An open letter to Richard M. Stallman

Subject: Events of the last week – open letter

This is perhaps the most difficult letter I’ve found myself in a position to write in my entire lifetime.

A couple of days ago, I was reading the cypherpunks mailing list when I came across a thread with news articles and commentary indicating you had been constructively removed from both your positions as Free Software Foundation president and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. I know you refer to these as resignations, but it is obvious to me that you did not resign of your own free will.

To say the least, I think it is unfortunate that a decades-long legacy of trailblazing in the name of software freedom would come to such an abrupt and undignified end. From the coining and definition of the term “free software” itself, all the way to 2019 where GNU variants have outpaced all proprietary versions of Unix, the free software movement you have started has been an unquestionable success.

I’m not surprised that someone has chosen to “misunderstand[] and mischaracteriz[e]” something you have said. I’m a couple of decades younger and it’s happened to me more times than I care to count–often, but not always, by someone who has an interest in knocking me down to make themselves look better. It is awful that someone would mischaracterize your statements and use that as an excuse to constructively remove you from your tenured leadership positions.

I realize some of your viewpoints are not very popular. Some probably characterize a few of them as unreasonable (to put it nicely). But we need unreasonable people to bring change in an unreasonable world. You have established one hell of a great legacy when it comes to freedom in computing over the last 36 years, even if you get nowhere near the credit you’ve earned and most people think some guy from Finland did all of it when all he did was add the kernel at the end.

One of the other contributors to the cypherpunks list called upon you to withdraw your resignations. This is one of the rare occasions where I think this particular contributor is spot on and that resigning from your positions of leadership was the wrong call. Even if you suddenly decided, of your own free will, that it was time to retire (which I don’t believe for a second), the timing would be such that it looks like it’s because of the controversy.

We, the free software community, still need your leadership. I am looking forward to the day that the idea of proprietary software is the unreasonable idea and free software is the status quo everywhere: our computers, our smartphones, our tablet computers, and our connected appliances like TVs, refrigerators, HVAC units, etc. I still trust your leadership. I hope the majority of the community still do as well and see this attempt at constructively removing you from your positions for what it is: an unconscionable raw deal for a modern-day legend of computing history.

Shawn K. Quinn - [email address] - [phone number]