Stallman on campus

Leif Johnson — 25 Apr 2009, 21:04

I got the chance to see Richard Stallman speak on campus yesterday ! I've never seen him speak in person, so I was quite pleased that J Moore and the university gave us the opportunity. Stallman spoke for about two hours in front of a crowd of probably a couple hundred citizens from the university and the greater Austin community. Even though he had no supporting materials, I found his talk to be well-delivered, focused, and informative—and perhaps somewhat less inflammatory than I'd been imagining.


One of the highlights of the talk was J's introduction : Once everyone had quieted down, J said that it was an honor, and also quite easy, to introduce someone who needed no introduction—and, at that, J sat down ! It was a perfect introduction for the speaker (who noted that it was the shortest nonzero length introduction he'd ever had) and for the audience.

I was really impressed with Stallman's delivery during the talk. Once I got over his Boston accent, I realized that he was standing in front of a fairly large group of people, primarily computer types, who are not unknown to be argumentative and opinionated. Nonetheless, Stallman spoke uninterrupted—except for a couple brief periods of applause—for about an hour and a half, delivering a clearly well planned speech. He went through a basic introduction to the mission of the Free Software Foundation and then described his perspective on how copyright emerged historically. His historical discussion was primarily focused on political situations and how technology has changed the context in which copyright operates. He focused for some time on the evils of the current copyright system in the US, and then he made several proposals for reforming copyright law. Throughout the talk he remained focused on the moral and ethical aspects of copyright, and he mentioned several instances of what he sees as attacks on the freedoms of individuals, primarily on behalf of governments and large corporations.

At the conclusion of the talk, Stallman suddenly announced that he was going to auction off a plush gnu toy that he had in front of him. A couple of people in the audience got into a bidding war, so Stallman ended up raising $ 260 for the FSF. The audience quite enjoyed the whole spectacle, and gave him a huge ovation at the end.

Creative Commons

After the auction, Stallman had about twenty minutes for questions. Because there were so many people in the audience, I didn't get to ask mine : Do you see the Creative Commons as an ally or a distraction in the mission of the Free Software Foundation, and in your pursuit of freedom in the realm of copyright in general ?

I figured I would be able to find some information on the internets, so I wasn't too worried about the live answer (although it would have been nice). Unfortunately, the internets deliver once again, and so I came across a 2006 slashdot article indicating that Stallman did not endorse CC licensing as a whole at the time, but also across a letter from the FSF about their 2008 option to convert to CC-BY-SA licenses. From what I can tell, Stallman and Lessig are playing the same arguments, so it makes sense to this observer that they would have found some sort of common ground eventually.


I was really impressed by the whole event. Here I was, sitting in a room with a couple hundred other computer types, listening attentively to a man who has been working for more than 25 years to make software free for everybody, and to make sure that these freedoms are not easily taken away from people in the future. In the 1980s, when Stallman was getting started, it seems like he would have had a hard time filling up even the space around the water cooler—he was probably just some crazy guy going off about tyranny and injustice. But now, after realizing an immense impact in the software community, here he is, still working on freedom and ethics in software.

I don't know if everyone else felt this way, but my reaction was a sudden sensation that Stallman is one of my personal heros. Whether or not he's right about everything (and he is working in an area where being right is nearly impossible anyway), his efforts to bring ethics and social issues to the community of computer hackers are amazing and valuable. I think a lot of people get into software because they find that it helps them express their thoughts, or because they like how it feels to solve technical problems, etc. Some people probably like computer stuff just because it feels so amoral to them—while they're programming they don't feel like they have to make difficult decisions about redistributing income, or about fixing schools, or whatever. Stallman's success, then, has been in convincing this community that ethics are, in fact, very important to consider. Free Software, although it will always have more to achieve, has been a huge success because of this person's determination and sense of morals.

I don't think Stallman made any new converts with his talk, but the general feeling I got from the audience was a sense of awe in seeing this legend in person. At the very least, he got people talking : As I walked back to my office, I heard people all over the place debating copyright issues of one sort or another.