Free as in Freedom/Chapter 9

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Free as in Freedom by Sam Williams
Chapter 9: The GNU General Public License

By the spring of 1985, Richard Stallman had settled on the GNU Project's first milestone—a Lisp-based free software version of Emacs. To meet this goal, however, he faced two challenges. First, he had to rebuild Emacs in a way that made it platform independent. Second, he had to rebuild the Emacs Commune in a similar fashion.

The dispute with UniPress had highlighted a flaw in the Emacs Commune social contract. Where users relied on Stallman's expert insight, the Commune's rules held. In areas where Stallman no longer held the position of alpha hacker—pre-1984 Unix systems, for example—individuals and companies were free to make their own rules.

The tension between the freedom to modify and the freedom to exert authorial privilege had been building before GOSMACS. The Copyright Act of 1976 had overhauled U.S. copyright law, extending the legal protection of copyright to software programs. According to Section 102(b) of the Act, individuals and companies now possessed the ability to copyright the "expression" of a software program but not the "actual processes or methods embodied in the program."1 Translated, programmers and companies had the ability to treat software programs like a story or song. Other programmers could take inspiration from the work, but to make a direct copy or nonsatirical derivative, they first had to secure permission from the original creator. Although the new law guaranteed that even programs without copyright notices carried copyright protection, programmers quickly asserted their rights, attaching coypright notices to their software programs.

At first, Stallman viewed these notices with alarm. Rare was the software program that didn't borrow source code from past programs, and yet, with a single stroke of the president's pen, Congress had given programmers and companies the power to assert individual authorship over communally built programs. It also injected a dose of formality into what had otherwise been an informal system. Even if hackers could demonstrate how a given program's source-code bloodlines stretched back years, if not decades, the resources and money that went into battling each copyright notice were beyond most hackers' means. Simply put, disputes that had once been settled hacker-to-hacker were now settled lawyer-to-lawyer. In such a system, companies, not hackers, held the automatic advantage.

Proponents of software copyright had their counter-arguments: without copyright, works might otherwise slip into the public domain. Putting a copyright notice on a work also served as a statement of quality. Programmers or companies who attached their name to the copyright attached their reputations as well. Finally, it was a contract, as well as a statement of ownership. Using copyright as a flexible form of license, an author could give away certain rights in exchange for certain forms of behavior on the part of the user. For example, an author could give away the right to suppress unauthorized copies just so long as the end user agreed not to create a commercial offshoot.

It was this last argument that eventually softened Stallman's resistance to software copyright notices. Looking back on the years leading up to the GNU Project, Stallman says he began to sense the beneficial nature of copyright sometime around the release of Emacs 15.0, the last significant pre-GNU Project upgrade of Emacs. "I had seen email messages with copyright notices plus simple `verbatim copying permitted' licenses," Stallman recalls. "Those definitely were [an] inspiration."

For Emacs 15, Stallman drafted a copyright that gave users the right to make and distribute copies. It also gave users the right to make modified versions, but not the right to claim sole ownership of those modified versions, as in the case of GOSMACS.

Although helpful in codifying the social contract of the Emacs Commune, the Emacs 15 license remained too "informal" for the purposes of the GNU Project, Stallman says. Soon after starting work on a GNU version of Emacs, Stallman began consulting with the other members of the Free Software Foundation on how to shore up the license's language. He also consulted with the attorneys who had helped him set up the Free Software Foundation.

Mark Fischer, a Boston attorney specializing in intellectual-property law, recalls discussing the license with Stallman during this period. "Richard had very strong views about how it should work," Fischer says, "He had two principles. The first was to make the software absolutely as open as possible. The second was to encourage others to adopt the same licensing practices."

Encouraging others to adopt the same licensing practices meant closing off the escape hatch that had allowed privately owned versions of Emacs to emerge. To close that escape hatch, Stallman and his free software colleagues came up with a solution: users would be free to modify GNU Emacs just so long as they published their modifications. In addition, the resulting "derivative" works would also have to carry the same GNU Emacs License.

The revolutionary nature of this final condition would take a while to sink in. At the time, Fischer says, he simply viewed the GNU Emacs License as a simple contract. It put a price tag on GNU Emacs' use. Instead of money, Stallman was charging users access to their own later modifications. That said, Fischer does remember the contract terms as unique.

"I think asking other people to accept the price was, if not unique, highly unusual at that time," he says.

The GNU Emacs License made its debut when Stallman finally released GNU Emacs in 1985. Following the release, Stallman welcomed input from the general hacker community on how to improve the license's language. One hacker to take up the offer was future software activist John Gilmore, then working as a consultant to Sun Microsystems. As part of his consulting work, Gilmore had ported Emacs over to SunOS, the company's in-house version of Unix. In the process of doing so, Gilmore had published the changes as per the demands of the GNU Emacs License. Instead of viewing the license as a liability, Gilmore saw it as clear and concise expression of the hacker ethos. "Up until then, most licenses were very informal," Gilmore recalls.

As an example of this informality, Gilmore cites a mid-1980s copryight notice for trn, a news reader program written by Larry Wall, a hacker who could go onto later fame as the creator of both the Unix "patch" utility and the Perl scripting language. In the hope of striking a balance between common hacker courtesy and a creator's right to dictate the means of commercial publication, Wall used the program's accompanying copyright notice as an editorial sounding board.

Copyright (c) 1985, Larry Wall
You may copy the trn kit in whole or in part as long as you don't try to make money off it, or pretend that you wrote it.2

Such statements, while reflective of the hacker ethic, also reflected the difficulty of translating the loose, informal nature of that ethic into the rigid, legal language of copyright. In writing the GNU Emacs License, Stallman had done more than close up the escape hatch that permitted proprietary offshoots. He had expressed the hacker ethic in a manner understandable to both lawyer and hacker alike.

It wasn't long, Gilmore says, before other hackers began discussing ways to "port" the GNU Emacs License over to their own programs. Prompted by a conversation on Usenet, Gilmore sent an email to Stallman in November, 1986, suggesting modification:

You should probably remove "EMACS" from the license and replace it with "SOFTWARE" or something. Soon, we hope, Emacs will not be the biggest part of the GNU system, and the license applies to all of it.3

Gilmore wasn't the only person suggesting a more general approach. By the end of 1986, Stallman himself was at work with GNU Project's next major milestone, a source-code debugger, and was looking for ways to revamp the Emacs license so that it might apply to both programs. Stallman's solution: remove all specific references to Emacs and convert the license into a generic copyright umbrella for GNU Project software. The GNU General Public License, GPL for short, was born.

In fashioning the GPL, Stallman followed the software convention of using decimal numbers to indicate prototype versions and whole numbers to indicate mature versions. In 1989, four years after developing the first prototype, Stallman published Version 1.0, designating it the official license of GNU Emacs and the GNU Debugger, or GDB, Stallman's second major foray into the realm of Unix programming. The license contained a preamble spelling out its political intentions:

The General Public License is designed to make sure that you have the freedom to give away or sell copies of free software, that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs; and that you know you can do these things.
To protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights. These restrictions translate to certain responsibilities for you if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it.4

In fashioning the GPL, Stallman had been forced to make an additional adjustment to the informal tenets of the old Emacs Commune. Where he had once demanded that Commune members publish any and all changes, Stallman now demanded publication only in instances when programmers circulated their derivative versions in the same public manner as Stallman. In other words, programmers who simply modified Emacs for private use no longer needed to send the source-code changes back to Stallman. In what would become a rare compromise of free software doctrine, Stallman slashed the price tag for free software. Users could innovate without Stallman looking over their shoulders just so long as they didn't bar Stallman and the rest of the hacker community from future exchanges of the same program.

Looking back, Stallman says the GPL compromise was fueled by his own dissatisfaction with the Big Brother aspect of the original Emacs Commune social contract. As much as he liked peering into other hackers' systems, the knowledge that some future source-code maintainer might use that power to ill effect forced him to temper the GPL.

"It was wrong to require people to publish all changes," says Stallman. "It was wrong to require them to be sent to one privileged developer. That kind of centralization and privilege for one was not consistent with a society in which all had equal rights."

As hacks go, the GPL stands as one of Stallman's best. It created a system of communal ownership within the normally proprietary confines of copyright law. More importantly, it demonstrated the intellectual similarity between legal code and software code. Implicit within the GPL's preamble was a profound message: instead of viewing copyright law with suspicion, hackers should view it as yet another system begging to be hacked.

"The GPL developed much like any piece of free software with a large community discussing its structure, its respect or the opposite in their observation, needs for tweaking and even to compromise it mildly for greater acceptance," says Jerry Cohen, another attorney who helped Stallman with the creation of the license. "The process worked very well and GPL in its several versions has gone from widespread skeptical and at times hostile response to widespread acceptance."

In a 1986 interview with Byte magazine, Stallman summed up the GPL in colorful terms. In addition to proclaiming hacker values, Stallman said, readers should also "see it as a form of intellectual jujitsu, using the legal system that software hoarders have set up against them."5 Years later, Stallman would describe the GPL's creation in less hostile terms. "I was thinking about issues that were in a sense ethical and in a sense political and in a sense legal," he says. "I had to try to do what could be sustained by the legal system that we're in. In spirit the job was that of legislating the basis for a new society, but since I wasn't a government, I couldn't actually change any laws. I had to try to do this by building on top of the existing legal system, which had not been designed for anything like this."

About the time Stallman was pondering the ethical, political, and legal issues associated with free software, a California hacker named Don Hopkins mailed him a manual for the 68000 microprocessor. Hopkins, a Unix hacker and fellow science-fiction buff, had borrowed the manual from Stallman a while earlier. As a display of gratitude, Hopkins decorated the return envelope with a number of stickers obtained at a local science-fiction convention. One sticker in particular caught Stallman's eye. It read, "Copyleft (L), All Rights Reversed." Following the release of the first version of GPL, Stallman paid tribute to the sticker, nicknaming the free software license "Copyleft." Over time, the nickname and its symbol, a backwards "C," would become general Free Software Foundation shorthand for any copyright method "making a program free software and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well."

The German sociologist Max Weber once proposed that all great religions are built upon the "routinization" or "institutionalization" of charisma. Every successful religion, Weber argued, converts the charisma or message of the original religious leader into a social, political, and ethical apparatus more easily translatable across cultures and time.

While not religious per se, the GNU GPL certainly qualifies as an interesting example of this "routinization" process at work in the modern, decentralized world of software development. Since its unveiling, programmers and companies who have otherwise expressed little loyalty or allegiance to Stallman have willingly accepted the GPL bargain at face value. A few have even accepted the GPL as a preemptive protective mechanism for their own software programs. Even those who reject the GPL contract as too compulsory, still credit it as influential.

One hacker falling into this latter group was Keith Bostic, a University of California employee at the time of the GPL 1.0 release. Bostic's department, the Computer Systems Research Group (SRG), had been involved in Unix development since the late 1970s and was responsible for many key parts of Unix, including the TCP/IP networking protocol, the cornerstone of modern Internet communications. By the late 1980s, AT&T, the original owner of the Unix brand name, began to focus on commercializing Unix and began looking to the Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD, the academic version of Unix developed by Bostic and his Berkeley peers, as a key source of commercial technology.

Although the Berkeley BSD source code was shared among researchers and commercial programmers with a source-code license, this commercialization presented a problem. The Berkeley code was intermixed with proprietary AT&T code. As a result, Berkeley distributions were available only to institutions that already had a Unix source license from AT&T. As AT&T raised its license fees, this arrangement, which had at first seemed innocuous, became increasingly burdensome.

Hired in 1986, Bostic had taken on the personal project of porting BSD over to the Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-11 computer. It was during this period, Bostic says, that he came into close interaction with Stallman during Stallman's occasional forays out to the west coast. "I remember vividly arguing copyright with Stallman while he sat at borrowed workstations at CSRG," says Bostic. "We'd go to dinner afterward and continue arguing about copyright over dinner."

The arguments eventually took hold, although not in the way Stallman would have liked. In June, 1989, Berkeley separated its networking code from the rest of the AT&T-owned operating system and distributed it under a University of California license. The contract terms were liberal. All a licensee had to do was give credit to the university in advertisements touting derivative programs.6 In contrast to the GPL, proprietary offshoots were permissible. Only one problem hampered the license's rapid adoption: the BSD Networking release wasn't a complete operating system. People could study the code, but it could only be run in conjunction with other proprietary-licensed code.

Over the next few years, Bostic and other University of California employees worked to replace the missing components and turn BSD into a complete, freely redistributable operating system. Although delayed by a legal challenge from Unix Systems Laboratories—the AT&T spin-off that retained ownership of the Unix brand name—the effort would finally bear fruit in the early 1990s. Even before then, however, many of the Berkeley utilities would make their way into Stallman's GNU Project.

"I think it's highly unlikely that we ever would have gone as strongly as we did without the GNU influence," says Bostic, looking back. "It was clearly something where they were pushing hard and we liked the idea."

By the end of the 1980s, the GPL was beginning to exert a gravitational effect on the free software community. A program didn't have to carry the GPL to qualify as free software—witness the case of the BSD utilities—but putting a program under the GPL sent a definite message. "I think the very existence of the GPL inspired people to think through whether they were making free software, and how they would license it," says Bruce Perens, creator of Electric Fence, a popular Unix utility, and future leader of the Debian GNU/Linux development team. A few years after the release of the GPL, Perens says he decided to discard Electric Fence's homegrown license in favor of Stallman's lawyer-vetted copyright. "It was actually pretty easy to do," Perens recalls.

Rich Morin, the programmer who had viewed Stallman's initial GNU announcement with a degree of skepticism, recalls being impressed by the software that began to gather under the GPL umbrella. As the leader of a SunOS user group, one of Morin's primary duties during the 1980s had been to send out distribution tapes containing the best freeware or free software utilities. The job often mandated calling up original program authors to verify whether their programs were copyright protected or whether they had been consigned to the public domain. Around 1989, Morin says, he began to notice that the best software programs typically fell under the GPL license. "As a software distributor, as soon as I saw the word GPL, I knew I was home free," recalls Morin.

To compensate for the prior hassles that went into compiling distribution tapes to the Sun User Group, Morin had charged recipients a convenience fee. Now, with programs moving over to the GPL, Morin was suddenly getting his tapes put together in half the time, turning a tidy profit in the process. Sensing a commercial opportunity, Morin rechristened his hobby as a business: Prime Time Freeware.

Such commercial exploitation was completely within the confines of the free software agenda. "When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price," advised Stallman in the GPL's preamble. By the late 1980s, Stallman had refined it to a more simple mnemonic: "Don't think free as in free beer; think free as in free speech."

For the most part, businesses ignored Stallman's entreaties. Still, for a few entrepreneurs, the freedom associated with free software was the same freedom associated with free markets. Take software ownership out of the commercial equation, and you had a situation where even the smallest software company was free to compete against the IBMs and DECs of the world.

One of the first entrepreneurs to grasp this concept was Michael Tiemann, a software programmer and graduate student at Stanford University. During the 1980s, Tiemann had followed the GNU Project like an aspiring jazz musician following a favorite artist. It wasn't until the release of the GNU C Compiler, or GCC, in 1987, however, that he began to grasp the full potential of free software. Dubbing GCC a "bombshell," Tiemann says the program's own existence underlined Stallman's determination as a programmer.

"Just as every writer dreams of writing the great American novel, every programmer back in the 1980s talked about writing the great American compiler," Tiemman recalls. "Suddenly Stallman had done it. It was very humbling."

"You talk about single points of failure, GCC was it," echoes Bostic. "Nobody had a compiler back then, until GCC came along."

Rather than compete with Stallman, Tiemann decided to build on top of his work. The original version of GCC weighed in at 110,000 lines of code, but Tiemann recalls the program as surprisingly easy to understand. So easy in fact that Tiemann says it took less than five days to master and another week to port the software to a new hardware platform, National Semiconductor's 32032 microchip. Over the next year, Tiemann began playing around with the source code, creating a native compiler for the C++ programming language. One day, while delivering a lecture on the program at Bell Labs, Tiemann ran into some AT&T developers struggling to pull off the same thing.

"There were about 40 or 50 people in the room, and I asked how many people were working on the native code compiler," Tiemann recalls. "My host said the information was confidential but added that if I took a look around the room I might get a good general idea."

It wasn't long after, Tiemann says, that the light bulb went off in his head. "I had been working on that project for six months," Tiemann says. I just thought to myself, whether it's me or the code, this is a level of efficiency that the free market should be ready to reward."

Tiemann found added inspiration in the GNU Manifesto, which, while excoriating the greed of some software vendors, encourages other vendors to consider the advantages of free software from a consumer point of view. By removing the power of monopoly from the commerical software question, the GPL makes it possible for the smartest vendors to compete on the basis of service and consulting, the two most profit-rich corners of the software marketplace.

In a 1999 essay, Tiemann recalls the impact of Stallman's Manifesto. "It read like a socialist polemic, but I saw something different. I saw a business plan in disguise."7

Teaming up with John Gilmore, another GNU Project fan, Tiemann launched a software consulting service dedicated to customizing GNU programs. Dubbed Cygnus Support, the company signed its first development contract in February, 1990. By the end of the year, the company had $725,000 worth of support and development contracts.

GNU Emacs, GDB, and GCC were the "big three" of developer-oriented tools, but they weren't the only ones developed by Stallman during the GNU Project's first half decade. By 1990, Stallman had also generated GNU versions of the Bourne Shell (rechristened the Bourne Again Shell, or BASH), YACC (rechristened Bison), and awk (rechristened gawk). Like GCC , every GNU program had to be designed to run on multiple systems, not just a single vendor's platform. In the process of making programs more flexible, Stallman and his collaborators often made them more useful as well.

Recalling the GNU universalist approach, Prime Time Freeware's Morin points to a critical, albeit mundane, software package called hello. "It's the hello world program which is five lines of C, packaged up as if it were a GNU distribution," Morin says. "And so it's got the Texinfo stuff and the configure stuff. It's got all the other software engineering goo that the GNU Project has come up with to allow packages to port to all these different environments smoothly. That's tremendously important work, and it affects not only all of [Stallman's] software, but also all of the other GNU Project software."

According to Stallman, improving software programs was secondary to building them in the first place. "With each piece I may or may not find a way to improve it," said Stallman to Byte. "To some extent I am getting the benefit of reimplementation, which makes many systems much better. To some extent it's because I have been in the field a long time and worked on many other systems. I therefore have many ideas to bring to bear."8

Nevertheless, as GNU tools made their mark in the late 1980s, Stallman's AI Lab-honed reputation for design fastidiousness soon became legendary throughout the entire software-development community.

Jeremy Allison, a Sun user during the late 1980s and programmer destined to run his own free software project, Samba, in the 1990s, recalls that reputation with a laugh. During the late 1980s, Allison began using Emacs. Inspired by the program's community-development model, Allison says he sent in a snippet of source code only to have it rejected by Stallman.

"It was like the Onion headline," Allison says. "`Child's prayers to God answered: No.'"

Stallman's growing stature as a software programmer, however, was balanced by his struggles as a project manager. Although the GNU Project moved from success to success in creation of developer-oriented tools, its inability to generate a working kernel, the central "traffic cop" program that determines which devices and applications get access to the microprocessor in all Unix systems, was starting to elicit grumbles even before the 1980s came to a close.

As with most GNU Project efforts, Stallman had started kernel development by looking for an existing program to modify. A review of GNU Project "GNUsletters" of the late 1980s reveals that this approach, like the initial attempt to build GCC out of Pastel, was less than optimal. A January, 1987 GNUsletter reports that the GNU Project was working to overhaul TRIX, a Unix kernel developed at MIT. By February of 1988, according to a newsletter published that month, the GNU Project had shifted its design focus to Mach, a lightweight "micro-kernel" developed at Carnegie Mellon. All told, official GNU Project kernel development wouldn't commence until 1990.9

The delays in kernel development were just one of many concerns weighing on Stallman during this period. In 1989, Lotus Development Corporation filed suit against rival software company, Paperback Software International, for copying menu commands in Lotus' popular 1-2-3 Spreadsheet program. Lotus' suit, coupled with the Apple-Microsoft "look and feel" battle, provided a troublesome backdrop for the GNU Project. Although both suits fell outside the scope of the GNU Project, both revolved around operating systems and software applications developed for the personal computer, not Unix-compatible hardware systems—they threatened to impose a chilling effect on the entire culture of software development. Determined to do something, Stallman recruited a few programmer friends and composed a magazine ad blasting the lawsuits. He then followed up the ad by helping to organize a group to protest the corporations filing the suit. Calling itself the League for Programming Freedom, the group held protests outside the offices of Lotus, Inc. and the Boston courtroom hosting the Lotus trial.

The protests were notable.10 They document the evolving nature of software industry. Applications had quietly replaced operating systems as the primary corporate battleground. In its unfulfilled quest to build a free software operating system, the GNU Project seemed hopelessly behind the times. Indeed, the very fact that Stallman had felt it necessary to put together an entirely new group dedicated to battling the "look and feel" lawsuits reinforced that obsolescence in the eyes of some observers.

In 1990, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation certified Stallman's genius status when it granted Stallman a MacArthur fellowship, therefore making him a recipient for the organization's so-called "genius grant." The grant, a $240,000 reward for launching the GNU Project and giving voice to the free software philosophy, relieved a number of short-term concerns. First and foremost, it gave Stallman, a nonsalaried employee of the FSF who had been supporting himself through consulting contracts, the ability to devote more time to writing GNU code.11

Ironically, the award also made it possible for Stallman to vote. Months before the award, a fire in Stallman's apartment house had consumed his few earthly possessions. By the time of the award, Stallman was listing himself as a "squatter"12 at 545 Technology Square. "[The registrar of voters] didn't want to accept that as my address," Stallman would later recall. "A newspaper article about the MacArthur grant said that and then they let me register."13

Most importantly, the MacArthur money gave Stallman more freedom. Already dedicated to the issue of software freedom, Stallman chose to use the additional freedom to increase his travels in support of the GNU Project mission.

Interestingly, the ultimate success of the GNU Project and the free software movement in general would stem from one of these trips. In 1990, Stallman paid a visit to the Polytechnic University in Helsinki, Finland. Among the audience members was 21-year-old Linus Torvalds, future developer of the Linux kernel—the free software kernel destined to fill the GNU Project's most sizable gap.

A student at the nearby University of Helsinki at the time, Torvalds regarded Stallman with bemusement. "I saw, for the first time in my life, the stereotypical long-haired, bearded hacker type," recalls Torvalds in his 2001 autobiography Just for Fun. "We don't have much of them in Helsinki."14

While not exactly attuned to the "sociopolitical" side of the Stallman agenda, Torvalds nevertheless appreciated the agenda's underlying logic: no programmer writes error-free code. By sharing software, hackers put a program's improvement ahead of individual motivations such as greed or ego protection.

Like many programmers of his generation, Torvalds had cut his teeth not on mainframe computers like the IBM 7094, but on a motley assortment of home-built computer systems. As university student, Torvalds had made the step up from PC programming to Unix, using the university's MicroVAX. This ladder-like progression had given Torvalds a different perspective on the barriers to machine access. For Stallman, the chief barriers were bureaucracy and privilege. For Torvalds, the chief barriers were geography and the harsh Helsinki winter. Forced to trek across the University of Helsinki just to log in to his Unix account, Torvalds quickly began looking for a way to log in from the warm confines of his off-campus apartment.

The search led Torvalds to the operating system Minix, a lightweight version of Unix developed for instructional purposes by Dutch university professor Andrew Tanenbaum. The program fit within the memory confines of a 386 PC, the most powerful machine Torvalds could afford, but still lacked a few necessary features. It most notably lacked terminal emulation, the feature that allowed Torvalds' machine to mimic a university terminal, making it possible to log in to the MicroVAX from home.

During the summer of 1991, Torvalds rewrote Minix from the ground up, adding other features as he did so. By the end of the summer, Torvalds was referring to his evolving work as the "GNU/Emacs of terminal emulation programs."15 Feeling confident, he solicited a Minix newsgroup for copies of the POSIX standards, the software blue prints that determined whether a program was Unix compatible. A few weeks later, Torvalds was posting a message eerily reminiscent of Stallman's original 1983 GNU posting:

Hello everybody out there using minix-
I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu for 386 (486) AT clones). This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).16

The posting drew a smattering of responses and within a month, Torvalds had posted a 0.01 version of the operating system—i.e., the earliest possible version fit for outside review—on an Internet FTP site. In the course of doing so, Torvalds had to come up with a name for the new system. On his own PC hard drive, Torvalds had saved the program as Linux, a name that paid its respects to the software convention of giving each Unix variant a name that ended with the letter X. Deeming the name too "egotistical," Torvalds changed it to Freax, only to have the FTP site manager change it back.

Although Torvalds had set out to build a full operating system, both he and other developers knew at the time that most of the functional tools needed to do so were already available, thanks to the work of GNU, BSD, and other free software developers. One of the first tools the Linux development team took advantage of was the GNU C Compiler, a tool that made it possible to process programs written in the C programming language.

Integrating GCC improved the performance of Linux. It also raised issues. Although the GPL's "viral" powers didn't apply to the Linux kernel, Torvalds' willingness to borrow GCC for the purposes of his own free software operating system indicated a certain obligation to let other users borrow back. As Torvalds would later put it: "I had hoisted myself up on the shoulders of giants."17 Not surprisingly, he began to think about what would happen when other people looked to him for similar support. A decade after the decision, Torvalds echoes the Free Software Foundation's Robert Chassel when he sums up his thoughts at the time:

You put six months of your life into this thing and you want to make it available and you want to get something out of it, but you don't want people to take advantage of it. I wanted people to be able to see [Linux], and to make changes and improvements to their hearts' content. But I also wanted to make sure that what I got out of it was to see what they were doing. I wanted to always have access to the sources so that if they made improvements, I could make those improvements myself.18

When it was time to release the 0.12 version of Linux, the first to include a fully integrated version of GCC, Torvalds decided to voice his allegiance with the free software movement. He discarded the old kernel license and replaced it with the GPL. The decision triggered a porting spree, as Torvalds and his collaborators looked to other GNU programs to fold into the growing Linux stew. Within three years, Linux developers were offering their first production release, Linux 1.0, including fully modified versions of GCC, GDB, and a host of BSD tools.

By 1994, the amalgamated operating system had earned enough respect in the hacker world to make some observers wonder if Torvalds hadn't given away the farm by switching to the GPL in the project's initial months. In the first issue of Linux Journal, publisher Robert Young sat down with Torvalds for an interview. When Young asked the Finnish programmer if he felt regret at giving up private ownership of the Linux source code, Torvalds said no. "Even with 20/20 hindsight," Torvalds said, he considered the GPL "one of the very best design decisions" made during the early stages of the Linux project.19

That the decision had been made with zero appeal or deference to Stallman and the Free Software Foundation speaks to the GPL's growing portability. Although it would take a few years to be recognized by Stallman, the explosiveness of Linux development conjured flashbacks of Emacs. This time around, however, the innovation triggering the explosion wasn't a software hack like Control-R but the novelty of running a Unix-like system on the PC architecture. The motives may have been different, but the end result certainly fit the ethical specifications: a fully functional operating system composed entirely of free software.

As his initial email message to the comp.os.minix newsgroup indicates, it would take a few months before Torvalds saw Linux as anything less than a holdover until the GNU developers delivered on the HURD kernel. This initial unwillingness to see Linux in political terms would represent a major blow to the Free Software Foundation.

As far as Torvalds was concerned, he was simply the latest in a long line of kids taking apart and reassembling things just for fun. Nevertheless, when summing up the runaway success of a project that could have just as easily spent the rest of its days on an abandoned computer hard drive, Torvalds credits his younger self for having the wisdom to give up control and accept the GPL bargain.

"I may not have seen the light," writes Torvalds, reflecting on Stallman's 1991 Polytechnic University speech and his subsequent decision to switch to the GPL. "But I guess something from his speech sunk in ."20

Endnotes[edit]

  1. See Hal Abelson, Mike Fischer, and Joanne Costello, "Software and Copyright Law," updated version (1998).
    http://www.swiss.ai.mit.edu/6805/articles/int-prop/software-copyright.html
  2. See Trn Kit README.
    http://www.za.debian.org/doc/trn/trn-readme
  3. See John Gilmore, quoted from email to author.
  4. See Richard Stallman, et al., "GNU General Public License: Version 1," (February, 1989).
    http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/copying-1.0.html
  5. See David Betz and Jon Edwards, "Richard Stallman discusses his public-domain [sic] Unix-compatible software system with BYTE editors," BYTE (July, 1996). (Reprinted on the GNU Project web site: http://www.gnu.org/gnu/byte-interview.html.)
    This interview offers an interesting, not to mention candid, glimpse at Stallman's political attitudes during the earliest days of the GNU Project. It is also helpful in tracing the evolution of Stallman's rhetoric.
    Describing the purpose of the GPL, Stallman says, "I'm trying to change the way people approach knowledge and information in general. I think that to try to own knowledge, to try to control whether people are allowed to use it, or to try to stop other people from sharing it, is sabotage."
    Contrast this with a statement to the author in August 2000: "I urge you not to use the term `intellectual property' in your thinking. It will lead you to misunderstand things, because that term generalizes about copyrights, patents, and trademarks. And those things are so different in their effects that it is entirely foolish to try to talk about them at once. If you hear somebody saying something about intellectual property, without quotes, then he's not thinking very clearly and you shouldn't join."
  6. The University of California's "obnoxious advertising clause" would later prove to be a problem. Looking for a less restrictive alternative to the GPL, some hackers used the University of California, replacing "University of California" with the name of their own instution. The result: free software programs that borrowed from dozens of other programs would have to cite dozens of institutions in advertisements. In 1999, after a decade of lobbying on Stallman's part, the University of California agreed to drop this clause.

    See "The BSD License Problem" at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/bsd.html.

  7. See Michael Tiemann, "Future of Cygnus Solutions: An Entrepreneur's Account," Open Sources (O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., 1999): 139.
    http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources/book/tiemans.html
  8. See Richard Stallman, BYTE (1986).
  9. See "HURD History."
    http://www.gnu.org/software/hurd/history.html
  10. According to a League of Programming Freedom Press, the protests were notable for featuring the first hexadecimal protest chant:
    1-2-3-4, toss the lawyers out the door;
    5-6-7-8, innovate don't litigate;
    9-A-B-C, 1-2-3 is not for me;
    D-E-F-O, look and feel have got to go
    http://lpf.ai.mit.edu/Links/prep.ai.mit.edu/demo.final.release
  11. I use the term "writing" here loosely. About the time of the MacArthur award, Stallman began suffering chronic pain in his hands and was dictating his work to FSF-employed typists. Although some have speculated that the hand pain was the result of repetitive stress injury, or RSI, an injury common among software programmers, Stallman is not 100% sure. "It was NOT carpal tunnel syndrome," he writes. "My hand problem was in the hands themselves, not in the wrists." Stallman has since learned to work without typists after switching to a keyboard with a lighter touch.
    Dorothea Salo, a reader, adds the following commentary:

    RSI is an umbrella term that covers a variety of nerve, ligament, and muscle disorders caused by repetitive motion such as that involved in typing. Stallman probably didn't have carpal tunnel syndrome, but he certainly *did* have some form of RSI. (The description of his symptoms is vague, but cubital tunnel syndrome might fit.)

  12. See Reuven Lerner, "Stallman wins $240,000 MacArthur award," MIT, The Tech (July 18, 1990).
    http://the-tech.mit.edu/V110/N30/rms.30n.html
  13. See Michael Gross, "Richard Stallman: High School Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-certified Genius" (1999).
  14. See Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidentaly Revolutionary (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001): 58-59.
  15. See Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidentaly Revolutionary (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001): 78.
  16. See "Linux 10th Anniversary."
    http://www.linux10.org/history/
  17. See Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidentaly Revolutionary (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001): 96-97.
  18. See Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidentaly Revolutionary (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001): 94-95.
  19. See Robert Young, "Interview with Linus, the Author of Linux," Linux Journal (March 1, 1994).
    http://www.linuxjournal.com/article.php?sid=2736
  20. See Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidentaly Revolutionary (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001): 59.


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