Rather than earning a living as an accomplished software programmer, he spends much of his time crusading against what he claims are unjust restrictions. Those include: copyrights, patents, digital rights management and uses of RFID that can allow people to be tracked. This year, he is spearheading efforts to revise the GPL, the most popular free software license.
To some, Stallman's strict adherence to his own belief system inspires. Others find him annoying.
"He's a very major figure, and he's also a very controversial one of course," said MIT artificial intelligence researcher Chris Hanson.
Hanson, who works next to office space Stallman uses, said he believes Stallman is "driven by a need for a world with some real kindness in it."
Though Stallman's outspoken views, unusual behaviors and intellectual achievements draw plenty of followers, he has spent most of his life feeling lonely – like there was no place he really belonged.
For most of his life he has been unable to unravel and conform to social norms, he said. Often, he just doesn't want to. That feeling of being an outsider, different, and disconnected began in one of the most diverse cities in America, New York City.
Fresh from an early December visit with his mother, Stallman said that as a child he felt controlled by the adults around him. Stallman said his father was cutting and he quarreled about "substantive issues" with a mother who seemed like a bit of a "tyrant" and often "frantic."
"Children often rebel for the sake of rebelling," he said during one of several interviews in Manhattan. "I never did that. I had lots of disputes with my mother because she was trying to make me do things I couldn't stand."
His parents divorced. He thought often about a desire to go home, as if the space he lived in lacked the comfort and refuge he sought. His discomfort didn't stop at the door to his mother's Upper West Side apartment.
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