What I Saw at the Revolution
A filmmaker captures the free-software insurgents.
Courtesy J.T.S. Moore
By Ann Marsh
It is unlikely that anyone would mistake J.T.S. Moore for a computer hacker. He speaks in the measured tones of a buttoned-down historian. A white forelock on his otherwise dark head of hair lends an august appearance to his young face. Indeed, Moore, ’92, is a confirmed fuzzy who majored in history. But the documentary filmmaker has become a quiet champion for a hacker cause célèbre: the Open Source software movement that thumbed its nose at the tech establishment and gave birth to the Linux operating system. Moore’s self-funded film Revolution OS chronicles the growth of both.
The Open Source movement had its roots in the early 1970s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where programmers habitually shared the source code to their software creations. One of those programmers was Richard Stallman, who later started the Free Software Foundation. He wanted to create a copyright-free competitor to UNIX, the granddaddy of all operating systems. Stallman started the GNU Project (its logo is the African wildebeest; the acronym stands for GNU’s Not UNIX) and wrote the basics of the new system, then freely offered it to others to build on. A young Finnish programmer named Linus Torvalds used pieces of GNU to develop a system released in 1991 and later dubbed Linux.
Today, Linux, owned by none and free to all, is used by some 20 million people eager for a non-Microsoft operating system. Linux users continually “hack” improvements to the system, not for money but for the prestige of doing so. In this context, hackers are not miscreants bent on crashing websites, but high-minded programmers out to make a better world through better code. Linux’s wide adoption continues to threaten not only the dominance of Microsoft’s closed-source Windows operating systems, but also the notion that software should always be proprietary and copyrighted.
Moore first hit upon the idea of filming a documentary about the Linux movement in the summer of 1999. Several former Stanford classmates were working at Linux-related companies at the time. Doug Bone, MS ’88, suggested the field was ripe for documentary treatment. Moore, who had completed his master’s in film production at USC, was intrigued.
“I was a fuzzy all the way,” Moore says. “I have no background in it [information technology]—my focus was on the historical and political side of this story.”
At the time, he was living in Los Angeles and working as a screenwriter for Disney. He put that career on hold and decided to fund the project himself. Moore had been saving for eight years to make an independent film, but realized it would be far cheaper to do a documentary: “No actors!” He won’t disclose how much he spent, saying only that by being frugal—he used leftover 35-mm film scraps bought at steep discounts—it cost him a fraction of a studio’s typical expenditure. He did everything himself, except the sound mix and music.
Moore discovered his subject’s political fault lines by stepping on them. He turned up at the Linux World conference in San Jose, Calif., in August 1999 with a camera on his shoulder but little background on the players he hoped to film.
First there was Torvalds. The free operating system founder was so besieged by crowds, Moore couldn’t get near him. As for Stallman, Moore made the mistake of introducing himself this way: “Hi, I’m making a film about the Linux operating system and. . . . ”
Stallman cut him short. No one had forewarned Moore that the GNU creator was on a crusade to change the Linux moniker to GNU/Linux, to reflect his own contribution. “They threw me to the wolves,” he jokes.
It took Moore two months to recover from that gaffe, but he finally persuaded Stallman to appear in the film. Torvalds also came on board, interviewed in the Santa Clara duplex he used to live in. Others in the documentary include Eric Raymond, author of the groundbreaking essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” which helped inspire Netscape to release its browser’s source code to the public.
Larry Augustin takes Moore’s camera on a tour of the Stanford campus and describes how, as a PhD candidate in electrical engineering, he came to see a market opportunity for a Linux-related company. Augustin, MS ’85, PhD ’94, and James Vera, MS ’89, PhD ’01, founded VA Linux Systems, customizing computer equipment to run the new operating system. The start-up went on to rise 766 percent above the offering price of $30 on its first day of trading in December 1999, a record ascent chronicled in Revolution OS.
One of the film’s chief pleasures is the chance to meet“in person” the various oddball programming gurus who gained a disembodied fame on the web. “They’re all very quirky,” Moore allows.
From underneath a caveman’s beard and long hair, the eyes of Richard Stallman dance and sparkle as he conjures a world without software copyrights. Torvalds, a measured counterpoint to the gesticulating Stallman, speaks as softly as a librarian, but always with a barely suppressed laugh. Half provocateur and half conciliator, Torvalds says, “Think of Richard Stallman as the great philosopher and think of me as the engineer.” Or, as Moore puts it, “Richard is much more of a classic revolutionary. Linus has put an appealing face on the movement.”
Bucking the aesthetics of the very industry he was documenting, Moore shot with 35-mm film in part because it doesn’t degrade as quickly as video. He aimed to create an enduring historical document. He also used the wide-screen cinemascope process. The effect is oddly captivating, seeing the bland corners of Silicon Valley in epic relief. “If this movement has the long-term ramifications everyone says it will, I want to record it on the best quality media,” Moore says.
He also gave each subject plenty of uninterrupted time to clearly explain the political, economic and technological developments in freeware. “We use a technique called copyleft,” Stallman tells the camera. “The idea of copyleft is that it’s copyright flipped over. What we do is say, ‘This software is copyrighted, and we, the authors, give you permission to redistribute copies. We give you permission to change it. We give you permission to add to it.’” The only condition is that the altered version must also be passed along under the same conditions to the next user. “Everywhere the software goes, the freedom goes, too,” Stallman explains. In that way, Stallman’s GNU made it to Torvalds and a revolution began.
Before Moore fully appreciated the tensions between the Philosopher and the Engineer, he caught a rich moment on film at Linux World in 1999 when Torvalds presented Stallman with the Linus Torvalds Award for Open Source Computing. The award, Stallman tells the convention audience, “is kind of like giving the Han Solo award to the rebel fleet . . . I ask people, please tell people this is the GNU system.” All the while Torvalds happily upstages Stallman by letting his two toddlers gambol near the podium.
It’s a funny moment and fortuitous that Moore captured it. Torvalds wins the day. But Moore, who admits to having great sympathy for Stallman, ends the film with a musical tribute to the GNU founder played by a group of comically expressionless geek musicians. “Join us now and share the software. You’ll be free,” a singer croons, as a couple of guys in button-down shirts stiffly play bongos.
Revolution OS was shown at festivals and industry screenings around the country last year; the Sundance channel plans to air it this year. But marketing it became a challenge, given its happy ending—the triumphant vA Linux Systems ipo. By last fall the company had formally abandoned its Linux-based business, seeking the new name va Software. Recently, Moore added a postscript to the film to update viewers.
“Star Wars is the myth for these people,” Moore says. “What’s going on now is the Empire Strikes Back phase. The Linux companies have taken a tremendous beating. Three years from now, who knows?”
Whether the Jedi return or not, Moore plans more cinematic ventures, perhaps with documentaries on UNIX or Sun Microsystems. “It’s a natural extension of what I’ve done.”
Ann Marsh, ’88, is a writer in Los Angeles.
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