[EDIT: This review used to feature links to Amazon, in the hope that I would earn a little money from their affiliate programme, so that I could spend more time on this blog, and developing Free Software. However, you can read here that because Amazon’s web site doesn’t run on Free Software, I’m not going to use their affiliate programme any more. If and when I find a similar site that runs on Free Software, I’ll link to that. Please feel free to comment with some suggestions. Until then, you can still get to the on-line versions from this review.]
It covers the events from when Stallman’s mother realised her son was a child prodigy, through his cherished time in the MIT AI department, his creation of the GPL and Free Software Foundation, his sidelining due to the media’s focus on the Linux kernel and the competing Open Source movement, to the resurgence of his influence in recent years.Williams gets to the detail of his subject through interviews with Stallman himself, his mother, his associates, leading voices in the Free Software and Open Source movements (including Eric S Raymond), and some of his critics. Williams’s personal observations also serve to unveil the Stallman persona.
The story of his early years is one of extraordinary intelligence, tinged with family difficulties and crushing loneliness. This lays the foundation to understand why he is so single-minded and often disagreeable. Williams succeeds in giving us real insight into that time of his life.
The book explores Stallman’s time at MIT, and the events that led to his founding of the Free Software movement. It also reveals why he thinks of that time and place as a lost home.It describes how he used his prodigious intellect to apply the principles of programming to copyright law and created the GPL, something Stallman describes as "intellectual jujitsu".
The subtitle for "Free as in Freedom", "Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software", is an apt description of RMS’s approach to Free Software.
The book is pleasantly detailed, and quite revealing. Williams writes a compelling tale of an extraordinary man.
The author has stated that Stallman feels that some chapters are overly prejudicial. I think that is fair criticism. In my view, he places too much emphasis on Stallman’s combative nature. I find myself siding with him throughout the book. However, as Williams says in the preface, "I can confidently state that there are facts and quotes in here that one won’t find in any Slashdot story or Google search".
I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the detail and the revalations. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Stallman’s mother; a story of her pride in a child prodigy, tempered by the difficulties that came with it, including his complete inability to socialise. It’s also a book that I continue to read.
RMS is disagreeable, a fact this biography makes no attempt to hide, but he has the virtue of being right.
At Stallman’s insistence, this book is available under a Free license. Namely the GFDL. Hence, you can find electronic versions available, for free, on-line. Not least at the publisher’s web site itself (www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/). The author maintains an updated, no-frills version at faifzilla.org. Having said that, I own a copy of this book. It is a good quality hardback. For a book that is freely available on-line, O’Reilly have used top quality materials, including the paper.
As an aside, this book contains one of the best histories of the terms "hacker" and "hacking" that I have seen.
- "Free as in Freedom" page on Wikipedia
- Richard Stallman at Wikipedia
- The "Free Software portal" at Wikipedia
- Richard Stallman’s blog