Radical media, politics and culture.

Free as in Freedom

Danny Yee writes

Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

Sam Williams

O'Reilly & Associates 2002, 225 pages, index

A book review by Danny Yee


Free as in Freedom is a generally sympathetic but far from hagiographic biography of Richard Stallman, inspiration of the free software movement. While much of the material in it will be familiar to anyone actively involved with free software, there are, as Williams claims, "facts and quotes in here that one won't find in any Slashdot story or Google search". It is also an entertaining and accessible study, which I finished within a day of my review copy arriving.

Williams begins with the famous jamming printer and Stallman's encounter with a non-disclosure agreement that prevented him writing reporting software for it. He then jumps forwards to a speech given by Stallman in 2001, responding to attacks by Microsoft on the GNU GPL. Having used these episodes to introduce Stallman and explain the basic idea of free software, the rest of the work continues in a similar vein,
mixing historical chapters with ones describing Williams' own meetings with Stallman.

Chapter three describes Stallman's childhood as a prodigy; chapter four his experiences at Harvard and MIT; chapter six the MIT AI Lab and the Emacs "commune"; chapter seven the death of the MIT hacker community and the first announcement of the GNU Project; chapter nine the GNU GPL; chapter ten the appearance of Linux and debates over GNU/Linux; and chapter eleven the coining of the term "open source" and the arguments over that. These contain quotes by everyone from Stallman's
mother to the leading lights of free software, as well as plenty by
Stallman himself. The narrative never strays too far from its subject, but becomes inextricably interwoven with the broader history and politics of free software and sometimes digresses to cover key figures and events with which Stallman wasn't directly involved.

Williams' first-hand accounts help give Stallman a human face: chapter five recounts a meeting in 1999 LinuxWorld, chapter eight a meeting in Hawaii, and chapter twelve a frustrating car trip with Stallman at the wheel. These give a feel for Stallman's personality and presence, his forthrightness and emotional intensity, his steadfastness and his abrasiveness, and his ability to unsettle. Chapter thirteen attempts to predict Stallman's status "in 100 years", quoting opinions from from Eben Moglen, John Gilmore, Eric Raymond, and Lawrence Lessig; it also suggests that Stallman's personality may be inseparable from his achievements.

Although I was already involved with free software advocacy, my first encounter with Richard Stallman came when he turned up to a rehearsal of my gamelan group; afterwards I tried without much success to explain to my fellow musicians just how important the strange bearded man they'd just met was. I don't think Free as in Freedom would help much with that: it jumps around too much and assumes too much general knowledge of the computer industry to be a good introduction for complete outsiders. Those already interested in the history and politics of free software and hacker culture, however, should relish it.

In an epilogue Williams talks about the writing of Free as in Freedom and the choice of copyright licence. Despite the big fuss made about it being released under the GNU Free Documentation Licence, however, only a sample chapter is available online now and the rest will not, apparently, be put online until June. (This is not a violation of the OFDL, because
Williams as copyright holder can allow O'Reilly to distribute the book in any way they like.) So if you don't want to buy a printed copy, you can either wait three months or hope someone OCRs the book sooner.