Richard Stallman's outspoken views and intellectual achievements draw plenty of followers, but he has spent most of his life feeling lonely--like there was no place he really belonged.
That feeling haunted him through childhood and remains with him today. Even when he landed in a high school for kids with behavioral problems, Stallman didn't belong. Many students there had learning disabilities--he was headed for Harvard.
"I'm always happy when I'm protesting," says Stallman, who lives life against the grain.
Photo by Douglas Engle/AP
But 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 encompass copyrights, patents, what he refers to as "digital-restrictions management," and using radio-frequency identification technology to track people. This year, he's spearheading efforts to revise the General Public License, 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," says Chris Hanson, an MIT artificial-intelligence researcher, who works next to office space that Stallman uses. Stallman is "driven by a need for a world with some real kindness in it," Hanson says.
Stallman says he's unable to conform to social norms. 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.
Fresh from a recent visit with his mother, Stallman, 52, says that as a child he felt controlled by the adults around him. His father was cutting and quarreled about "substantive issues" with a mother who seemed like a bit of a "tyrant" and often "frantic," Stallman says.
"Children often rebel for the sake of rebelling. 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."
Until he was about 13, Stallman found that he could connect with other children by wiring electrical circuits and doing science-related experiments. Once the other children lost interest in that, he was uncomfortable around his classmates and quarreled with his peers.
That landed him a seat in a school for children with behavioral problems. "I found it tremendously humiliating to be there because most of the kids there were brain dead or psychotic," Stallman says.
When he returned to a regular public school for his senior year in high school, Stallman had a defining moment. His teacher divided the class into two teams to compete for the most correct answers. He not only disliked competing but was stunned at how easily everyone accepted the idea as natural. Stallman's classmates were disappointed when he, a student preparing to graduate fourth in a class of nearly 800, refused to answer the questions. "For me, that was a mental exercise in resisting manipulation," he says. Until he later found comfort in academic environments, at Harvard and MIT, Stallman withdrew, immersing himself in math, science, and reading.
Stallman doesn't have a favorite book or piece of music because he can't compare literature, music, or life's joys in a linear way, he says. He prefers science fiction over other genres, but his music preferences are more traditional. He used to dance to upbeat Balkan folk music and enjoys classical. He shuns American pop, with few exceptions.
Stallman's crusade for free software--"Free as in free speech, not free beer," he says--extends into the world of music. During a recent lecture at Cooper Union, a private college in New York, he said the laws favor the big music companies, not the artists or fans.