Software radical Richard Stallman helped build the Linux revolution. Now he threatens to tear it apart.
The free Linux operating system set off one of the biggest revolutions in the history of computing when it leapt from the fingertips of a Finnish college kid named Linus Torvalds 15 years ago. Linux now drives $15 billion in annual sales of hardware, software and services, and this wondrous bit of code has been tweaked by thousands of independent programmers to run the world’s most powerful supercomputers, the latest cell phones and TiVo (nasdaq: TIVO - news - people ) video recorders and other gadgets.
But while Torvalds has been enshrined as the Linux movement’s creator, a lesser-known programmer–infamously more obstinate and far more eccentric than Torvalds–wields a startling amount of control as this revolution’s resident enforcer. Richard M. Stallman is a 53-year-old anticorporate crusader who has argued for 20 years that most software should be free of charge. He and a band of anarchist acolytes long have waged war on the commercial software industry, dubbing tech giants “evil” and “enemies of freedom” because they rake in sales and enforce patents and copyrights–when he argues they should be giving it all away.
Despite that utopian anticapitalist bent, Linux and the “open-source” software movement have lured billions of dollars of investment from IBM, Hewlett-Packard (nyse: HPQ - news - people ), Red Hat (nasdaq: RHAT - news - people ) and other tech vendors, plus corporate customers such as Wall Street banks, Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) and Amazon (nasdaq: AMZN - news - people ) and Hollywood special-effects shops. IBM has spent a billion dollars embracing Linux, using it as a counterweight to the Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) Windows monopoly and to Sun Microsystems (nasdaq: SUNW - news - people )’ Unix-based business.
Now Stallman is waging a new crusade that could end up toppling the revolution he helped create. He aims to impose new restrictions on IBM and any other tech firm that distributes software using even a single line of Linux code. They would be forbidden from using Linux software to block users from infringing on copyright and intellectual-property rights (”digital rights management”); and they would be barred from suing over alleged patent infringements related to Linux.
Stallman’s hold on the Linux movement stems from the radical group he formed in 1985: the Free Software Foundation. The Boston outfit, which he still runs, is guided by a “manifesto” he published that year, urging programmers (hackers) to join his socialist crusade. The group made Stallman a cult hero among hacker and ended up holding licensing rights to crucial software components that make up the Linux system.