With the recent revelations about the misuse of closed software, this celebration of Free Software is timely and welcome. The linked New Yorker article focuses on Richard Stallman, an idealist who has lived by his principles in the face of vicious opposition and ridicule. It would have been much easier, and more profitable, to abandon them, as demonstrated by those who continue to denigrate him. Free Software survives and thrives today largely because of his perseverance, and that of thousands of people inspired by his example.
The GNU Manifesto Turns Thirty
Stallman was uneasy over the increasing encroachment of proprietary software. He’d seen evidence of it in his own lab, when he found himself unable to adapt a new Xerox printer with a program he’d created to alert users to paper jams, and he believed that he had an obligation to protect and nurture the hacker ethos he’d experienced at M.I.T., which valued intellectual curiosity, esprit de corps, and fun over profit. In late 1983, he posted to two newsgroup discussion forums an idea to create an alternative to Unix. “If I get donations of money, I may be able to hire a few people full or part time,” he wrote. “The salary won’t be high, but I’m looking for people for whom knowing they are helping humanity is as important as money.”
Stallman expanded and formalized his ideas in the GNU Manifesto, which he published in the March, 1985, issue of Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Software Tools, thirty years ago this month. “So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor,” he wrote, “I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned from the AI Lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving GNU away.” The nearly forty-five-hundred-word text called for collaborators to help build a freely shareable Unix-like operating system, and set forth an innovative method to insure its legal protection.