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Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers

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"Free software'' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of "free speech'', not "free beer.''

saintignucius.jpg (99395 bytes)

"Free" as in lunch ;-)

Richard Stallman

From "What is free software"

Microsoft slogan posted  at OSCON 2003, where Microsoft was sponsoring lunches for attendants

Chapter 3: Prince Kropotkin of Software

(Richard Stallman and the War of Software Clones)

version 0.98

Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of the Christ and from the necessary dictates of reason. With all the might of his talent he made (especially in The Kingdom of God in Yourselves) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force. Robbers, he says, are far less dangerous than a well-organized government. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of the Christ he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars. His religious arguments are, however, so well combined with arguments borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils, that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious and the non-religious reader alike.

From Prince Kropotkin's  paper on Anarchism
in Encyclopedia Britannica

Software is ideas. Information. It's different from people, places, and things; it's infinitely reduplicable like fire, at almost no cost. This is a truism, even a cliché. But it seems that there are particular consequences that aren't well-explored.

Kragen Sitaker People places things and ideas

Contents


Timeline

Emacs period

Start of GNU project: the Opening Shot in the  War of Software Clones

GCC period

GPL period

Political activism period. Development stalled, OS kernel development stalled and Linux took the lead. 


Introduction

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

 

Richard M. Stallman "The King of Software Cloning", "The High Priest Of Free Software", the originator of  "The Great Free License War" or simply RMS is (first and foremost) a founder of the GNU project: the first project explicitly oriented on creation of existing commercial software clones and first of all Unix OS. approximately in 1998.

Since mid-90th GNU project was by-and-large superseded by Linux project and movement but still has its own historical place and importance.

RMS also is the main contributor to the redefinition of the word "free" in the English language. From now on the meaning of "free" is enriched by a special dimension of "GNU-free" or "GPL-free" which is essentially a freedom to work for Stallman's private charity or even simply "approved by RMS" (see below KDE jihad story).  And to receive in return  (in most, but not all cases, see the chapter devoted to Linus Torvalds, who managed to beat RMS in this poker) just appreciation of one's efforts.  This new, "free as in GNU" meaning of the word used to be quite popular in most university campuses in 90th of the last century. Stallman also happened to be an original and influential Utopian philosopher and the leader of  the first organized (and partially successful) software cult.

In this part of the book I am mainly interested in the dynamic of  his evolution as a "true believer"  and parallel evolution of the "GNU-free software" movement that he created, and that he, for some time represented ,until it was absorbed into the newer "open source"  movement at the end of the last century, the transformation that led to rejection of RMS as well as moving on the forefront of the movement of new leaders. The irony of all forms of extremism is that they inevitably lead to results that are completely unanticipated by the originators and often are in conflict with their initial goals.

That happened to almost all  Stallman's projects : GPL, GCC and even Emacs.

Among the questions that are of interest to me are:

Stallman's doctrine (Stallmanism) is another interesting point of exploration. One obvious problem with Stallman's doctrine is his approach to authors. The church of GNU denounces copyright doctrine as an evil plot, unless it is useful to fend off attacks on the legality of GPL. See for example his article "Science must ‘push copyright aside’" published in Nature in 1991 [Stallman1991].

 The church of GNU denounces copyright doctrine as an evil plot, unless it is useful to fend off attacks on the legality of GPL.

Of course Stallman views drifted with the time, but still this denunciation of copyright can be considered as an immanent part of Stallmanism.  That's why outside of his its anti-American (or, more correctly,  software anarchism) stance it never has strong following in Europe and produced a very mixed level of enthusiasm (if at all) in Eastern Europe. For Eastern Europe analogy with one particular political doctrine was especially transparent, and thus the level of skepticism was much higher that say in the USA or France.

European tradition presuppose that the author's creativity and effort in bringing about his creative work creates a claim that must be recognized because it is only just to do so. Thus the author has some immanent   rights for his creation. Although it is a more European than American law notion, it is not completely foreign to the American law. For example in the US, artists' moral rights have been invoked to prevent the destruction of artistic works. But the assumption of the creator moral rights creates a very serious problem for RMS. Without moral rights, it's much easier to say "copyright is bad, freedom is good".

Only if  copyright is an economic bargain favoring the privileged few, it has no intrinsic, independent value. If we assume that copyright has some intrinsic ethical value, this hypothesis alone instantly undermines the foundation of GPL. In best traditions of revolutionaries that threat was sometimes taken RMS too emotionally and the problem is made more acute by Stallman's attempts to denounce alternative approaches. Yet, despite all RMS rumblings,  the actual  trend in copyright law has been in the other direction: extending it to new areas (like it was extended from books to films and then to software), and it is not clear where it will end.

Only if copyright is an economic bargain favoring the privileged few,  it has no intrinsic, independent value.

It is important to understand that Stallman played an important part is launching of "Great Free License War" that has pretty destructive influence on the community. While naive or crooked authors often point to the fact that, say, 80% of Freshmeat-listed software project use GPL they conveniently forget to note that 80% of Freshmeat projects are dead wood, an attempt to create another useless program or clone of the known program "because I just can do so". If we talk about the projects that reached critical mass (let's say top 10% of open source projects"), here the picture is different and GPL is just one of the many licenses. Developers who are involved in such projects understand pretty well that GPL incompatibility with most other licenses creates serious obstacles to code sharing, and make contributions from corporate developers much less likely.  

"The Great Free License War" was first unleashed as a GPL crusade and initial shots were fired by RMS himself  by releasing to the unsuspecting world his newer "completely incompatible" with every other license GNU 2.0 license.  But it soon  become a global war with multiple mutually incompatible licenses participating in it instead of countries.  This "license separatism" movement that RMS created and the most prominent figure of which he was from the very beginning is probably the most controversial part of RMS heritage. 

Another interesting issue with Stallmanism is his Romantic ideology of software authorship: an individual genius (possibly working part time in McDonalds to support himself) creates entirely original work, has no debt of gratitude to anyone, no obligations to any organization, and at the same time has no moral rights to all  his work and are obliged to bestow them to the public charity (that is accidentally supervised by RMS) getting nothing but respect in return.  This idea of sacrifice make Stallmanism very close to fundamentalist religious sect.  There are two major similarities between fundamentalist religious sects and Stallmanism:

Also RMS essentially concealed the main idea of the movement under the "freedom rulez" propaganda: the idea was not to write, but to rewrite popular commercial products, using as a launch pad existing free implementations and to became "The Republic of Free Software Clones" with his own private charity as Central Committee of the Party. In a way the idea was an institutionalized plagiarism because he wants to re-implement and absorb even the projects that were already created by other people for free use and with source freely available but under different licenses, especially BSD license.  Actually destructive role of RMS played for BSD project and the level of hypocrisy that he demonstrated in treating BSD developers is the subject of separate discussion and research.

The idea behind software cloning is to write a new piece of software that duplicates the appearance and functionality of the original (usually commercial) software as closely as possible. "GNU-style" software cloning involves the case when source code for the original software is not available and somebody wants to recreate the same software with source code available. Software cloning does not imply source code copying. However, software cloning goes way beyond simply implementing a similar user interface. The goal in cloning is to create a new software program that  duplicates all of the functionality of the original software in the same way as the original software, and presents that functionality in a nearly identical package with the identical or very close interface. 

Also RMS emphasis on contribution of free software by individuals from all over the Usenet (later Internet) was somewhat suspect from the very beginning: while individual contribution is the name of the game in software, individual genius phase in software development is over if it ever existed.

Computers from the beginning were quite an expensive toys and only those who were under umbrella of some rich organization were able to write programs for them and only privileged few has the access to the underling free development communication infrastructure (including Usenet and Internet connections). But this is a fair game as long as their activity is not undermining the very products that permits the company to provide this infrastructure. Unfortunately a lot of  people who create software clones "just for the fun of it" or because they are for some reason are frustrated with the their current situation in the organization (which is pretty typical for large organizations) do not seem to realize that their actions undermine the very organization that is providing the infrastructure for their projects.  

Most large software projects are done by teams working for organizations with multi-million budgets and it is not clear whether such a project can be accomplished without financial incentives and strict discipline imposed on developers by such an environment and professional managers (not all managers are Dilbert's PHB-style suckers, they can be extremely talented themselves,  as was the case with Brooks, who supervised the development of OS/360, or, say, Bell Labs managers who supervised the development of Unix). 

The individual geniuses or even loosely coupled network of individual geniuses are the most important asset  of any project and the prerequisite of it being successful, but clearly the level of satisfaction of  talented people with their working place vary dramatically. Still in no way the real or imaginable dissatisfaction with the current workplace situation should be used to funnel their creative energy in a way that helps to destroy the organization that provides them a  place to work (wonderful or not).  

Universities are completely another game in town. Here creation of free software is just another way to be engaged in academic life. Still the selection of license is an important issue. One important requirement is attribution in case of reuse, the cornerstone of academic ethics. That's why GPL was not very popular in universities and for many years BSD licensed software was the most prominent; only huge infusions of money into GPLed software projects during the Linux gold rush changed the balance.  The second less evident issue is discrimination against reuse of developed software by private companies, if only because such companies are important contributors to the university funds.

Also it is important to understand that large software projects are pretty harmful for the health of people involved (note the Stallman himself can no longer program, supposedly because of repetitive stress injury to one of his hands) and are extremely exhausting and even dangerous for the mental health. You need to be driven and really work on it day and night. And unlike academic projects which, even if they are of substantial size,  are mostly proof of the new concept type, any large project require a lot of maintenance and after a couple of years is usually far from being fun. So the issue of compensation is far from being moot. In this regard software development is not unlike chemical industry. Would anybody like to work for free in the chemical industry ?  Inhale fumes just for the fun of it ? 

Like many revolutionaries before him, Stallman became quite a rich man as the result of his free software crusade. Although exact figures are difficult to obtain, his personal worth can be estimated as more then $500K.  That's much less then, say, Linus Torvalds' personal wealth but enough for a pretty comfortable living of a single man in his 50th.  Not all participants in free software movement that suffered health problem because of their excessive zeal in free software projects earlier in life find themselves in this situation in their 50th.

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