Richard M. Stallman and the Failure of the Free Software Foundation

(Note: since the writing of the following, the Free Software Foundation has tweeted: “The FSF board unanimously condemns misogyny, racism, and other bigotry as well as defamation, intimidation, and unfair attacks on free thought and speech.” They are rejecting the criticism of Stallman as unfair and, in so doing, they aligned themselves with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They have put themselves beyond redemption and any fair hearing for their ideas. No-one wants to listen to the logic-chopping of rape apologists – it is as bad as listening to Southern racists excusing slavery.)


This is outside of my usual ambit, and it is about cooperative software development rather than market economics, but it seems to belong here more than anywhere.

People who follow free and open source software by now know that alleged harasser and rape apologist Richard M. Stallman has, by a secret process, been restored to the board of directors of the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman has long been a problem for the movement he founded. Sumana Harihareswara invokes the missing stair-step metaphor – people who live in a house know to avoid the missing step, but it can break the leg of an unwary guest.

Stallman and the Free Software Movement

Stallman’s major contributions to the movement were largely made in the 1980s, when he published the GNU manifesto, created the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Public License, an implementation of his ideal of entirely open software. He contributed Emacs, which he developed, to the FSF, and organized the development of the GNU C compiler and related tools. Since that time the FSF completed few major software projects on its own, relying instead on donated software and the major work of independent projects, most notably Linux, which covered for the failure of the GNU HURD kernel project. Stallman, despite being a brutal critic of all forms of intellectual property, bestirred himself to claim that the GNU project made the success of Linux possible, and demanded credit for the use of the FSF’s intellectual property, insisting on calling Linux LiGNUx.

By the aughts, Stallman had turned into a parody of his young hippie self. His irreverence had hardened into pointless rebelliousness and his playful, or at least tolerable, flirtatiousness had turned into habitual harassment of women. He became an evil presence in the part of MIT where he was given an office. Reportedly, Stallman, personally, was a large part of the sexism that drove women out of the MIT computer science program. Women avoided the corridor where his office was located. Stallman hated plants, so student women took to making sure there were plants in their offices.

Then the Epstein scandal hit, and several MIT computer scientists were involved. One of them was Stallman’s mentor, AI researcher Marvin Minsky, who is alleged to have raped Virginia Giuffre, a 17-year-old woman procured for him by Epstein. Stallman defended Minsky. It was this that finally brought him down, not any of his previous depredations. He resigned his position with the Free Software Foundation on September 16, 2019.

In retrospect it seems likely that Stallman’s supporters on the FSF board were planning all along to rehabilitate him and, on March 21, 2021, they did so. They failed, however, to reckon with the consequences. A number of organization and individuals immediately took positions opposing the action, demanding the resignation of the FSF board, withdrawing their support of the FSF, and refusing to contribute further work to the GNU software packages. I do not know how effective this boycott will be; Stallman still has his defenders and sympathizers, and some people may still be willing to maintain those projects. It seems likely, however, that many GNU projects will languish for lack of maintenance and development. Personally, I cannot imagine donating any code to the FSF unless it is entirely reformed.

Which leaves “free software” – where?

Why Free Software?

Free software, in Stallman’s sense, requires that (1) code be published and (2) any updates to the code that are distributed publicly to be published and, preferably, pushed back to the original project. The theory behind this is one of public ownership of the code which controls the computers we own. Software developers were to work for the common good. Stallman did not offer any explanation for how developers were to earn a living in that situation, though he did speak vaguely of what we would now call a universal basic income.

How did this idea gather any adherents?

Anyone who worked in the proprietary software industry of the 1980s (GNU-speak: non-free) knew how frustrating the restrictions on the work were. Not only did one end up constantly re-inventing the wheel, often the square wheel, one’s work could, and often did, vanish in a second at the whim of a managerial ego. Arbitrary schedules and marketing goals made the work unpleasant and produced poorly-crafted software; one broke one’s heart to do a bad job.

Stallman knew a better way. In research institutions, cooperative development processes produced most of the major advances in software technology: the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab where Stallman was educated, the Stanford AI lab (SAIL), Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, Bell Labs, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Berkeley’s Computer Science department, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and so on.

So Stallman knew that cooperative processes could produce good software and, with the creation of a public space for shared software development, openly distributed, many people participated. In response to Stallman’s free software, Eric Raymond invented a version more friendly to profit-making businesses, “open source” software (but still did not address the issue of compensation for developers.) Stallman took to harshly attacking Raymond.

Wither Free Software?

It is a problem that neither theoretician of open cooperative software models put cooperation at the center of their theories. Stallman’s theory argues for freedom to coopt everything while Raymond argues that somehow market-like optimization reliably produces high-quality results. 40 years on, both views seem wrong-headed. So far no alternate theory has emerged to replace either view; perhaps I will speculate about that in a future post. But for now, I return to Stallman and the FSF.

The Free Software Foundation implements Stallman’s vision with two tools: the GNU Public License and the ownership of major software projects donated to the FSF – “assigned” in legal language. People donated software projects to the FSF in the belief that the FSF would defend of the software’s free status, provide a repository for the project’s code, and provide for development and maintenance of the project when the original developers have left the project. With Stallman’s return, all three are cast into question. The FSF is losing major funding sources. It is possible, even, that legal action will be undertaken against the FSF; major commercial software firms hate the very idea of free software, so there might be support for a legal challenge.

As a theoretician, Stallman guided the writing and promulgation of the GNU Public License on the basis of his ethical theories and his understanding of software development, but now his ethics are in question. He presents a problem to free software supporters similar to the one Thomas Jefferson presents to modern supporters of democracy; his words were fine and persuasive, but he owned slaves and raped one of them. He was a hypocrite – to what extent do we trust his reasoning?

It is interesting that these two cases separated by 200 years hinge on women, sexuality, and power.

There are few pro-democracy advocates who would reject the First Amendment freedoms of the US Constitution – freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of peaceable assembly, and petition for redress. Similarly, free software believers are unlikely to reject Stallman’s arguments, though perhaps they should. Jefferson as President stuck with his stated ideals. Stallman as an FSF board member does not even do that – is his idea of software freedom a genuine ethical position, or just an excuse for boundary violations? Smart abusers often construct very fine rational justifications for their abuses.

The FSF has acted unethically in reinstating Stallman. How are free software supporters to support the FSF, given that its board has shown themselves to be fundamentally contemptuous of the basic rights of half the human race?

On a practical level, many people will no longer donate their work to the FSF. This includes maintenance on existing GNU packages. It seems likely those packages will fall into disrepair. This is a shame. There are person-centuries, if not person-millennia, of work in them. There are alternatives to most of the GNU packages; getting away from them or developing alternatives will take some effort, but it is possible. Ironically, the loss of usable code to unreasonable intellectual property claims is exactly one of the things the FSF is supposed to prevent, but that is the position into which the FSF has put many free software developers. The single GNU package which has no easy substitutes I am aware of is the R statistical computing language. I do hope the R development team finds a way to retrieve their project from the FSF.

I refuse to spend my free time supporting a single bigot and an entire globe's worth of toxic enthusiasts who actively support his behavior while letting people like him create horrible ecosystems for other developers. […] I will never, ever contribute another line of code, another proposal implementation, another optimization, or another new/better library implementation to GCC and all of its affiliated projects […] until this problem is not “addressed,” but fixed. If you never fix it, I will never return. – JeanHeyd Meneide, 2021-03-28,


A few of the responses from Stallman’s critics


  1. I did not know about this blog. I better sign up. Learned something new today. Thanks


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