became almost a reflex.If people wanted to use it,they should pay to help
defray the cost of creating it.This made sense to programmers who
wanted to make a living or even get rich writing their own code.But it was
awfully frustrating at times.Many programmers have pulled their hair out
in grief when their work was stopped by some bug or undocumented fea-
ture buried deep in the proprietary, , super-secret software made by
Microsoft,IBM,Apple,or whomever.If they had the source code,they
would be able to poke around and figure out what was really happening.
Instead,they had to treat the software like a black box and keep probing it
with test programs that might reveal the secrets hidden inside.Every pro-
grammer has had an experience like this,and every programmer knew
that they could solve the problem much faster if they could only read the
source code.They didn’t want to steal anything,they just wanted to know
what was going on so they could make their own code work.
Stallman’s GNU project would be different, , and he explained,
“Complete system sources will be available to everyone.As a result,a
user who needs changes in the system will always be free to make them
himself,or hire any available programmer or company to make them for
him.Users will no longer be at the mercy of one programmer or com-
pany which owns the sources and is in sole position to make changes.”
He was quick to mention that people would be “free to hire any
available programmer” to ensure that people understood he wasn’t
against taking money for writing software.That was okay and some-
thing he did frequently himself.He was against people controlling the
source with arbitrarily complex legal barriers that made it impossible
for him or anyone else to get something done.
When people first heard of his ideas,they became fixated on the
word “free.”These were the Reagan years.Saying that people should
just give away their hard work was sounding mighty communist to
everyone,and this was long before the Berlin Wall fell.Stallman reex-
amined the word “free”and all of its different meanings.He carefully
considered all of the different connotations,examined the alternatives,
and decided that “free” ” was still the best word.He began to try to
explain the shades of meaning he was after.His revolution was about
“free speech,”not “free beer.”This wasn’t going to be a revolution in the
sense that frequent flyer miles revolutionized air travel nor in the way
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 83
that aluminum cans revolutionized beer drinking.No,this was going to
be a revolution as Rousseau,Locke,and Paine used the word.
He later codified this into four main principles:
r any purp
,and adapt it t
While Stallman pushed people away from the notion of “free beer,”
there’s little question that this element turned out to be a very impor-
tant part of the strategy and a foundation of its success. Stallman
insisted that anyone could do what they wanted with the software,so he
insisted that the source code must be freely distributed.That is,no one
could put any restrictions on how you used the software.While this
didn’t make it free beer,it did mean that you could turn around and give
a copy to your friends or your clients.It was pretty close.
The “free beer”nature of Stallman’s software also attracted users.If
some programmers wanted to check out a new tool,they could down-
load it and try it out without paying for it.They didn’t need to ask their
boss for a budget,and they didn’t need to figure out a way to deal with
an invoice.Just one click and the software was there.Commercial soft-
ware companies continue to imitate this feature by distributing trial
versions that come with either a few crippled features or a time lock
that shuts them down after a few days.
Of course,the “free beer”nature of the GNU project soon led to
money problems.The GNU project took up his time and generated no
He numbered them starting at zero because that was what computer scientists did.
Someone figured out that it was simpler to start numbering databases at zero because
you didn’t have to subtract 1 as often.
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real revenues at first.Stallman had always lived frugally.He says that he
never made more than $20,000 a year at MIT,and still managed to save
on that salary. But he was finding it harder and harder to get his
assigned jobs done at MIT and write the cool GNU code. . While
Stallman always supported a programmer’s right to make money for
writing code,the GNU project wasn’t generating any money.
Most folks saw this conflict coming from the beginning. . Sure,
Stallman would be able to rant and rave about corporate software devel-
opment for a bit,but eventually he and his disciples would need to eat.
When the MIT support ended,Stallman soon stumbled upon a sur-
prising fact:he could charge for the software he was giving away and
make some money.People loved his software,but it was often hard to
keep track of it.Getting the package delivered on computer tape or a
CD-ROM gave people a hard copy that they could store for future ref-
erence or backup.Online manuals were also nice,but the printed book
is still a very popular and easy-to-use way of storing information.
Stallman’s Free Software Foundation began selling printed manuals,
tapes, and then CD-ROMs filled with software to make money.
Surprisingly,people started paying money for these versions despite the
fact that they could download the same versions for free.
Some folks enjoyed pointing out the hypocrisy in Stallman’s move.
Stallman had run his mouth for so long that many programming “sell-
outs”who worked for corporations savored the irony.At last that weenie
had gotten the picture.He was forced to make money to support him-
self,and he was selling out,too.These cynics didn’t get what Stallman
was trying to do.
Most of us would have given up at this time.The free software thing
seemed like a good idea,but now that the money was running out it was
time to get a real job.In writing this book and interviewing some of the
famous and not-so-famous free software developers,I found that some
were involved in for-profit, , not-so-free software development now.
Stallman, though, wasn’t going to give up his ideals, and his mind
started shifting to accommodate this new measure of reality. . He
decided that it wouldn’t be wrong to sell copies of software or even soft-
ware services as long as you didn’t withhold the source code and stomp
on anyone’s freedom to use the source code as they wished.
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 85
Stallman has always been great at splitting hairs and creating
Jesuitical distinctions, , and this insight was one of his best. . At first
glance,it looked slightly nutty.If people were free to do anything they
wanted with software,they could just give a copy to their friend and
their friend would never send money back to Stallman’s Free Software
Foundation.In fact,someone could buy a copy from Stallman and then
start reselling copies to others to undercut Stallman.The Free Software
Foundation and the GNU GPL gave them the freedom to do so.It was
as if a movie theater sold tickets to a movie,but also posted a big sign
near the exit door that said “Hey,it’s absolutely okay for you to prop
this open so your friends can sneak in without paying.”
While this total freedom befuddled most people,it didn’t fail.Many
paid for tapes or CD-ROM versions because they wanted the conve-
nience.Stallman’s versions came with the latest bug fixes and new fea-
tures.They were the quasi-official versions. . Others felt that paying
helped support the work so they didn’t feel bad about doing it.They
liked the FSF and wanted it to produce more code.Others just liked
printed books better than electronic documentation.Buying them from
Stallman was cheaper than printing them out.Still others paid for the
CD-ROMs because they just wanted to support the Free Software
Stallman also found other support.The MacArthur Foundation gave
him one of their genius grants that paid him a nice salary for five years
to do whatever he wanted.Companies like Intel hired him as a consul-
tant and asked him to make sure that some of his software ran on Intel
chips.People were quite willing to pay for convenience because even
free software didn’t do everything that it should.
Stallman also recognized that this freedom introduced a measure of
competition.If he could charge for copies,then so could others.The
source code would be a vast commonweal,but the means of delivering it
would be filled with people struggling to do the best job of distributing
the software.It was a pretty hard-core Reaganaut notion for a reputed
communist.At the beginning,few bothered to compete with him,but
in time all of the GNU code began to be included with computer oper-
ating systems.By the time Linus Torvalds wrote his OS,the GNU code
was ready to be included.
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If Stallman’s first great insight was that the world did not need to put
up with proprietary source code, then his second was that he could
strictly control the use of GNU software with an innovative legal docu-
ment entitled GNU General Public License,or GPL.To illustrate the
difference,he called the agreement a “copyleft”and set about creating a
legal document defining what it meant for software to be “free.”Well,
defining what he thought it should mean.
The GPL was a carefully crafted legal document that didn’t put the
software into the “public domain,” ” a designation that would have
allowed people to truly do anything they wanted with the software.The
license,in fact,copyrighted the software and then extended users very
liberal rights for making innumerable copies as long as the users didn’t
hurt other people’s rights to use the software.
The definition of stepping on other people’s rights is one that keeps
political science departments at universities in business.There are many
constituencies that all frame their arguments in terms of protecting
someone’s rights.Stallman saw protecting the rights of other users in
very strong terms and strengthened his grip a bit by inserting a contro-
versial clause.He insisted that a person who distributes an improved
version of the program must also share the source code.That meant that
some greedy company couldn’t download his GNU Emacs editor,slap
on a few new features,and then sell the whole package without includ-
ing all of the source code they created.If people were going to benefit
from the GNU sharing,they were going to have to share back.It was
freedom with a price.
This strong compact was ready-built for some ironic moments.
When Apple began trying to expand the scope of intellectual property
laws by suing companies like Microsoft for stealing their “look and
feel,”Stallman became incensed and decided that he wouldn’t develop
software for Apple machines as a form of protest and spite.If Apple was
going to pollute the legal landscape with terrible impediments to shar-
ing ideas,then Stallman wasn’t going to help them sell machines by
writing software for the machines. . But the GNU copyleft license
specifically allowed anyone to freely distribute the source code and use
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 87
it as they wanted.That meant that others could use the GNU code and
convert it to run on the Apple if they wanted to do so.Many did port
much of the GNU software to the Mac and distributed the source code
with it in order to comply with the license.Stallman couldn’t do any-
thing about it.Sure,he was the great leader of the FSF and the author
of some of its code,but he had given away his power with the license.
The only thing he could do was refuse to help the folks moving the
software to the Mac.When it came to principles,he placed freedom to
use the source code at the top of the hierarchy.
Some programmers soon started referring to the sticky nature of the
license as the “GNU virus”because it infected software projects with its
freedom bug.If a developer wanted to save time and grab some of the
neat GNU software,he was stuck making the rest of his work just as
free. These golden handcuffs often scared away programmers who
wanted to make money by charging for their work.
Stallman hates that characterization.“To call anything ‘like a virus’is
a very vicious thing.People who say things like that are trying to find
ways to make the GPL look bad,”he says.
Stallman did try to work around this problem by creating what he at
first called the “Library General Public License”and now refers to as
the “Lesser General Public License,”a document that allowed software
developers to share small chunks of code with each other under less
restrictive circumstances.A programmer can use the LGPL to bind
chunks of code known as libraries.Others can share the libraries and
use them with their source code as long as they don’t fully integrate
them.Any changes they make to the library itself must be made public,
but there is no requirement to release the source code for the main pro-
gram that uses the library.
This license is essentially a concession to some rough edges at the
corners where the world of programming joins the world of law.While
Stallman was dead set on creating a perfect collection of free programs
that would solve everyone’s needs,he was far from finished.If people
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 88
were going to use his software,they were going to have to use it on
machines made by Sun,AT&T,IBM,or someone else who sold a pro-
prietary operating system along with it.He understood that he needed
to compromise,at least for system libraries.
The problem is drawing boundaries around what is one pile of soft-
ware owned by one person and what is another pile owned by someone
else.The GPL guaranteed that GNU software would “infect”other
packages and force people who used his code to join the party and
release theirs as well. So he had to come up with a definition that
spelled out what it meant for people to use his code and “incorporate”it
This is often easier said than done.The marketplace has developed
ways to sell software as big chunks to people,but these are fictions that
camouflage software integration. . In modern practice, , programmers
don’t just create one easily distinguished chunk of software known as
Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. . They build up a variety of
smaller chunks known as libraries and link these together.Microsoft
Windows,in fact,includes a large collection of libraries for creating the
menus,forms,click boxes,and what-not that make the graphical user
interfaces.Programmers don’t need to write their own instructions for
drawing these on the screen and interacting with them. . This saves
plenty of time and practice for the programmers,and it is a large part of
what Microsoft is selling when it sells someone a box with Windows on it.
Stallman recognized that programmers sometimes wrote libraries
that they wanted others to use.After all,that was the point of GNU:
creating tools that others would be free to use.So Stallman relented and
created the Lesser Public License,which would allow people to create
libraries that might be incorporated into other programs that weren’t
fully GNU.The library itself still came with source code,and the user
would need to distribute all changes made to the library,but there was
no limitation on the larger package.
This new license was also something of a concession to reality.In the
most abstract sense,programs are just black boxes that take some input
and produce some output.There’s no limit to the hierarchies that can be
created by plugging these boxes together so that the output for one is
the input for another.Eventually,the forest of connections grows so
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