Did you go to peace marches where you encountered these people?
RS: I didn’t encounter them at peace marches. I encountered them when I went to college. And before that, for two or three years I was in a Columbia University Saturday program for high school kids, and there I encountered the occupation of buildings at Columbia, which seemed to me to make no sense at all. Why stop people from going to the math library and studying math because you’re angry at what the U.S. Government is doing? It made no sense to me, and it still doesn’t really make sense to me. Now, to try to do something about being drafted, that I could understand.
I had a sympathy for opposition to the Vietnam War, but I didn’t have sympathy for rejecting science, which was the only thing that made our lives possible and still makes our lives possible. Without scientific ways of, for example, growing our food, we couldn’t survive.
MG: Somewhere along the way, somebody recognized that you had this prodigal aspect. Were you scoring high?
RS: Sure. I learned calculus when I was something like 7 or 8. So it wasn’t hard for anyone to tell that I was interested in learning as much math and science as possible. For a couple of years when I was 14 to 16, I would go to the library and get two or three books a week about various subjects, like History, Math and Science. And I would read them all. At one point, I decided to learn Latin, so I got a first-year Latin textbook and went through it in a month, and then I got the second-year book and went through that in the next month.
For a year or so, I was working as a sort of lab assistant at a biology lab at Rockefeller University. Then I got involved with the IBM New York Scientific Center, where they actually let me start programming real computers. That was during my senior year. They let me come and program. Then the summer after my senior year, they hired me and had me write a FORTRAN program, and I got that program done in a few weeks, and I swore that I would never use FORTRAN again because I despised it as a language compared with other languages.
MG: You already knew enough about it.
RS: I was basically reading about every programming language I could find out about. I wanted to find out about the variety of programming languages.
MG: You must have had such contempt for the Luddites who surrounded you.
RS: Yes, I did. I am embarrassed by it now to some extent. Because I had a very low opinion of the things they were thinking and I think that’s proper, but I also had a low opinion of them in a way that I’ve come to think since is wrong to think about any person.

MG: Did you have any other cultural interests at that point?
RS: Somewhat in music.
MG: But you weren’t going to the Fillmore?
RS: No, not that kind of music. I was interested in Classical Music at the time. I’ve never understood the tendency to pick up tastes because they are popular. In fact, I think it is foolish to do that. I mean, don’t you know what you like? People who are so weak that they will take their tastes from people around them in the desperate desire to be accepted, I think of them as cowards.
MG: You graduated high school when?
RS: In 1970.
MG: Did you ever skip a grade?
RS: I did. And when I moved away to college, I escaped.
MG: Where did you go?
RS: Harvard.
MG: Had being smart kept you separate from your peers until then?
RS: It did. And I have to admit that at the time I was arrogant about it. I looked down at other people for their inability to think clearly. Now I think that that’s wrong, partly because I’ve been humiliated because I can’t think as clearly, can’t concentrate as effectively as I used to.
MG: Were you in a dorm?
RS: Yes, I was. But fortunately, I had a single room. They asked “What kind of roommate do you want?” and I said, “Well, I’d prefer an invisible, inaudible, intangible roommate.”
MG: What did you study at Harvard?
RS: Math and physics.
MG: Did you participate in the social life there?
RS: No. I had no way to. I was a social reject. Almost no one would ever go out with me.
MG: Were you still into computers?
RS: Yes. At the end of my freshman year, I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which was founded by DARPA [the Defense Department's advanced projects agency, which created the Internet]. The people there were very embarrassed about this, because for the most part they were against the Vietnam War. The problem is, being against the Vietnam War was one thing. The Vietnam War was to defend a dictator and keep him in power, and it was an unjust war, and it was fought with horrible cruelty. But to generalize from that to anything related to the military as fundamentally wrong is an irrationality. I’d seen and read a lot about World War Two. I had the example of my father, who prepared to more effectively fight the Nazis — because they were evil, and it was necessary to fight them.
MG: Had your father died? Was he just out of the picture?
RS: No, they split up. I saw him on weekends.
MG: My sense is that you found your place once you found the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT.
RS: For the first time in my life, I felt I had found a home at Harvard. Then they kicked me out after four years for passing too many classes.
MG: What?
RS: Yes, they have a rule that after you pass too many classes they give you a diploma and they tell you to get lost.
MG: And you wanted to stay. Why couldn’t you just go to grad school?
RS: It wouldn’t have been the same. The dorms for grad students are not at all like the undergraduate dorms in their spirit. I looked at that option.
MG: So you end up at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence lab?
RS: During my Freshman year I was very interested in finding places where they had various different kinds of computers I’d never seen, so that I could ask for manuals about the systems, and that way I could about the variety of computers. I’d heard that the AI Lab at MIT had a big computer, and so I went there and asked them, “Do you have documentation I can read?” And it turns out they didn’t have a lot of documentation, but they hired me instead.
MG: Did you need to demonstrate skill or interest? I presume you didn’t simply knock on the door, were ushered in, and “Here, play with our machines.”
RS: Well, it was more or less like that, yeah. That’s what the old Hacker Culture was like. It was obvious that I was a good hacker in the making. And I was hired that day for the summer. But it continued.
MG: Was it different from Harvard?
RS: Harvard was bureaucratic and stuffy. The professors were more important than you, and a professor could have a terminal going to waste in his office and that was more important than having it where you could use it. So very often I couldn’t work, or somebody else couldn’t work because some professor was using a terminal to sit in his office, because that professor was so important that it was more important that there be a terminal he could use once in a while, when he wanted to, than that other people be able to use a terminal when they were there. Actually, there was one professor I spoke with somewhat, because I wrote a piece of code that he wanted written. I just wanted something to program on.
MG: MIT was different?
RS: What I saw when I went to MIT was a different attitude, which is, “We’re here to get some things done, we want to get them done, and we’re mad at anybody who for ridiculous reasons stands in our way.” It would be one thing if somebody were to argue, “What you’re trying to do is going to hurt us.” But they didn’t say that. They just had their own selfish reasons to stand in the way.” And the hackers at MIT didn’t accept that. They didn’t let it happen.
I immediately got put to work writing parts of the system. It had an editor. A text editor [for writing computer code]. I started improving it. Eventually I improved it to the point where the original thing was just the sort of inside core that you’d never see.
MG: And it gets called EMACS, right? What does that stand for?
RS: It stands for Editing Macros.
MG: Were you aware of their whole history? Were you made aware of it?
RS: I learned about it over the subsequent years. At MIT in those days, if a professor had locked a terminal in his office, it wouldn’t stay locked. In one case, one of the programmer staff built a battering ram to open the door, and others learned to pick locks. What I learned to do was to use the false ceilings or the false floors. So I many times picked up some floor tiles, crawled into a room, and opened the door, and I discovered a convenient method for using magnetic tape with some sticky tape put onto it, and I could reach over, let that down, snag the doorknob, and then twist the doorknob with it. Then once the doorknob was twisted, I would use my leg to push the door open. So in this way, I could just lift up a few ceiling tiles but not actually have to climb up there, which was really unpleasant, and you could get fiberglass in your skin, which would make you itch for a while — and I didn’t want that to happen. But with this method I didn’t actually have to climb. I’d just have to push the tiles out of the way.
MG: Did you have a sense of yourselves as being subversive?
RS: Well, mildly so. But see, we weren’t trying to subvert the mission of the lab. We were trying to do our job. But we were trying to subvert the people who were trying to bureaucratize and thus subvert the lab we worked for.
MG: What was your job?
RS: I immediately got put to work writing parts of the system. We had an Editor. I started improving it. Eventually I improved it to the point where the original thing was just the sort of inside core that you’d never see. We had a text editor called TECO. I started adding features to TECO just as I added features to all the other programs in the system. TECO stood for Text Editor and Corrector.
MG: At some point, the access to the computer lab and to the system becomes an issue. Right? Because the hackers had originally designed the system leaving out any kind of security features, and the reason was they had observed that security features were used by administrators to control the users.
RS: To control them in all sorts of ways. Tell them what they’re allowed to do. Keep them in line. They’re the boss. So the hackers said, “We don’t want anybody to do that to us.” So they designed a system which didn’t have those features. It was a group of people who said, “We want to have anarchy, because we can work together, and we don’t want anyone dominating us, pushing us around.” Because if somebody is the operator, and the operator can do things which you can’t, then you constantly need to suck up to the operator. If you don’t do what the operator wants, then the operator will refuse to do the things for you that you can’t do, and it’s the operator who decides what you’re allowed to do.
MG: How many of you were there?
RS: Hackers? Around ten-ish, although there were many more users than that. And then these anonymous visitors (the tourists, we called them), they were probably in the hundreds. So it was a community.
MG: But it was also a commune, in a sense. Because it was separate from the outside world. You all had the same goal in mind.
RS: Yes. But unlike the impression that the word “commune” might give, we didn’t exclude anyone who wanted to help. If some outsider wanted to get involved and wanted to work on the software or work on the system, anyone who was competent was welcome.

MG: Were there offenses that could get someone excommunicated?
RS: Yes, sort of. If some visitor acted obnoxiously, like crashed the machine, all the other visitors would be angry, because they didn’t want the machine to go down. They were having fun using the machine. Especially, we had found a way of educating people away from being crackers. We found a way of giving them a role and a stake in the continuation of our society.
MG: You said Crackers?
RS: Crackers, yes. Crackers are people who make a practice of breaking computer security, or crashing computers. But the point is that we didn’t have any security to break. Although actually, there was one thing that had a little bit of security. There was a special magic command that you had to type in order to be able to deposit in the core image of the running kernel– the lowest level program on the system, the one that keeps the fences up between the other programs that are running.
On this system, since it was meant for hackers, the top level command interpreter was actually also the debugger. So any time you were running a program, the debugger was right there in case anything went wrong. You could start to de-bug instantly. Anyway, you could also start to de-bug the actual running kernel, and you could deposit in it. You could patch the code of the running kernel, while it was running, to test out a bug fix. And I did that many times. Of course, you have to be very careful when you’re doing that, otherwise you’ll crash the system. So because of that, there was actually a password on the ability to do that. I say a password because in some sense that’s its role, but it didn’t look like that. It was actually a magical command you had to type before your debugger would allow you to deposit in the running kernel. And this command was a bit funny, because you would type one thing, and it would echo as a different thing. So the result was that if somebody was watching your screen and they saw you type this command, they’d be misled about what it was they should type. Of course, anyone who was smart enough to read the source code of this program could see the code that did this and know exactly what to do. But anyone who was that much on the ball was okay. And by the way, this wasn’t put in to stop anybody malicious. It was put in to stop a person who worked at the lab but was overconfident and kept on thinking that he knew how to do this and kept on getting it wrong! [LAUGHS]
MG: Try to de-bug while it was running and then he would crash the system?
RS: Right. In fact, they actually named the feature after him internally!
MG: Now, all this time, all through the four years before you graduated, you’re doing a full course-load at school? And then you’re writing code at night?
RS: Well, we’d go over to MIT typically Friday afternoon, in time to have a dinner of Chinese food, and I would stay there until Saturday evening, have another nice dinner, and then go back to Harvard. Typically, this is what kept me alive, because the food in Harvard’s dorms was so horrible. About half the meals I couldn’t find anything I wanted to eat, so that left me with about one meal a day.
MG: But between Harvard and the AI Lab, this is all-consuming. This is your life, right?
RS: It was. That and, starting with my junior year, folk dancing, which I really loved.
MG: Then you graduate and go to the AI Lab full time?
RS: Well, actually I went to MIT first as a graduate student in Physics.
MG: Oh, for how long did that last?
RS: A year. What I noticed was that my enthusiasm for Physics was decreasing, and I believe the reason was that in programming I could do something. I could produce something that was new and that was useful and I could feel proud of, and in Physics I hadn’t seen how to do that, and I never figured out how to do that. I wished that I could do it, but I never saw how. So what happened was, I had a knee injury, and it stopped me from dancing, and basically broke my heart. I not only couldn’t do the dancing that I loved, but I couldn’t meet any women. The only way I met women was by dancing with them, and going but not being able to dance didn’t enable me to meet anyone I didn’t already know. This happened in June, and all summer I went there anyway, and I was reasonably cheerful because at the time I assumed, “Well, it will get better, in a few months it will be better, I can live with this.” Then it sunk in on me that it was not getting any better. Then in September I basically fell apart, because I realized that I wasn’t going to get to better, and I had nothing. That’s when I dropped out of graduate school and just started working at the AI Lab.
MG: You went there right around the time Watergate happened.
RS: I cared a lot about Watergate. In fact, I often wore a button which was inspired by Watergate, which said, “Impeach God.” I compared what Nixon was telling us with the spiel that, according to Christianity, God gives us, and they match up point by point. “I have a secret plan to end the War in Vietnam, or end justice and suffering in the world. For heavenly security reasons, I can’t let you mere mortals understand the details of my plan. So you’ll just have to take it on faith that what I’m doing is right and obey me, because after all, I am entirely good. I told you so myself, and you have to believe everything I say. And besides, I see the big picture, and I am so much wiser than you. So you should just obey implicitly. And if you don’t obey me, that means you’re evil, so I’ll put you on my Enemies List, and the IRS will audit you every year for all eternity.” I figured why stop with the small fry, let’s go after Mister Big. No matter how powerful a tyrant is, they all deserve to have their power taken away.
I wasn’t involved in politics in the sense of joining organizations and working on campaigns. But I thought about politics very much. As did just about everyone else. The people at the AI Lab were not mostly apolitical. They were mostly vaguely left-wing and they were embarrassed that they were getting funds from the Defense Department, which peculiarly, did not bother me, because I thought what we were doing was more important than who we were getting funds from, and besides, just because I was against the war in Vietnam and against some U.S. interventions in Latin America, that didn’t mean I was in favor of unilateral disarmament. I was against the policy that had led to the use of our military, but I didn’t start thinking that the United States is the enemy, the way many people did.
MG: Where did you see your work at the AI lab going? What was it leading to?
RS: I had no specific idea in mind of what it was going to lead to. I just felt that computers were an exciting thing and that they had to be good for people somehow, and then, I wanted to advance what we could do.
MG: There was no vision yet of personal computing?
RS: Oh yes, there was a vision like that. There were people at Xerox, for example, who were working on trying to develop computers that would be gradually cheaper and more accessible and easier for people to use. I wasn’t tremendously interested in that, though.
MG: Were you at all into things like “Saturday Night Live”?
RS: I did like “Saturday Night Live” a little bit. And this was also the time when I had started to learn about various kinds of world music. Because from folk dancing I had learned about Eastern European music and Turkish music and some Arabic music.
MG: Are there any people your age in the lab, or are you mostly surrounded by people older than you?
RS: People were still coming into the lab until around 1980. There were still mostly MIT students, occasionally Harvard students, showing up and becoming great hackers. It was a continuing vital culture. I was not the last person to join it.
MG: But some of the key people began drifting away…
RS: Well, people always came and went. But in any culture there are always people coming and going. People die, people are born. It was only when Symbolics hired away most of the hackers that there was a systematic change.
MG: Symbolics represents the commercialization of the culture, right?
RS: It was. Right. The result was that the lab was sort of empty of hackers.
MG: A new machine comes into the MIT lab, right? And all of the software that you guys had written all these years doesn’t run on it? It comes with its own?
RS: Yes. Well, we could have run our system, but they decided, because of the dearth of hackers, that we wouldn’t be able to keep it going, and therefore the people who ran the lab decided to use Digital’s operating system instead, which meant that only a few of our programs were still of any relevance — a few that had been ported to that system and were used by people elsewhere also.
MG: Stephen Levy wrote about this in Hackers. One of the MIT hackers formed a company called LMI to write a new operating system, and a group run by a more business-oriented type started a competitor called Symbolics. There was no one left at MIT to improve the non-commercial version of the software-and Symbolics stepped into the breach with a proprietary OS. Did you play a part in all that?
RS: I was the last hacker. I was the only hacker left at the AI lab. And then what happened? An enemy, a company formed by a betrayal, gave us an ultimatum essentially. They said, “from now on, if you want to use any of our code, any improvements we’re making, you’ve got to abandon the MIT version of the system and essentially join our camp.” They forced us to choose sides between them and LMI. Until then I had been neutral, and I had been saying, “I am not on the side of either company.” But once one of these companies attacked the AI lab, I couldn’t be neutral any more, so I joined the war on the side of the other company. What else does a neutral do when one of the sides in a war invades it?
I started maintaining the LISP machine system for MIT, in competition with Symbolics. Now, of course, anything I wrote was available to Symbolics, just as it was available to MIT. But in fact, what I was doing was the same job Symbolics had already done, for the most part. So it was of no benefit to them. It was only of benefit to the company that they intended to be the victims of their ultimatum against us. This was Belgium. The Germans attack Belgium, the Belgian Army fights on the side of the English and the French.
MG: You were saying, “I don’t care that this is proprietary to you guys; I’m going to make it open”?
RS: I wasn’t using their code. I was writing my own code to do the same job.
MG: I see. But your code was open and their code was proprietary?
RS: My code was available to LMI. But it was not free software, because MIT had licensed the LISP Machine System to those two companies, and thus had made it non-free-software. So I was fighting to defeat this invasion, and I did more or less succeed at that. I ultimately lost the battle. Essentially I thought of it as a rear guard action, because LMI at the time was too small to do its own system development. So if Symbolics had wiped out the MIT version, made it obsolete in no time then they would have knocked LMI out of business, and they would have profited by their invasion. And my goal was to deny them any benefit from their aggression. So I did that by keeping the MIT version viable.
MIT had done the first bad thing by making the software proprietary. But at the time I wasn’t thinking so much in those terms. I was thinking that Symbolics had killed the AI Lab’s hacker culture, which was my home! So they had done this as part of a deliberate strategy to profit, and I was going to deny them that profit. And I ultimately did, more or less, because I kept this going long enough for LMI to hire hackers and pick up maintenance, and LMI was successful for a few years…
MG: Before we go to what happens to you, what happens to these two companies?
RS: Well, they both went bankrupt a few years later. The day of LISP machines passed. It became feasible to make whole CPUs on a chip and have them be reasonably powerful.
MG: Is this all completely separate from the world of personal computers?
RS: Yeah. Completely separate.

MG: And that’s not where you go. What do you do next?
RS: The AI Lab was acquiring new Symbolics machines, it was becoming harder and harder for me to keep the users that I needed in order to test the system. But beyond that, I felt, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life punishing one act of aggression. They destroyed the community I love. Can I build a new one? So I looked for what I could do. So during the spring or summer of 1983, I started looking and I realized that if I developed a free operating system for modern computers, that is, not specialized, unusual ones like the LISP machine but commonplace modern computers, then I could create a new community in which people could share.
MG: What you work on is Unix?
RS: Well, no, it’s not Unix. It’s GNU: GNU’s Not Unix. It’s compatible to Unix, but it isn’t Unix. Unix existed already. It was a particular body of code. If you printed it out, you’d get a gigantic stack of sheets of paper with lines of code written on them. We couldn’t use any of those lines of code. Because they were copyrighted, and most of them were trade secrets as well.
MG: Belonging to?
RS: AT&T. It made no difference who they belonged to. That’s irrelevant.
MG: And Unix ran on what? Mainframes?
RS: No. It ran on various things like the PDP-11 and the Vax and some other kinds of computers as well. The home computer that you would get today is a lot more powerful than the PDP-10 that I was working on in the 1970s. And the PDP-11 was even smaller. They were pitifully weak.
I decided that I was going to target 32-bit computers. At the time, PCs were 16-bit computers, which meant that they were not “real” computers. They were too small and too hard to program, and I realized that they were going to be replaced over the course of the next few years by 32-bit computers. Therefore I said, “It’s going to take a few years to write this system anyway, so rather than wasting any time to cater to today’s 16-bit machines, I’m going to aim for where ordinary computers are going to be when I get there.”
MG: Were you doing open-source software?
RS: It’s not open-source software. It’s the free software movement Please don’t use the term “open source” in describing me. Open source software and free software describe the same category of software, but they say very different things about it. Open source is a technical movement; the free software movement is a social and political movement. People who talk about “open source” focus on how that makes it possible to improve the technology faster. Implicitly, what they’re saying is that improving the technology is the most important thing. Well, I don’t think so. For me, creating a community in which people have freedom is the most important thing. So the people who talk about open source say that it will enable you to make better software. But when it doesn’t, what are you going to do? Well, they will use the proprietary software. But I will stick with free software, because I am more concerned with freedom than with having a better program.
MG: So your idea in ’83 is that you’re going to create an operating system that will be a free operating system–
RS: Entirely free.
MG: –that will work on 32-bit machines.
RS: Mmm-hmm. And by the time it was done, 32-bit machines would be affordable, which indeed happened. The 386 was the first 32-bit PC design.

MG: What did you do? Did you form a company? Did you gather some code people around you?
RS: I started inviting people to join and help. But I didn’t start a company; I started a project, a movement. I mean, it’s a funny thing. That’s the time that I started growing my hair. Because you see, although there were many things about the Counterculture that I didn’t agree with, one thing I did agree with was rejecting the idea that profit and success is the highest goal in life; making a just society is the higher goal. So I started a movement. To create a new community. Because I had lost my community. Users, developers, whoever. Because anyone is welcome to be a developer. Just as in the AI Lab, if people came over the ‘net or came to visit personally and started hanging around and liked our machines and they learned to program and they wanted to help, we invited them to start doing jobs.
MG: How do you do this?
RS: Well, first I wrote an announcement about the goals of the project, and posted it on the Net. Then I just started writing.
MG: How could you afford this?
RS: I don’t understand the question. It didn’t cost me anything.
MG: When you were at the AI Lab, I assume you were using their machines.
RS: Right. They let me keep using their machines after I quit. I wasn’t going to buy a computer. If I couldn’t have used the AI Lab’s computers, I’m sure I could have found somebody who would let me use a computer. I had enough of a reputation even at that time, if I showed up in a computer science department around the country, there would probably be somebody there who knew who I was and would say, “Oh, you want to log in? Come here.”
MG: And what happens?
RS: Well, immediately, not much. Because people said, “Oh, this is an infinitely hard job; you can’t possibly write a whole system like Unix. How can we possibly do that much? It would be nice, but it’s just hopeless.” That’s what they said. And I said, “I’m going to do it anyway.” This is where I am great. I am great at being very, very stubborn and ignoring all sorts of reasons why you should change your goal, reasons that many other people will be susceptible to. Many people want to be on the winning side. I didn’t give a damn about that. I wanted to be on the side that was right, and even if I didn’t win, at least I was going to give it a good try. I had a tremendous amount of self-confidence, because I had been equaling the output of a whole team of hackers, and I knew that, and I also realized that following the design of Unix would give me the same kind of advantage that I had when I was following in the footsteps of the people at Symbolics.
MG: So Unix was proprietary software, developed by AT&T. The way it has been explained to me is, Unix is the Good Guy versus Windows…
RS: No.
MG: …because Unix is an open system. Can you explain?
RS: I don’t know what they mean by “open system,” but it has nothing to do with anything I’m concerned about.
Unix does not give the user any more legal freedom than Windows does. What they mean by “open systems” is that you can mix and match components, so you can decide to have, say, a Sun chain on your right leg and some other company’s chain on your left leg, and maybe some third company’s chain on your right arm, and this is supposed to be better than having to choose to have Sun chains on all of your limbs, or Microsoft chains on all of your limbs. You know, I don’t care whose chains are on each limb. What I want is not to be chained by anyone.

MG: What are the chains?
RS: The chains are the regulations saying that you can’t see the source code, you can’t distribute copies to your friends, you have to sign these nasty licenses promising not to help other people. See, what they’re talking about is that you can’t mix and match components, but I’m talking about the freedom you have in using any particular component. “Open” is a word that was chosen to give people a warm, fuzzy feeling, which is what marketers like to do. I don’t use that term because it doesn’t mean anything that I think is important.
If you want a stereo system, you can buy a whole package, everything together, or you can buy an amplifier from this guy and a CD player from that guy and speakers from this other guy. That’s the difference between what they call an open system and the alternative. Open system means that there are these components, and you can get individual components from different masters. But from my point of view, that’s not the issue that I care about. The issue I care about is you have a master. Is there somebody who controls what you’re allowed to do with this component or that component or the other component. Any given version of Unix will be controlled by somebody. If you got Solaris, it would be controlled by Sun. Sun would make you sign a license to get a copy, and they will say you’re forbidden to distribute a copy to anyone else, and they won’t give you the source code so you’re helpless. In other words, they do all the same things that I object to when Microsoft does it. As far as I am concerned, if my system was composed of proprietary software it makes no difference to me whether I got it as one big package or several little packages.
MG: So you’ve now determined that you are going to do something that essentially has no owner, has no master.
RS: Right. Where users are individually free. I looked at how we had used software in our society in the 1970′s, and I saw that it was crucial to have the source code and it was crucial to be free to make an improved version and crucial to be free to redistribute that to somebody else.
MG: And how did one make sure that there weren’t then 900 different versions of GNU out there?
RS: We don’t. So what? It’s much more important whether people have freedom than whether there are 900 different versions. There are fundamental issues and there are side issues. And how many different versions there are is a side issue. However, the fact is that there were dozens of different versions of Unix. So it was hardly likely that we would do worse. And it’s pronounced Guh-nu, now new. It’s not new anymore, but it’s still GNU.
MG: So what do you do?
RS: I just started writing. At first I was by myself. Then a friend of mine started writing one component, which is now part of a C-Compiler. Anyway, it really didn’t catch on a lot until after we released the GNU EMACS. And what happened was, people using Unix started to use the GNU EMACS Editor on top of it. So this started bringing the project more attention and credibility. Also it meant that some people started getting involved in improving EMACS. They were free to make their own versions. But mostly they didn’t do that. Mostly they just sent their changes back to me, because they wanted me to put their changes into my version.
MG: This is over the course of months?
RS: Years. I mean, we’re still working on it, still improving it. The idea is to produce a suite of software that works together. Everyone is free to copy it, and modify it, but you can’t make a propriety modified version. It must be free, which refers to freedom not price. Users must themselves be free. You can’t stop others from copying or making further changes. The goal is to insure everybody has these freedoms. You must respect these freedoms. So it’s been 14 years now, approximately. With a brief exception in the early ’90s when I was focusing on the League for Programming Freedom.
MG: What was that?
RS: That was an attempt to fight against new kinds of legal monopolies restricting software development. Essentially I was trying to unite with the proprietary software developers to fight against monopolies restricting us both. It had nothing to do with free software particularly.
What we discovered around 1990 was that programmers were no longer going to be free to write whatever program they wanted to write. That the companies were using legal methods to forbid writing of certain software.
MG: How could they do that?
RS: Well, one method was to patent either algorithms or features. And the other method, which I actually found out about first, was to claim that a user interface or some other interface was copyrighted, and therefore that you weren’t allowed to implement the same commands. Now, to understand what that means: Suppose somebody could say, “We’ve copyrighted the layout of keys on the keyboard,” so if you want to make a typewriter, you’re going to have to make a different keyboard layout…”
MG: You ended up picketing Lotus. What was Lotus doing specifically?
RS: They were suing companies that had made spreadsheets that were compatible with 1-2-3. That is, the same user command language. And they were winning and putting these companies out of business. Until then, everyone had assumed that copyright didn’t cover those things. What I first did was, I got together with Professor Minsky and·I don’t remember who any more for certain·and we put an ad in the MIT Student Newspaper saying, “Programmers beware,” and we talked about Lotus’ “look-and-feel” lawsuits, and we called on programmers to boycott Lotus — not to work for them, not to buy from them, not to use their software. This attracted news attention.

MG: Is this when you begin to become a public kind of person?
RS: Yes. There had been a couple of articles about the GNU project earlier on in the 1980s but this was the first time we made news. Somebody asked me what I was going to do next, and I thought about it and decided that we should hold a protest rally at Lotus — and we did. There were some 160 programmers protesting. I wish that I had felt the strength to be able to imagine doing a thing like that against the Vietnam War, but I hadn’t seen how. I got actually a fairly low number in the draft lottery, and if the war hadn’t ended I probably would have ended up being drafted, and I expect that experience of being put into the Army would have destroyed me. I don’t believe I could have survived it. I would have probably been put in jail all the time for disobeying officers who wanted me to call them “sir,” and I probably wouldn’t have called them “sir”. It would have destroyed me, I think. I don’t think I could have come out of that as anything but a ruin.
It’s a strange thing, because I could imagine fighting for my country in a war. After all, I told you I saw what I did to punish Symbolics through the metaphor of war. I could definitely imagine fighting an enemy that I thought was really evil and deserved to be fought, like the Nazis, the way my father had. But I was such an individualist that I don’t think I could ever stand military discipline, period. Now I was doing a protest like the ones that I had heard about but never done in the 1960′s. I felt I had enough strength now. Because I had got the strength from fighting Symbolics. That gave me a tremendous feeling.
MG: I actually think you got the strength from the ten years that preceded that, and that you used the strength fighting Symbolics.
RS: Maybe. What I learned from that was, if I decided to do something that required unremitting effort, I could do it.
MG: What happened after these demonstrations?
RS: Well, we attracted more attention, and then we had another demonstration, and we formed the League for Programming Freedom right after the first demonstration, and the League eventually ended up having a few hundred members. We never managed to get it really to take off. I had thought that given that there were some indications that most programmers agreed with us, we would start getting many thousands of members. But we couldn’t get it to go. We had one more demonstration at Lotus, and we wrote a Friend of the Court brief for the Appeals Court and for the Supreme Court. In the Appeals Court, Lotus lost, and the Supreme Court was unable to decide. One Justice didn’t vote, and the result was a split decision. So the Supreme Court did not set a precedent.
MG: So Lotus lost.
RS: Yes, Lotus lost. The issue is not quite dead and buried.
MG: Now, how are you feeding and clothing and maintaining yourself through all this?
RS: For a while, I continued to do some work for LMI, like improving the MIT documentation. Then I started selling copies of GNU EMACS, although that was only for a part of 1985, because when the Free Software Foundation was formed in October it took over selling copies of EMACS, and it sold lots and lots of copies of free software.
MG: What is Free Software Foundation?
RS: That was an organization…it’s a tax-exempt charity for free software development which was founded in 1985 to support the GNU project. To raise money to pay people to work on free software. Then I started making money doing consulting related to the free software. For example, people wanted to add features to EMACS. People wanted to add features to the GNU C-Compiler after I wrote that.
MG: Now, is any of this consumer software?
RS: We weren’t working on applications. We were working on the operating systems. That has to come first. Although our definition of the operating system is broad. It’s like Microsoft’s definition of the operating system. That was everybody’s definition of the operating system back then. The only reason people got a narrower definition is from MS-DOS, which ran on a pitiful excuse for a computer.
MG: When did you win your MacArthur genius grant?
RS: In 1990. It made it easier for me to register to vote. I was living in my office and they didn’t want to accept that as my address. A newspaper article about the MacArthur grant said that and then they let me register. The money didn’t make a revolutionary difference; it meant I no longer had to consult for money.
I live very cheaply. I basically still live like a student. Because I never wanted to stop. Cars, big houses have no appeal to me. No appeal at all. I wasn’t a slave of appetite for money, and that enabled me to do something worth doing. That’s why, when I started the GNU project, I also started growing my hair. I did that because I wanted to say I’d come to agree with one aspect of hippie movement: don’t focus on material success as a goal in life.
MG: Haven’t GNU and the ideas behind it been co-opted to some extent by commercial interests? Sun Microsystems has very successfully sold itself and its version on UNIX as “open” products.
RS: That happens. But Sun can’t say it’s open source. Sun’s software is not open source. It’s not free either. All of us are agreed on that. Sun’s license is too restrictive. It’s no better than Microsoft in my opinion–it’s closer but not better. Closer is only better if you’ll eventually get all the way there. Sun has no intention of taking the rest of the steps. They’ve given some freedom in order to avoid giving the rest.
MG: What about Linux?
RS: There is no operating system called Linux. The OS called Linux is GNU. Linux is a program–a kernel. A kernel is one part of an OS, the lowest level program in the OS that keeps track of other programs running and apportions memory, and processor time among them. Inside Windows there is a kernel somewhere. Microsoft won’t tell you the way to use the kernel. Anyone can sell our work. That’s part of what free software mans. It’s a matter of freedom not price. Everyone can sell my work. Freedom to sell copies is part of the definition of free software. There’s something I want out of this. I want them to understand the system exists because of an idealistic philosophy. Call it Linux and it defeats the philosophy. It’s a very serious problem. Linux is not the system. Linux is one piece of it. We have our own kernel. It’s not as mature as Linux.
MG: How did the version called Linux come about?
RS: Linus [Torvalds, who wrote the kernel,] was working on Linux. He didn’t do it under our auspices. It’s a piece of an OS that GNU was missing. Put them together and you have a whole OS. Linus got his kernel working before we got ours working. That kind of thing happens.
The idealistic vision of the GNU project is reason we have this system. Others contributed for various reasons but would never have made whole free system. People have confused our work with his. The usual picture now treats his part as everything and ignores everything but him. He doesn’t share our ideals. He doesn’t spread them, profess them, encourage them. So our work is no longer serving our ideals.
MG: So it’s back to the proprietary, sort of Yuppie model?
RS: Linus is out there to have fun. He wrote his kernel not for money but because programming is fun. He’s not an idealist but he’s not an intense capitalist. He’s an engineer. He has fun. I am too but I’m also a political idealist, which seems to me a higher calling.
Yuppies got the edge by disconnecting the work from the ideals in the image presented to public. It’s not a deliberate confusion but it played into hands of those who want to ridicule idealism and dismiss idealism. I inform reporters what really happened. For a year or two you read stories of Linux OS. Now you see stories that talk of a system developed by the Free Software Foundation. We’re bringing the issue of freedom back into public consideration. We haven’t lost but it’s been quite an obstacle.
MG: And now, people like the folks behind Red Hat are getting rich selling what you gave away for free. It’s strange. What did they add? A box? Tech support?
RS: Why buy the box? I don’t know. They’re selling copies of free software. Why people buy it is a different thing. Support may be it and that’s perfectly legitimate. As far as I’m concerned, the question of who makes money is shallow and unimportant. Free software is defined in terms of user freedom and that includes freedom to sell copies without paying for permission to do it.
I’m having success, too. We have lots and lots of people writing free software. It’s possible to use a computer with only free software now. It’s okay to make money. It’s not about money; it’s about freedom; if you think it’s about money you’ve missed the point. I want to use a computer in freedom, to cooperate, to not be restricted or prohibited from sharing. The GNU/Linux system is catching on somewhat more now. The system is becoming popular for practical reasons. It’s a good system. The danger is people will like it because it’s practical and it will become popular without anyone having the vaguest idea of the ideals behind it, which would be an ironic way of failing.