Book Review: Free as in Freedom

Posted on Wed 23 February 2011 by alex in geek

I've just finished reading Free as in Freedom a biography of Richard Stallman the founder of the free software movement. The title takes it's name from the oft repeated statement used to highlight that software freedom is not about the price rather what you can do with it.

The book itself is relatively short and is easy to read. It combines historical sections describing Stallman's intellectual journey with alternating chapters describing experiences Sam Williams had while interviewing this famously prickly character. As a long time follower of the FLOSS movement I was fairly familiar with the well documented early stories of the MIT AI Lab and it's demise following the rush to commercialise LISP machines. However Williams adds a lot more emotional colour to the story that left me feeling I had a greater understanding of Stallman's personality. I found it hard not to sympathise with the situation Stallman found himself in and the logic of his actions that ultimately led to the GNU Manifesto.

Stallman is often portrayed as a character who divides the disparate FLOSS community. People criticise him for his stubborn intransigence while missing the fact he holds his positions as a result of the logical extrapolation on sincerely held principles. It would be hard to argue that Linux would have taken off as a poster-child for Open Source had the ground work not been laid by Stallman's GNU project. In this light the call to refer to it as GNU/Linux and the importance of understanding the philosophical underpinnings of the movement seems fairly reasonable. After reading Free as in Freedom I do feel as though I have a better understanding of why things turned out like they did. It left me feeling how lucky we are that Stallman was born into this time and wondering how different things would have been otherwise.