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1/20/2006
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Freedom Fighter

Eccentric, controversial, and uncompromising, Richard Stallman still makes waves 20 years after founding the Free Software Foundation

RMS, as he calls himself, stood at a microphone explaining the history of copyright laws and attempts to strengthen copyright protections worldwide. He wore socks, no shoes, and scratched when and where he itched. During a question-and-answer period, he responded to disagreeable or unclear questions using an abrupt, flat tone. When a messy-haired young man with glasses, acne, and nasally speech asked a question, Stallman's posture and tone softened.

The point of Stallman's lecture was that artists and fans should exchange music and money directly and voluntarily via the Web. Stallman counts famous classical musicians and composers among his friends, including composer Richard Einhorn, who regularly speaks on National Public Radio and whose works have been performed around the world.

On a cold and rainy December night, Stallman met Einhorn and me at Sapphire, a swank Indian restaurant near Columbus Circle in New York. As Stallman approached the table, dripping wet, he said that a man was following and bothering him. The man turned out to be a restaurant employee trying to remove Stallman's wet coat. After a little indignant questioning about whether there was a reason he wouldn't be allowed to dine in the restaurant, Stallman settled into relaxed conversation.

Einhorn, who praises Stallman as one of the most intelligent people he knows and clearly enjoys his company, listened as Stallman talked about his trip to Tunisia in November for the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society; his plans for revising the General Public License (GPL version 3); and a couple of things that have been puzzling him for some time, including his inability to locate a version of Jefferson Airplane's "Today" played in an orchestral style by another band on a New York radio station in 1970 or 1971.

Stallman also wanted to know whether Einhorn could recall a piece with a title similar to "Electric Indian." He recalled lyrics that went: "I can't walk down the sidewalk because I'll fall through the crack. It's me, no doubt. Fade in. Fade out, every time I think I know what it's all about." Giving the impression of someone who has difficulty letting go of unanswered questions, Stallman said he can't find any evidence the songs ever existed, though he has looked everywhere. Einhorn promised to ask his friends at NPR.

Many Surprises
At a holiday party, Stallman was drawn immediately to a drum set linked to a computer, a rack full of sound-engineering tools, and speakers. He told the host and equipment owner, whom he just met, that he'd like to play it sometime. Other musicians at the party were astounded to learn that the man using his hands to lift and eat lettuce from a large party salad bowl wrote GNU and founded the free software movement. "He could have been a billionaire," one said.

Instead, Stallman lives frugally, without a real home, spending most of his time traveling and lecturing.

One man, upon learning about a run-in Stallman had with security at the summit in Tunisia (Stallman had wrapped his RFID-chipped identity tag in aluminum foil so the signal couldn't be picked up and encouraged others to follow suit), asked him about tracking technology. Stallman, taking breaks from munching on shrimp as he sat beside a serving plate at the buffet table, talked about fighting it, protesting, and refusing to wear badges with RFID.

Cell phones also can be used for tracking people, Stallman says, and he won't use one until someone makes one that works entirely on free software.

Though Stallman takes a tough tone when he criticizes what's being done with technology, he and his friends and supporters were cheerful and smiling as they stood in the cold during a recent protest outside a record store on Union Square for several hours, displaying signs that read: "Sharing is Friendship."

Though clearly tired from several days of speaking and working at the Software Freedom Law Center, he said, "I'm always happy when I'm protesting."

Bruce Perens, VP of SourceLabs Inc., says he admires Stallman but sometimes finds himself on the opposite side of issues--something he says is almost impossible to avoid. He recalls a lecture in which he credited Stallman with being the giant upon whose shoulders the open-source movement is founded. Stallman, who insists on a distinction between free and open software, covered his shoulders protectively.

Says Perens, "He's entirely consistent and uncompromising, and I think the world needs someone like that."

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