Stallman launched the GNU Project in September 1983 to create a Unix-like computer operating system composed entirely of free software. With this, he also launched the free software movement. He has been the GNU project's lead architect and organizer, and developed a number of pieces of widely used GNU software including, among others, the GNU Compiler Collection, the GNU Debugger and the GNU Emacs text editor. In October 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation.
Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft, which uses the principles of copyright law to preserve the right to use, modify and distribute free software, and is the main author of free software licenses which describe those terms, most notably the GNU General Public License (GPL), the most widely used free software license.
In 1989 he co-founded the League for Programming Freedom. Since the mid-1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time advocating for free software, as well as campaigning against software patents, digital restrictions management, and other legal and technical systems which he sees as taking away users' freedoms. This has included software license agreements, non-disclosure agreements, activation keys, dongles, copy restriction, proprietary formats and binary executables without source code.
As of 2016, he has received fifteen honorary doctorates and professorships (see Honors and awards).
Stallman was born to Alice Lippman, a school teacher, and Daniel Stallman, a printing press broker, in 1953 in New York City. Stallman had a difficult relationship with his parents, as his father had a drinking habit and verbally abused his stepmother. He later came to describe his parents as "tyrants". He was interested in computers at a young age; when Stallman was a pre-teen at a summer camp, he read manuals for the IBM 7094. From 1967 to 1969, Stallman attended a Columbia University Saturday program for high school students. Stallman was also a volunteer laboratory assistant in the biology department at Rockefeller University. Although he was interested in mathematics and physics, his teaching professor at Rockefeller thought he showed promise as a biologist.
His first experience with actual computers was at the IBM New York Scientific Center when he was in high school. He was hired for the summer in 1970, following his senior year of high school, to write a numerical analysis program in Fortran. He completed the task after a couple of weeks ("I swore that I would never use FORTRAN again because I despised it as a language compared with other languages") and spent the rest of the summer writing a text editor in APL and a preprocessor for the PL/I programming language on the IBM System/360.
As a first-year student at Harvard University in fall 1970, Stallman was known for his strong performance in Math 55. He was happy: "For the first time in my life, I felt I had found a home at Harvard."
In 1971, near the end of his first year at Harvard, he became a programmer at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and became a regular in the hacker community, where he was usually known by his initials, RMS (which was the name of his computer accounts). Stallman received a bachelor's degree in physics (magna cum laude) from Harvard in 1974.
Stallman considered staying on at Harvard, but instead he decided to enroll as a graduate student at MIT. He pursued a doctorate in physics for one year, but left that program to focus on his programming at the MIT AI Laboratory.
While working (starting in 1975) as a research assistant at MIT under Gerry Sussman, Stallman published a paper (with Sussman) in 1977 on an AI truth maintenance system, called dependency-directed backtracking. This paper was an early work on the problem of intelligent backtracking in constraint satisfaction problems. As of 2009, the technique Stallman and Sussman introduced is still the most general and powerful form of intelligent backtracking. The technique of constraint recording, wherein partial results of a search are recorded for later reuse, was also introduced in this paper.
As a hacker in MIT's AI laboratory, Stallman worked on software projects such as TECO, Emacs for ITS, and the Lisp machine operating system (the CONS of 1974–1976 and the CADR of 1977–1979—this latter unit was commercialized by Symbolics and LMI starting around 1980). He would become an ardent critic of restricted computer access in the lab, which at that time was funded primarily by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. When MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) installed a password control system in 1977, Stallman found a way to decrypt the passwords and sent users messages containing their decoded password, with a suggestion to change it to the empty string (that is, no password) instead, to re-enable anonymous access to the systems. Around 20% of the users followed his advice at the time, although passwords ultimately prevailed. Stallman boasted of the success of his campaign for many years afterward.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hacker culture that Stallman thrived on began to fragment. To prevent software from being used on their competitors' computers, most manufacturers stopped distributing source code and began using copyright and restrictive software licenses to limit or prohibit copying and redistribution. Such proprietary software had existed before, and it became apparent that it would become the norm. This shift in the legal characteristics of software can be regarded as a consequence triggered by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, as stated by Stallman's MIT colleague Brewster Kahle.
When Brian Reid in 1979 placed time bombs in the Scribe markup language and word processing system to restrict unlicensed access to the software, Stallman proclaimed it "a crime against humanity." During an interview in 2008, he clarified that it is blocking the user's freedom that he believes is a crime, not the issue of charging for software. Stallman's texinfo is a GPL replacement, loosely based on Scribe; the original version was finished in 1986.
In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers at the AI Lab were refused access to the source code for the software of a newly installed laser printer, the Xerox 9700. Stallman had modified the software for the Lab's previous laser printer (the XGP, Xerographic Printer), so it electronically messaged a user when the person's job was printed, and would message all logged-in users waiting for print jobs if the printer was jammed. Not being able to add these features to the new printer was a major inconvenience, as the printer was on a different floor from most of the users. This experience convinced Stallman of people's need to be able to freely modify the software they use.
Richard Greenblatt, a fellow AI Lab hacker, founded Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI) to market Lisp machines, which he and Tom Knight designed at the lab. Greenblatt rejected outside investment, believing that the proceeds from the construction and sale of a few machines could be profitably reinvested in the growth of the company. In contrast, the other hackers felt that the venture capital-funded approach was better. As no agreement could be reached, hackers from the latter camp founded Symbolics, with the aid of Russ Noftsker, an AI Lab administrator. Symbolics recruited most of the remaining hackers including notable hacker Bill Gosper, who then left the AI Lab. Symbolics also forced Greenblatt to resign by citing MIT policies. While both companies delivered proprietary software, Stallman believed that LMI, unlike Symbolics, had tried to avoid hurting the lab's community. For two years, from 1982 to the end of 1983, Stallman worked by himself to clone the output of the Symbolics programmers, with the aim of preventing them from gaining a monopoly on the lab's computers.
Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to share with their neighbors and be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He maintains that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are antisocial and unethical. The phrase "software wants to be free" is often incorrectly attributed to him, and Stallman argues that this is a misstatement of his philosophy. He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society as a moral value, and not merely for pragmatic reasons such as possibly developing technically superior software. Eric S. Raymond, one of the creators of the open source movement, argues that moral arguments, rather than pragmatic ones, alienate potential allies and hurt the end goal of removing code secrecy.
In February 1984, Stallman quit his job at MIT to work full-time on the GNU project, which he had announced in September 1983. Since then, he has remained affiliated with MIT as an unpaid visiting scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Until "around 1998," he maintained an office at the Institute that doubled as his legal residence.
Stallman announced the plan for the GNU operating system in September 1983 on several ARPANET mailing lists and USENET.
Stallman started the project on his own and describes: "As an operating system developer, I had the right skills for this job. So even though I could not take success for granted, I realized that I was elected to do the job. I chose to make the system compatible with Unix so that it would be portable, and so that Unix users could easily switch to it."
In 1985, Stallman published the GNU Manifesto, which outlined his motivation for creating a free operating system called GNU, which would be compatible with Unix. The name GNU is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not Unix." Soon after, he started a nonprofit corporation called the Free Software Foundation to employ free software programmers and provide a legal infrastructure for the free software movement. Stallman is the nonsalaried president of the FSF, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in Massachusetts. Stallman popularized the concept of copyleft, a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights for free software. It was first implemented in the GNU Emacs General Public License, and in 1989 the first program-independent GNU General Public License (GPL) was released. By then, much of the GNU system had been completed.
Stallman was responsible for contributing many necessary tools, including a text editor (Emacs), compiler (GCC), debugger (GNU Debugger), and a build automator (GNU make). The notable omission was a kernel. In 1990, members of the GNU project began using Carnegie Mellon's Mach microkernel in a project called GNU Hurd, which has yet to achieve the maturity level required for full POSIX compliance.
In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, used the GNU's development tools to produce the free monolithic Linux kernel. The existing programs from the GNU project were readily ported to run on the resultant platform. Most sources use the name Linux to refer to the general-purpose operating system thus formed, while Stallman and the FSF call it GNU/Linux. This has been a longstanding naming controversy in the free software community. Stallman argues that not using GNU in the name of the operating system unfairly disparages the value of the GNU project and harms the sustainability of the free software movement by breaking the link between the software and the free software philosophy of the GNU project.
Stallman's influences on hacker culture include the name POSIX and the Emacs editor. On Unix systems, GNU Emacs's popularity rivaled that of another editor vi, spawning an editor war. Stallman's take on this was to canonize himself as St. IGNUcius of the Church of Emacs and acknowledge that "vi vi vi is the editor of the beast," while "using a free version of vi is not a sin; it is a penance".
In 1992, developers at Lucid Inc. doing their own work on Emacs clashed with Stallman and ultimately forked the software into what would become XEmacs. Technology journalist Andrew Leonard has characterized what he sees as Stallman's uncompromising stubbornness as common among elite computer programmers:
There's something comforting about Stallman's intransigence. Win or lose, Stallman will never give up. He'll be the stubbornest mule on the farm until the day he dies. Call it fixity of purpose, or just plain cussedness, his single-minded commitment and brutal honesty are refreshing in a world of spin-meisters and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.
Stallman has written many essays on software freedom, and has been an outspoken political campaigner for the free software movement since the early 1990s. The speeches he has regularly given are titled The GNU Project and the Free Software Movement, The Dangers of Software Patents, and Copyright and Community in the Age of Computer Networks. In 2006 and 2007, during the eighteen month public consultation for the drafting of version 3 of the GNU General Public License, he added a fourth topic explaining the proposed changes.
Linus Torvalds has criticized Stallman for what he considers "black-and-white thinking."
Stallman's staunch advocacy for free software inspired the creation of the Virtual Richard M. Stallman (vrms), software that analyzes the packages currently installed on a Debian GNU/Linux system, and reports those that are from the non-free tree. Stallman disagrees with parts of Debian's definition of free software.
In 1999, Stallman called for development of a free online encyclopedia through the means of inviting the public to contribute articles. The resulting GNUPedia was eventually retired in favour of the emerging Wikipedia, which had similar aims and was enjoying greater success.
Stallman is a world traveler and has visited at least 65 countries, mostly to speak about free software and the GNU project. According to Stallman, the free software movement has much in common with that of Mahatma Gandhi.
In Venezuela, Stallman has delivered public speeches and promoted the adoption of free software in the state's oil company (PDVSA), in municipal government, and in the nation's military. In meetings with Hugo Chávez and in public speeches, Stallman criticised some policies on television broadcasting, free speech rights, and privacy. Stallman was on the Advisory Council of Latin American television station teleSUR from its launch but resigned in February 2011, criticizing pro-Gaddafi propaganda during the Arab Spring.
In August 2006, at his meetings with the government of the Indian State of Kerala, he persuaded officials to discard proprietary software, such as Microsoft's, at state-run schools. This has resulted in a landmark decision to switch all school computers in 12,500 high schools from Windows to a free software operating system.
After personal meetings, Stallman obtained positive statements about the free software movement from the then-president of India, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, French 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, and the president of Ecuador Rafael Correa.
On November 30, 2012, Stallman gave the opening lecture at the Goiano Free Software Forum in Brazil, talking about successful cases of switching to free software in government, business and at universities.
Stallman has participated in protests about software patents, DRM, and proprietary software.
Protesting against proprietary software in April 2006, Stallman held a "Don't buy from ATI, enemy of your freedom" placard at a speech by an ATI representative in the building where Stallman worked, resulting in the police being called. ATI has since merged with AMD Corporation and has taken steps to make their hardware documentation available for use by the free software community.
In response to Apple's Macintosh look and feel lawsuits against Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard in 1988, Stallman called for a boycott of Apple products on the grounds that a successful look-and-feel lawsuit would "put an end to free software that could substitute for commercial software". The boycott was lifted in 1995, which meant the FSF started to accept patches to GNU software for Apple operating systems.
Stallman has characterized Steve Jobs as having a "malign influence" on computing because of Jobs' leadership in guiding Apple to produce closed platforms. In 1993, while Jobs was at NeXT, Jobs asked Stallman if he could distribute a modified GCC in two parts, one part under GPL and the other part, an Objective-C preprocessor under a proprietary license. Stallman initially thought this would be legal, but since he also thought it would be "very undesirable for free software", he asked a lawyer for advice. The response he got was that judges would consider such schemes to be "subterfuges" and would be very harsh toward them, and a judge would ask whether it was "really" one program, rather than how the parts were labeled. Therefore, Stallman sent a message back to Jobs which said they believed Jobs' plan was not allowed by the GPL, which resulted in NeXT releasing the Objective-C front end under GPL.
Commenting on Jobs' death, he said
As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone."
Stallman's remark stirred up accusations of being in bad taste, while Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, observed that Stallman's statement was not personal, but was simply criticizing walled gardens.
For a period of time, Stallman used a notebook from the One Laptop per Child program. Stallman's computer is a refurbished ThinkPad X60 with Libreboot, a free BIOS replacement, and the GNU/Linux distribution Trisquel. Before the ThinkPad, Stallman used the Lemote Yeeloong netbook (using the same company's Loongson processor) which he chose because, like the X60, it could run with free software at the BIOS level, stating "freedom is my priority. I've campaigned for freedom since 1983, and I am not going to surrender that freedom for the sake of a more convenient computer." Stallman's Lemote was stolen from him in 2012 while in Argentina. Before Trisquel, Stallman has used the gNewSense operating system.
Stallman has regularly given a talk entitled "Copyright vs. Community" where he reviews the state of DRM and names many of the products and corporations which he boycotts. His approach to DRM is best summed up by the FSF Defective by Design campaign. In the talks, he makes proposals for a "reduced copyright" and suggests a 10-year limit on copyright. He suggests that, instead of restrictions on sharing, authors be supported using a tax, with revenues distributed among them based on cubic roots of their popularity to ensure that "fairly successful non-stars" receive a greater share than they do now (compare with private copying levy which is associated with proponents of strong copyright), or a convenient anonymous micropayment system for people to support authors directly. He indicates that no form of non-commercial sharing of copies should be considered a copyright violation. He has advocated civil disobedience in a comment on Ley Sinde.
Stallman has also helped and supported the International Music Score Library Project in getting back on-line, after it had been taken down on October 19, 2007 following a cease and desist letter from Universal Edition.
Stallman mentions the dangers some e-books bring compared to paper books, with the example of the Amazon Kindle e-reader that prevents the copying of e-books and allows Amazon to order automatic deletion of a book. He says that such e-books present a big step backward with respect to paper books by being less easy to use, copy, lend to others or sell, also mentioning that Amazon e-books cannot be bought anonymously. His short story "The Right to Read" provides a picture of a dystopian future if the right to share books is impeded. He objects to many of the terms within typical end-user license agreements that accompany e-books.
Stallman discourages the use of several storage technologies such as DVD or Blu-ray video discs because the content of such media is encrypted. He considers manufacturers' use of encryption on non-secret data (to force the user to view certain promotional material) as a conspiracy.
He recognized the Sony BMG copy protection rootkit scandal to be a criminal act by Sony. Stallman supports a general boycott of Sony for its legal actions against George Hotz.
Stallman has suggested that the United States government may encourage the use of software as a service because this would allow them to access users' data without needing a search warrant.
Stallman professes admiration for whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden; he advocates for Snowden in a prefix at the beginning of each of his emails, which can be found in several mailing lists, after Snowden leaked the PRISM scandal in 2013:
To any NSA and FBI agents reading my email: please consider whether defending the US Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic, requires you to follow Snowden's example.
Stallman places great importance on the words and labels people use to talk about the world, including the relationship between software and freedom. He asks people to say, free software and GNU/Linux, and to avoid the terms intellectual property and piracy (in relation to copyright). One of his criteria for giving an interview to a journalist is that the journalist agree to use his terminology throughout the article. He has been known to turn down speaking requests over some terminology issues.
Stallman argues that the term "intellectual property" is designed to confuse people, and is used to prevent intelligent discussion on the specifics of copyright, patent, trademark, and other laws by lumping together areas of law that are more dissimilar, than similar. He also argues that by referring to these laws as property laws, the term biases the discussion when thinking about how to treat these issues.
These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues. Copyright law was designed to promote authorship and art, and covers the details of a work of authorship or art. Patent law was intended to encourage publication of ideas, at the price of finite monopolies over these ideas – a price that may be worth paying in some fields and not in others. Trademark law was not intended to promote any business activity, but simply to enable buyers to know what they are buying.
An example of cautioning others to avoid other terminology while also offering suggestions for possible alternatives is this sentence of an e-mail by Stallman to a public mailing list:
I think it is ok for authors (please let's not call them creators, they are not gods) to ask for money for copies of their works (please let's not devalue these works by calling them content) in order to gain income (the term compensation falsely implies it is a matter of making up for some kind of damages).
His requests that people use certain terms, and his ongoing efforts to convince people of the importance of terminology, are a source of regular misunderstanding and friction with parts of the free software and open source communities.
After initially accepting the concept, Stallman rejects a common alternative term, open source software, because it does not call to mind what Stallman sees as the value of the software: freedom.
Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.
Thus, he believes that the use of the term will not inform people of the freedom issues, and will not lead to people valuing and defending their freedom. Two alternatives which Stallman does accept are software libre and unfettered software, but free software is the term he asks people to use in English. For similar reasons, he argues for the term "proprietary software" rather than "closed source software", when referring to software that is not free software.
Stallman asks that the term GNU/Linux, which he pronounces "GNU slash Linux", be used to refer to the operating system created by combining the GNU system and the Linux kernel. Stallman refers to this operating system as "a variant of GNU, and the GNU Project is its principal developer." He claims that the connection between the GNU project's philosophy and its software is broken when people refer to the combination as merely, Linux. Starting around 2003, he began also using the term GNU+Linux, which he pronounces "GNU plus Linux", to prevent others from pronouncing the phrase "GNU/Linux" as "GNU Linux", which would erroneously imply that the Linux kernel is maintained by the GNU project.
Stallman has said that he is "an atheist of Jewish ancestry" and often wears a button that reads "Impeach God". He denies being an anarchist despite his wariness of some legislation and the fact that he has "advocated strongly for user privacy and his own view of software freedom".
Stallman refers to mobile phones as "portable surveillance and tracking devices", and says he refuses to own a cell phone until there's one that runs entirely on free software. He also avoids using a key card to enter his office building since key card systems track each location and time that someone enters the building using a card. According to Stallman, with the exception of a few sites, such as his own website or sites related to his work with GNU and the FSF, he usually does not browse the web directly from his personal computer in order to prevent being connected with his browsing history. Instead, he uses GNU Womb's grab-url-from-mail utility, which can run on a separate system, and act as an email-based proxy to web sites - the user sends an e-mail which the script receives, the remote system downloads the web page content, then the script emails the user the web page content. More recently he stated that he accesses all web sites via Tor, except for Wikipedia (which generally disallows editing from Tor).
Stallman has received recognition for his work, including:1986: Honorary lifetime membership of the Chalmers University of Technology Computer Society
1990: Exceptional merit award MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant")
1990: The Association for Computing Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award "For pioneering work in the development of the extensible editor EMACS (Editing Macros)"
1996: Honorary doctorate from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology
1998: Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award
1999: Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award
2001: The Takeda Techno-Entrepreneurship Award for Social/Economic Well-Being (武田研究奨励賞)
2001: Honorary doctorate, from the University of Glasgow
2002: United States National Academy of Engineering membership
2003: Honorary doctorate, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
2004: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad Nacional de Salta
2004: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería del Perú
2007: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega 
2007: First Premio Internacional Extremadura al Conocimiento Libre
2007: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad de Los Angeles de Chimbote
2007: Honorary doctorate, from the University of Pavia
2008: Honorary doctorate from the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo, in Peru
2009: Honorary doctorate, from Lakehead University
2011: Honorary doctorate, from National University of Córdoba
2012: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad César Vallejo de Trujillo, in Peru
2012: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad Latinoamericana Cima de Tacna, in Peru
2012: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad José Faustino Sanchez Carrió, in Peru
2014: Honorary doctorate, from Concordia University, in Montréal
2015: ACM Software System Award "For the development and leadership of GCC"
2016: Honorary doctorate, from Pierre and Marie Curie University
2016: Social Medicine award, from GNU Solidario
Stallman, Richard M (1980). EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable, Self-Documenting Display Editor. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT: MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory publication. AIM-519A.
Stallman, Richard M (2002). GNU Emacs Manual. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1-882114-85-X.
Stallman, Richard M; McGrath, Roland; & Smith, Paul D (2004). GNU Make: A Program for Directed Compilation. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1-882114-83-3. CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
Stallman, Richard M (2010). Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman (PDF) (Second ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 978-0-9831592-0-9.