What I’m Up To

Winning the Gnu

Plush gnu on top of my travelling accordion
The GNU gnu and my accordion.

The CUSEC convention’s last keynote speech was Richard Stallman’s presentation titled Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks. It’s similar to the one he gave at the University of Toronto in the summer of 2007; you can see my detailed notes on that presentation here.

At the end of his keynote, he declared an auction, the proceeds of which would go to the Free Software Foundation (I heard a couple of people say “Yeah, right” behind me). The first item up for auction was a hardcover copy of his book Free Software, Free Society. I already own an autographed edition, so I wasn’t interested in bidding.

He started the bidding at CAD$40. In response, someone from the audience yelled out “we’re students!”. Oblivious to the remark, he went on with the bidding. The book ended up selling for somewhere close to a hundred dollars.

With the book sold, he showed the audience the next item for auction: a plush gnu, the mascot of the Free Software Foundation:

Stallman shows off the plush gnu for auction. Photo by Matthew Gallant.

“You should totally bid for that!” someone behind me said. I’d been thinking the same thing.

As with the book, the bidding started at student-unfriendly 40 dollars. I waited until the price hit $60, after which the room fell quiet. That’s when I threw my hat in the ring.


The room burst out in laughter. They’d seen my presentation yesterday and knew I worked for Microsoft, long a major figure in the Free Software Foundation’s demonology.

“You should know that he’s with Microsoft!” someone in the audience said to Stallman.

“There are anti-animal cruelty laws,” said Stallman, facing in my direction.

“You have The Empire’s assurance that no harm will come to him,” I replied.

The bids continued. For every bid that came in, I immediately countered with one that was $5 higher.





By this point, the room was really getting into the bidding war. Would the Microsoftie actually win the auction for the symbol of the organization that views it as The Great Satan?

And up the bids went until I said “One hundred.” Just to underscore my intent on getting that gnu, I bid again. “One hundred five.”

“Going once…” said Stallman, “…twice…SOLD! For one hundred and five dollars.”

I walked up to the stage to thunderous applause.

Richard Stallman, Joey deVilla and the plush gnu at CUSEC 2009
Claiming the spoils of victory. Photo by Andrew Louis.

Stallman seemed a tiny bit confused as to why someone from Microsoft would even want a gnu, never mind pay that much money for one.

“You do promise to obey anti-animal cruelty laws?” he asked again, as if it were a real flesh-and-blood gnu.

“I won’t harm a hair on its head. I do come from the Free Software world,” I replied, being careful not to call it the “Open Source” world. I didn’t want to give him any reason to cancel the sale.

Richard Stallman and Joey deVilla onstage at CUSEC 2009
I give Stallman my word that no harm will come to the GNU Also, look at how he’s playing with his hair while speaking to me. I think he LIKE-likes me! Photo by Andrew Louis.

I pulled out my Microsoft corporate credit card. I held it up and asked the audience: “Would it be all right if I paid with this?”

Joey deVilla showing his Microsoft corporate credit card to Richard Stallman

Joey deVilla showing the Microsoft credit card to the CUSEC 2009 audience
Asking the audience if I should pay with my Microsoft corporate credit card. Photo by Andrew Louis.

That got a good laugh from the audience.

Joey deVilla and the Microsoft credit card
“The Microsoft corporate card. Don’t culture-jam the FSF without it.” Photo by Andrew Louis.

Using my best Darth Vader impression, I extended my hand out to Stallman and said “Join me, Stallman, and together we shall bring order to the galaxy!”, which got a good laugh.

Me inviting Stallman to join the Dark Side
“Join the Dark Side, Stallman, and together we shall bring order to the galaxy!”

At the end of the conference, I walked up to Stallman, who was selling Free Software Foundation paraphernalia at the registration table. I asked him for his autograph, which he gladly provided on the plush gnu’s tag. “Happy hacking! Richard Stallman,” it read.

Joey deVilla gets Richard Stallman to autograph the gnu's tag
Getting Stallman’s autograph after the keynote. Photo by Andrew Louis.

I did it all in the name of fun and also to show that Microsoft people have a sense of humour. I was also more than happy to hand over some money to the Free Software Foundation as a way of saying thanks for all the things they’ve done for developers – myself included – over the years.

As for the gnu, I plan to take it out from time to time, posing it for photographs just as the travelling garden gnome is.

Plush gnu on top of my accordion

37 replies on “Winning the Gnu”

John Sullivan: LOL! I hope it didn’t overhear us talking about the construction progress of the Death Star!

I’m more than happy to throw some monetary support to the FSF, and although I’m with “The Empire”, I continue to use and enjoy software released under the GNU Public License.

He looks like a Microsoft plant. They are trying the embrace, extend, and extinguish technique, yet again. I almost fell for this one, thinking, sure, he might actually want to thank the FSF. But I’m not buying it one bit.


This can’t be true!

Isn’t your sense of humour removed surgically when you start working at MS?
(Because anyone with a sense of humour still intact will collapse in a fit of giggles if they ever run into BillG… )

[…] pretty cool with my wacky ideas, from my re-appropriation of their image as “The Empire” to the stunt at Richard Stallman’s GNU auction at CUSEC to starting Coffee and Code, a weekly happening that most companies might dismiss as an attempt to […]

Its good one MS employee showed a sense of humor. However, I cant help but point out how trivial it is. In the end, MS wont be anyone’s friend. They’ll use and abuse free software while proverbially slapping developers who have a higher calling. I must say I don’t really see this as that funny. Its just temporarily funny until MS shows their business ethics yet again and pisses everyone off who stands for something by their truly evil deeds. What awful act do they need to do so that we wont look the other way?

You know i was actually thinking of throwing in a few dummy bets in there just to up the price . because you were hell bent on getting that gnu :P.

This article has angered me. As Michael said “What awful act do they need to do so that we wont look the other way?” M$ and their tactics disgust me. I wouldn’t be caught dead being outbid by you on this.

“At the end of the conference, I walked up to Stallman, who was selling Free Software Foundation paraphernalia at the registration table”.

I admit, Stallman’s no idiot. He’s a genius. He’s also insane.

Good for you joey, to the haters, stallman is very consistent wrt software, other domains are different and the FSF usually doesn’t deal with them. It is perfectly ok to sell free software and free software merchandise. I’d recommend people go read and figure out what the FSF is and what free software is before we get dumb comments like highlighting words like “selling”.

Free market maintenance.

[…] Of all the presentations this year, this was the one I was most looking forward too. Stallman gave a long (almost double his allotted time) talk about the role of copyright in the digital age. While I agree with Stallman’s ideals (you’ll notice the majority of the code on this side is GPL’d), I found that the strength of his militancy and his alarmist phrasing turned off a lot of the crowd. The crowd was dead silent for the first half of the presentation, but by the end many in the crowd were openly mocking Stallman. I thought that it was very clear that Stallman’s ideas are very well reasoned and took a long time to think out, even if they do come off as radical. The highlight of the talk, and maybe even CUSEC itself, came at the end of the talk when Joey deVilla (the Microsoft rep) walked away with a plush GNU that Stallman auctioned off to raise funds for the FSF. The entire event is chronicled in Joey’s blog. […]

[…] Better yet is the caliber of speakers they’ve been able to bring in: Kent Back, Joel Spolsky, David Parnas, Greg Wilson, Chad Fowler, Kathy Sierra, Dave Thomas, Venkat Subramanian, Jeff Atwood, Tim Bray, John Udell, Avi Bryant, Dan Ingalls, Giles Bowkett, Leah Culver, Francis Hwang, Doug Crockford, Matt Knox, Jacqui Maher, Thomas Ptacek, Reg Braithwaite, Yehuda Katz, of course Richard M. Stallman, in whose auction I made the winning bid for a plush gnu, which I paid with my Microsoft credit card. […]

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