St Stallman: A Hero of the Highest Order

“I’m not God — I’m just a saint.”

Richard M. Stallman

The Phoenix > News Features > Tilting at Windows

Richard M. Stallman is a legendary figure without whom the world would have looked very different, and one of those few whose initials — RMS — is a concept, on a par with JFK and LBJ.

Within certain circles, that is. Outside of those circles, most people have never heard of him.

Back in the 70s he was a super-hacker at MIT, deeply involved in and committed to the creative movement where program code was shared freely, making everyone involved better coders thanks to the community.

In the 80s, when the commercial potential in computers and software started to rear its ugly head and most of the good hackers left for commercial companies, RMS stayed true to his ideals and laid the foundation of GNU (a recursive acronym for “GNU not Unix”) which later merged with the Linux kernel.

Bruce Perens, another open source legend, is cited in the article as claiming that RMS’s contribution to the world of software is worth $1 trillion. (Which tools or formulae he uses to determine the monetary value of something which is patently and fundamentally free, eludes me, but at least it makes for a good headline.)

Anyway, RMS happens to be one of my idols, but enough proselytizing. If you want to know more, read the article or go to his site,

What I wanted to comment upon in the lengthy profile was this quote:

“What we need,” he says, “is enough people not to be outright cowards, and we can win.”

“We can win”

Now, RMS may have an IQ “up in the range where trying to measure it starts to get silly,” in the words of Eric J Raymond, yet another colourful open source profile. But this is where Stallman is wrong. “We can win”. Yeah, sure.

He is wrong, but I don’t hold that against him. There are different ways of being wrong, and RMS is wrong in the right way.

It’s quite simple: if “we” are the people who fight the influence of corporate power and who acknowledge and resist the drive towards that power: the power over people and people’s minds that comes from controlling the economy, then “we” can never win as long as software has any importance in and influence over people’s lives.

There are plenty of people runnning around and saying “We can win”, sometimes with the addition “…, if only [we had more people | someone would give us what we deserve | the government wasn’t such a bunch of corrupt idiots | etc.]”; sometimes with the implied meaning “We demand to win!” — and sometimes without any ostensible substance at all.

There have also been apocalyptic prophets around, foreboding the collapse of the system, for as long as there has been a system that can collapse; and moralists calling for change and repentance for as long as there has been anything to change and repent. Lunatics. The ones who end up in the margins of Monty Python movies. The ones who have no message except doomsday and moralism, and (as “we” tend to suspect) who take pleasure in pricking our bad conscience once in a while.

Stallman is different, and that’s why he can be completely wrong and it’s still quite ok.

The Harry Potter boycott

First of all: he knows what he’s talking about, he is intelligent and well-argued. Even when he is pushing ridiculous cases it is virtually impossible not to agree with him.

His boycott of J. K. Rowling is a case in point: by mistake, fourteen copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had been sold from a Canadian supermarket a couple of days before the official release date. Oh horror! Rowling and her publishers used the copyright and trade secret legislation as a lever and manged to have a court order issued which prevented these fourteen buyers from reading their own books.

One lawyer stated: “There is no human right to read.” That is a statement with some heavy ramifications, some of them pointing quite directly to nazi-Germany, but even there, the limitations imposed on the public had to do with which books it was legal to acquire, not with limiting your right to read a book it was legal to own. Stallman drily comments:

Any official, judge, or legislator who is not outraged by this position does not deserve to be in office.

And he promptly launched his own Harry Potter boycott, urging others to do the same. He would only lift the boycott under certain conditions:

On what conditions should we end this boycott? Forgiveness is called for when someone recognizes what he did wrong and acts accordingly. I think we should forgive Rowling (or her publisher) when she (it)

  1. Recognizes that this injunction was wrong.
  2. Promises not to do anything like it again.
  3. Calls for changes in the law so that nobody can get such an injunction again, and to establish a clear and firm “human right to read”.

I’m sure Rowling and her publisher have spent many sleepless nights worrying about the consequences of this boycott. They must also certainly have felt it as a blow to their wallets. Yeah, right.

The boycott appears as slightly ridiculous — not because Stallman is wrong regarding the substance of his argument, but because it is presented in all earnesty.

But that’s also where it transcends the ridiculous and turns back on the reader (this reader in any case): the initial giggle over little David taking on J.K. Goliath Inc. easily turns into hysteric laughter (literarily speaking; don’t worry — I’m not turning mad), because it is so right and yet so impossible.

It is hysterical (literally, but again literarily) to pick a fight with the big corporations, because of course money doesn’t talk, it swears, buys presidencies, twists the law, and protects itself. But Stallman’s pathetic little boycott highlights the difference between lawful and just, between power and right.

Not utopism

And the saint is he who disregards power because he is right. Who can look the forces of the secular machinery squarely in the eye, because he has principles of a higher order to fall back on.

This brings us to the second reason why he is wrong in an acceptable way: he has integrity and commitment — he actually lives by his own principles, and thereby, in his own weird way, demonstrates that it is possible. He doesn’t have a mobile phone; he doesn’t browse the web but downloads the html pages with wget and reads them in his email reader; his only computer is an uncomfortably small Chinese netbook, not because it’s best, but because it can run with a non-proprietary BIOS.

To most of us, his way seems exaggerated and crazy, like a dinosaur from the paleolithic eighties. Some of the open source prophets even hold that his stubborn inflexible attitude is detrimental to the cause. These are the ones who’d like to see open source as a strong contender in the marketplace rather than as a beacon for freedom.

Stallman’s position is the latter, and nobody upholds it more strongly than him.

What about us cowards?

Why aren’t we all like St Stallman, then? Surely, that would make the world a better place to be, if we weren’t such outright cowards? Better not only for those we help, but in the end for ourselves as well, since we win the aggregated help of the rest of humankind (in addition to the warm glow of complacency, should we harbour such emotions in such a wonderful world).

It has to do with many things, but cowardice is not one of them.

It has more to do with the Prisoners’s Dilemma: the simplified description, in the form of a game-theoretical scenario, of situations where acting egoistically will always be the most favourable option, regardless of what the other “players” do, even though it would be more favourable for all if everybody acted un-egoistically.

Pollution, global warming, equal distribution of goods — these are all real-world examples of the prisoners’ dilemma: for me (and you) the sacrifices involved in living an eco-friendly life through and through are high, and the benefits will only come once everyone changes their lifestyle — which is to say: never, since the sacrifices involved … etc.

Now that we’re in the religious sphere, here’s what my wife, who is a church minister, once said on the matter, in a sermon on one of the texts where the crowds in Galilee persecuted Jesus in their boats to hear some Truth:

Here’s a truth: “Every two seconds, a child dies of hunger.” And we can’t hear it, because if we really could hear the full extent of that statement, we would all have rushed out of our churches, gotten into our boats and rowed, not in order to persecute God as we’d like him to be, but to live by the words that God’s will is not done with bibles and good intentions, but with bread and by creating a society where nobody is left in the ditch. But we can’t.

We can’t, because when moral obligation, the quest for redemption, or just an overwhelming empathy enters the prisoners’ dilemma, there is a chance that insanity lies just around the corner.

What “we” really need

So, not wanting to give up the benefits of a better proprietary program in favour of a less functional free one is not cowardice. It’s the other way around: hacking away on a sub-par computer in impractical ways because one’s principles dictates it, is to show courage — but a courage verging on stupidity because it’s a lost battle. It’s the stuff epic legends are made of, but in the real world David very rarely beats Goliath.

And yet, “we”– the rest of us who aren’t saints — probably need them, not for their actions but for the stories. We need those epic legends: the Joan of Arc, the bunch who went out Saving Private Ryan, the loners and lunatics who go to battle against all odds and hopes.

What “we” need is someone who is willing (or compelled; for us it doesn’t matter which) to fight that fight, even though we know that it can’t be won. We know that — they hopefully know it too, although it’s hard to tell, because part of the fight is to believe in victory.

We need someone to remind us that even though it is not human-kindly possible for all of us to do what’s best, it is possible, at least for one of those human beings who make up society, to act in such a way. One is enough to make a difference if that one is everyone.

Or to put in differently: we need the actions that define and move the outer limits of the discourse: that define what it is possible to do or think. That’s what Jesus, Joan of Arc and RMS have in common.

The fallen saint

At the end of the article, Stallman is quoted with a modified version of his statement:

“If we fight,” he says, “at least there’s a chance we might win.”

Perhaps he isn’t a saint after all, just a windmill-fighting madman. But that’s fine, I can live with it. Quijote is a myth-making character too.

12 thoughts on “St Stallman: A Hero of the Highest Order

  1. How to figure 1 Trillion? I am just estimating the amount of business done around Free Software. Lots of systems sold, lots of jobs in the economy, etc.

    If you want a valuation of the code itself, use Wheeler’s method. He wrote an Open Source tool for costing code called sloccount. See
    This paper hasn’t been updated since 2007, but it gives you the method if you want to calculate today’s number.

  2. Hey, I didn’t expect a celebrity in here — had I known, I would at least have cleaned up the place and had some coffee ready.
    Just so that it is clear: the parenthetical comment was tounge-in-cheek, but I don’t doubt the estimate.
    Thanks for the link — I promise to read it. :)

  3. No, the main problem with RMS is not eating stuff off his feet, it’s the fact that he has created a morality based around the idea of free software which he then fully expects everyone else to adopt.

    He talks about free software as though everything else is a violation of basis human rights, as though anyone who rights software and then says yes, people can use this, but they can’t see how it was written is somehow inherently evil.

    That is like saying that if you buy a car, the company selling the car to you must also include detailed plans for the cars construction.

    It is one thing to hold these belefs, quite another to try and impoe them on everyone else.

  4. Eyolf,
    I dont understand slash chords. Could you write something about them, please, or give a link to somewhere that I can see them all? Although you name when you when you dissect the songs, you do not always depict them and I am often puzzled.

    Best wishes and thanks a lot for an excellent site.

  5. The free software movement impose nothing to no one, it only gives freedom to the ones who want to. I’m very grateful of this.

    Thank for this text. I’m wondering if I’ll try to translate it in French. Would you mind?

  6. Of course not. In principle, I have a Creative Commons licence on the site, but now I can’t find the logo — it must have disappeared in some redesign. But go ahead and trranslate.

  7. Thanks for an interesting read! It left me wondering what it really means to win the war that Stallman’s waging, since neither you nor the linked interview define what a victory looks like.

    I don’t know what Stallman himself would consider a victory, but based on his writings I suspect that it might be irrelevance of proprietary software instead of its eradication. Maybe his definition of victory is a world in which people can choose to use free software for all their computing needs and never be inconvenienced by their choice. That doesn’t sound completely impossible.

    Free software is not quite there yet for everyone, but the fact that Stallman himself can go about his life (albeit with difficulty) without using any proprietary software at all — not even a proprietary BIOS — is a testament to how far towards winning the free software movement has already moved.

    When talking about winning, it is also easy to fall prey to the fallacy of grey. [1] You may be right in saying that Stallman will never win, because an absolute victory — the perfect white in the analogy — is impossible. But he may also be right in saying that he can win by reaching a shade of gray so light that it could pass for white.


  8. valuation for the “free”

    Try Metcalfe”s Law. The value of the system is a proportional to the square of the number of connected users (n2). (should have suppertext for the two)

    The trillion $ valuation is the easy part. finding the buyer with the ready cash is harder.

  9. iGor milhit: “The free software movement impose nothing to no one”

    Not sure if it can be put that way. For example, GPL (which came from the free software movement and Stallman himself) can impose quite a lot of stuff.

    Not that I agree or disagree with the license, but the (moral?) statement “there are no impositions” is not true.

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