Danny Yee on Fri, 22 Mar 2002 19:42:23 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> REVIEW - Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

 Free as in Freedom
 - Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software
 Sam Williams 
 O'Reilly & Associates 2002
 225 pages, index
 A book review by Danny Yee

_Free as in Freedom_ is a generally sympathetic but far from hagiographic
biography of Richard Stallman, inspiration of the free software movement.
While much of the material in it will be familiar to anyone actively
involved with free software, there are, as Williams claims, "facts and
quotes in here that one won't find in any Slashdot story or Google
search".  It is also an entertaining and accessible study, which I
finished within a day of my review copy arriving.

Williams begins with the famous jamming printer and Stallman's
encounter with a non-disclosure agreement that prevented him writing
reporting software for it.  He then jumps forwards to a speech given
by Stallman in 2001, responding to attacks by Microsoft on the GNU GPL.
Having used these episodes to introduce Stallman and explain the basic
idea of free software, the rest of the work continues in a similar vein,
mixing historical chapters with ones describing Williams' own meetings
with Stallman.

Chapter three describes Stallman's childhood as a prodigy; chapter four
his experiences at Harvard and MIT; chapter six the MIT AI Lab and the
Emacs "commune"; chapter seven the death of the MIT hacker community
and the first announcement of the GNU Project; chapter nine the GNU
GPL; chapter ten the appearance of Linux and debates over GNU/Linux;
and chapter eleven the coining of the term "open source" and the
arguments over that.  These contain quotes by everyone from Stallman's
mother to the leading lights of free software, as well as plenty by
Stallman himself.  The narrative never strays too far from its subject,
but becomes inextricably interwoven with the broader history and politics
of free software and sometimes digresses to cover key figures and events
with which Stallman wasn't directly involved.

Williams' first-hand accounts help give Stallman a human face: chapter
five recounts a meeting in 1999 LinuxWorld, chapter eight a meeting
in Hawaii, and chapter twelve a frustrating car trip with Stallman at
the wheel.  These give a feel for Stallman's personality and presence,
his forthrightness and emotional intensity, his steadfastness and his
abrasiveness, and his ability to unsettle.  Chapter thirteen attempts to
predict Stallman's status "in 100 years", quoting opinions from from Eben
Moglen, John Gilmore, Eric Raymond, and Lawrence Lessig; it also suggests
that Stallman's personality may be inseparable from his achievements.

Although I was already involved with free software advocacy, my first
encounter with Richard Stallman came when he turned up to a rehearsal of
my gamelan group; afterwards I tried without much success to explain to
my fellow musicians just how important the strange bearded man they'd
just met was.  I don't think _Free as in Freedom_ would help much with
that: it jumps around too much and assumes too much general knowledge of
the computer industry to be a good introduction for complete outsiders.
Those already interested in the history and politics of free software
and hacker culture, however, should relish it.

In an epilogue Williams talks about the writing of _Free as in Freedom_
and the choice of copyright licence.  Despite the big fuss made about it
being released under the GNU Free Documentation Licence, however, only a
sample chapter is available online now and the rest will not, apparently,
be put online until June.  (This is not a violation of the OFDL, because
Williams as copyright holder can allow O'Reilly to distribute the book
in any way they like.)  So if you don't want to buy a printed copy,
you can either wait three months or hope someone OCRs the book sooner.


%T	Free as in Freedom
%S	Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software
%A	Williams, Sam
%I	O'Reilly & Associates
%C	Sebastapol, California
%D	2002
%O	hardcover, index
%G	ISBN 0-596-00287-4
%P	xii,225pp
%U	http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/freedom/
%K	biography, computing

19 March 2002

        Copyright (c) 2002 Danny Yee       http://danny.oz.au/
        Danny Yee's Book Reviews      http://dannyreviews.com/

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net