[-empyre-] free code article...
i wrote a small article called 'free code' for the 2001 media circus
you can access it via
(click on the 'accessing the networks' section ...
i've cut and pasted it below also:
July 2001 / Rogue States - the Media Circus Reader
Free Code and the divisions within
by Sam de Silva
In mid 1999, Microsoft were subject to an antitrust trial in which the US
Department of Justice accused the software giant of being a monopoly and using
intentional strategies to eliminate competition.
On May 25th 1999, an email from Microsoft marketer Ed Chase was sent to a
number of software corporations' executives, claiming that 'Linux is
Windows 98' in key retail outlets. This email was made public by Microsoft on
June 4th, in hope of dispelling the claims of monopolisation. The email was
accepted as evidence in the trial, but the judge hearing the case commented
that it was self-serving. In the end, the email didn't help. In June 2000, the
court found Microsoft guilty of monopolistic practice and was ordered them to
divide in to two companies. Currently, the judgement is being appealed.
Both Windows 98 and Linux are operating systems, software that sits between
computer hardware and applications such as Word and Netscape. It is the
operating system that enables these practical applications to work. Linux is
the free operating system that is slowly creeping into mainstream use.
Were Microsoft sales really being undermined by Linux? Or was the company
simply constructing a case to create the illusion that there are in fact
serious competitors to its Windows operating system?
If anything, it is the unique philosophy and culture that underlines the free
software movement that poses a threat to big business monopoly.
The initial version of the Linux operating system was created by Finnish
student, Linus Torvalds. This system was then improved upon by thousands of
others after he made the source code available to the public under the GNU
General Public Licence. This licence ensures that any source code associated
with the software has to be made available to the public for scrutiny,
improvement and exchange. Source code is effectively the recipe of the
application?it tells computer programmers exactly how a piece of software
works. The GNU licence also allows companies to charge money for distributions
(such as user-friendly Linux cd-roms), technical service and other
applications. However, the source code behind the applications must at all
times be available to the public, which means that anyone can have it for free
if they want it.
Linux spread like a virus amongst programmers and enthusiasts during the
Currently, it has a growing industry surrounding it offering books and manuals
as well as pre-packaged software cd-roms for those who do not wish to download
it from the Internet. Programmers from around the world are involved in
developing thousands of applications to improve the system and add new
The distribution of Linux has raised the popularity of the GNU licence and its
principles have since been adopted by thousands of software developers.
Stallman, the man behind GNU, was a programmer at MIT Artificial Intelligence
Lab who was an active participatant in the culture of sharing source code,
collaborative problem solving and learning from others that was alive in the
1970s. However, in the early 80s, Stallman witnessed the atmosphere beginning
to change. The code was becoming valuable and big business began to move in.
Frustrated by the new proprietary environment, Stallman decided to create a
free operating system. In 1984, he resigned from MIT to start the GNU project.
The primary motivation of this project was to create a free computer operating
system where 'everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to
make changes either large or small'1.
In 1985, he founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF)?aiming to further
promote the right to 'use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer
programs.'2 Stallman was also interested in the ethics and definition of the
word 'free', and the impact that this way of thinking might have on the
community. The FSF is a political movement?'free software is a new mechanism
for democracy to operate'3.
For the next few years, Stallman and a dispersed cluster of programmers would
produce hundreds of large and small software tools and applications under the
GNU philosophy. It was possible for programmers to specify the way they wanted
their software and code to be utilised. GNU has an ever-growing variety of
licences that reflect the various needs of its community. The software-sharing
community was being rebuilt. But not everyone understood.
One of the problems with Stallman's initiative was the use of the word 'free',
although he has always maintained that it isn't about money, it's 'free as in
freedom.' However, some members of the software sharing community did not
all the ideals of the movement. For them, it was about a distributed community
and its capacity to jointly solve problems, error-proof programs and, at the
end of the day, produce superior software.
Enter the 'open source' movement. Today, open source has become the popular
term to describe freely downloadable software such as Linux. The media are
using this term more and more frequently. Eric Steven Raymond and his paper
'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' played an influential role in the mainstreaming
of this term.
'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' documents the software movement that inspired
Linux, tracing it back to the very early days of computing. This is the paper
that inspired Netscape executives to make the web browser's source code
publicly available. Raymond stated that the future 'will belong to people who
start from individual vision and brilliance, then amplify it through the
effective construction of voluntary communities of interest.'4 For Netscape,
any big business, access to a talented pool of highly skilled programmers
working for free must be tempting.
In January 1998, Raymond got a call from Netscape confirming that the Internet
browser creator was going to make Netscape 5.0 software code available to the
public. In an article in Salon Magazine, Raymond reports that this was the
moment he had been waiting on for 20 years: 'Netscape doing this creates a
window of opportunity for us to get our message into corporate boardrooms'5.
The Netscape decision to free its software marked a significant division in
non-proprietary software development community. Eric Raymond and his group of
five colleagues agreed the time had come 'to dump the confrontational attitude
that has been associated with free software in the past and sell the idea
strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that motivated
Netscape'6. The word 'free' had to go and 'open source' was born.
Richard Stallman accepts the increasing popularity of the term 'open source'
but is highly critical of the movement, claiming that it 'avoids mentioning
idealistic concepts such as freedom and community, and as a result most of the
newcomers have no idea that you can think of free software in those terms.'
him, the free software and open source movements agree on the practical side
things, but disagree on political and ethical fronts.
There is widespread acknowledgement within the free software movement of the
positive contributions software companies have made by revealing their source
code. More and more IBM, Sun and Corel seem to be making their software
open-source. Microsoft is still the exception, arguing that it is bad business
practice to give away content. For the companies who are sharing their code,
open source has been good business practiceperhaps they have realised that
improvements and innovations are more likely to come out of communal spaces
than cubicles in sterile labs and high-rise buildings.
It's unfortunate that a new term had to be coined in order for the code-
idea to become acceptable to more corporations. If the word 'free' is included
in the term describing the sharing and improving of software code, the value
'freedom' becomes embedded in the process. The danger of 'open source'
with big business is that, with the right type of marketing and legal
that term could easily be re-interpreted to describe software made by a
community, but owned by a corporation.
Hopefully 'open source' will not become a euphemism for 'proprietary'.
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