Happy Hacking

A long time ago, in a reality far, far away, a certain legendary hippie freedom fighter lobbed a cunning little think bomb at the publishing industry of his day. The bomb was a book, a bestselling how-to manual for the author's fellow revolutionaries, loaded with practical tips on copping dope, constructing Molotov cocktails, incapacitating riot police, defrauding record-of-the-month clubs, and otherwise hastening the downfall of the Pig Empire. Incendiary stuff for sure, and no doubt the 30-plus publishing houses that rejected the manuscript (before the author finally published it himself) did so well-advised by their own freaked-out legal departments. But probably nothing advocated in the pages of the book rattled publishers as much as the advice framed, famously, in its title. In an era when the book business could still barely admit it was a business—let alone contemplate the overthrow of its 300-year-old business model—Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book dared it to do both.

Three decades later, Sam Williams's Free as in Freedom—a long-overdue (if somewhat undercooked) profile of legendary hacker-freedom fighter Richard Stallman, creator of the nonproprietary GNU operating system and founder of the burgeoning free-software movement—poses roughly the same challenge, and in much the same way. The differences, however, are both striking and illuminating.

In place of Hoffman's tongue-in-cheeky title, for instance, this book offers a rather more substantial invention of Stallman's: the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1, seven pages of dead serious legalese appended to the text and granting general permission to more or less steal the bejesus out of it—i.e., to "copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or noncommercially, provided that this License, the copyright notices, and the license notice saying this License applies to the Document are reproduced in all copies." And while 30 years ago such terms would have been an even harder sell than Hoffman's manuscript was, Williams seems to have had little trouble convincing O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., a well-established computer books publisher, not only to release Free as in Freedom under the GNU license but also to provide a free online version of the text as well.

Richard Stallman grants permission to steal the bejesus out of his work.
photo: O'Reilly Publications
Richard Stallman grants permission to steal the bejesus out of his work.

How the world's political economy came to accommodate such a book is, in a loose sense, just what the book is about. More precisely, its subject is Stallman, a virtuoso computer programmer who in 1983 set himself the selfless task of building an entire Unix-like operating system (the name GNU stands, with typical hacker wit, for "GNU's Not Unix") and dedicating it to the public domain. Soon thereafter he invented the radically nonproprietary form of copyright license (sometimes called a "copyleft") under which GNU was to be released. And the rest is technological history. Half-finished for years, GNU was effectively completed in the early '90s, when Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds picked up the ball and created the GNU-compatible, copylefted Linux operating system. Beloved of hackers (who like its open-hooded tinkerability and general libertarian vibe) and of major tech companies like IBM and Sun (who like the economics of having thousands of hackers working round the clock, for free, to improve their software), GNU/Linux has spread fast enough to become a credible threat to the Microsoft hegemony.

Scruffy of beard and long of hair, brilliantly obsessive, unnervingly intense, and given to such charming, geekish eccentricities as eating his split ends in public and ending every conversation with an earnest "Happy hacking," Stallman is a character, and the book tries fitfully to be the character study he deserves. Much is made of the "crushing loneliness" of Stallman's classic nerd-boy youth and of the likelihood that he suffers from the high-functioning form of autism known as Asperger syndrome (or more trendily as the "geek syndrome"). More than anything else, Williams suggests, it was his acute difficulty finding connection with other human beings that made Stallman a crusader against intellectual property. The almost edenically collaborative world of MIT programmers was the first and only real community Stallman knew, and when he woke up to the essentially anti-collaborative nature of the commercial copyrights that were beginning to invade that world in the early '80s, he got to work like a man whose home is on fire.

Or so the story goes, and though in Williams's telling it bogs down far too frequently in technical details, it's not a bad one. Compelling or not, though, one man's psychodrama does not a political-economic sea change make. Stallman's crusade matters, in the end, not because his passion has made it matter but because the history of intellectual property has at last reached a crisis of epochal proportions. Just as the printing press begat the age of copyright, so now the computer portends a new tectonic shift in the relationship between ideas and markets—but exactly what kind of shift? Will we get the anarchic free-for-all dreamed of in the philosophies of Napster and its irrepressible progeny? Will we get the corporate police state portended by draconian copyright legislation aimed at capturing for media robber barons the vast new realms of profit in digital distribution?

Or will we get what Stallman has made his life's mission to give us: a well-tended intellectual commons amid the increasingly fenced-in realms of intellectual property? Only time and the complex, fast-moving politics of technology will tell, and therein lies the real drama of Stallman's story.

Unfortunately, as with Stallman's personal life, Williams only fitfully succeeds at getting the drama across. If you're looking for a better understanding of the political stakes involved in the free-software debate, for a clearer sense of how its outcome will transform not only technology but culture in the broadest sense of the word, you're better off looking elsewhere (Lawrence Lessig's lucid and penetrating The Future of Ideas would be a good place to start). In one key respect, though, Free as in Freedom conveys uniquely what Stallman's fight has been all about. By copylefting his book, Williams offers a concrete glimpse of how literary creativity might work in a world where everyone took at its word the proposition even Abbie Hoffman only took half seriously. Free as in Freedom may disappoint, but since anyone can steal this book, rewrite it to his or her taste, then post it back to the Internet, sooner or later someone may do just that. The author as we've known him for the last several centuries dies his final death, reborn as a perpetual collaborator. And while this may not satisfy the average freedom fighter's idea of utopia, to this reviewer it feels like the next best thing to heaven: a world in which there are no bad books, only rough drafts.

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