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Stallman wins $240,000 in MacArthur award

By Reuven M. Lerner

Richard M. Stallman, president of the League for Programming Freedom and a former employee of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, has been awarded a $240,000 fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Although he has severed all official ties with MIT, Stallman still works in offices at the AI lab. He describes himself as a "squatter" on the MIT campus.

Stallman is best known at MIT for having written the Emacs word processor, but he is also gaining prominence as an outspoken critic of software patents and copyrights on user interfaces. He founded the LPF about one year ago as a "grass-roots political organization, to fight for the freedom of programmers to implement what the users want."

The LPF is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to warn the public about encroaching monopolies in the software industry, and to develop countermeasures against them, according to the LPF's corporate charter. The LPF's major activities at present involve lobbying against Lotus Development Corp., developers of 1-2-3, and Apple Computer Inc., because of the user-interface copyright infringement lawsuits they have filed against their competitors.

The MacArthur fellowships, known as "genius grants," are awarded annually to exceptionally talented and creative people. This year's recipients include artists, human rights activists, mathematicians, and astronomers.

Prizes range from $150,000 to $375,000 in value, and include health insurance for the recipient. The grants have no strings attached and are disbursed over a five year period.

Lotus decision may

spur activism

Stallman's activities concerning copyrights on software user interfaces will probably increase, in light of recent court decisions. Last month, Lotus Development Corporation won a suit for copyright infringement against Paperback Software. Paperback had marketed a program that mimicked the "look and feel" of 1-2-3, Lotus' best-selling spreadsheet.

Software development will become increasingly difficult, Stallman said, if companies continue to enforce copyrights on the look and feel of their user interfaces. He often cites steering wheels and typewriter keyboards as examples of interfaces that succeeded only because everyone was allowed to copy and improve them.

In a document discussing the subject, he notes that the trademark and copyright laws were established to encourage, rather than discourage, the sharing of information among competitors.

Ironically, the Lotus victory might have helped the LPF grow in both size and strength. Stallman said that 40 of the 130 LPF members joined in the last month, quite possibly in response to the 1-2-3 lawsuit. He plans to hold a rally outside of Lotus on Aug. 2, to show that some software developers and users disapprove of the copyright suits.

Stallman also worries that the patenting of algorithms and programs will place on programmers will make software much more expensive, due to the licensing fees which might be required by patent-holders. In his view "It will become much harder to develop software after patents than it has been," Stallman said, "because [software] is so much easier to start with." Many software projects cost less than $50,000 to complete. Adding $1 million in copyright or patent royalties would hurt a $20 million hardware project much less than a $50,000 software project, he said.

Free software for

all who want it

Several years ago, Stallman started the Free Software Foundation, which he describes as a "charity for software development," to develop quality programs which can be distributed free of charge. The FSF is currently working on a free replacement for the popular Unix operating system, called GNU (Gnu's Not Unix). The Emacs word processor, widely used throughout the Institute, is the best-known piece of the GNU project.

Stallman warns that copyrights and patents could spell the end for free software, since authors would have to pay royalties for programs which they were giving away. "It will make development of proprietary software much harder, and it will make development of free software effectively impossible," he said.

He is still unsure of how to spend the fellowship money. "The spirit of the thing is to do something that I would not have otherwise done," he explained. He does have some ideas in mind. Among them are a trip to the Soviet Union, a stereo system for the FSF office, and additional support for people who work for free software.

According to The Boston Globe, Stallman supports himself by working for two months a year as a $260-an-hour computer consultant. He resigned from the AI Lab when he began work on the GNU project, so that MIT would never be able to lay claim to a copyright on his work. Stallman says that he has offered to pay rent for both his and the FSF office, but the AI Lab has simply let him stay there. "I offered to [pay rent], but they said it wasn't worth the effort of collecting it," he said.