[Reader-list] Left wakes up (slowly) to free software

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Mon Jun 17 01:23:20 IST 2002

The issue of free software seems to have strangely passed the left in this 
country by.. This review came out in New Left Review (it was also posted in 
nettime), what was strange (but not surprising) was that NLR took so long 
to come to terms with such issues. For a long time the aging and (old-new) 
Left in the West  looked at free software advocates as either as muddled 
libertarians, or confused anarchists. In that context this review of a 
biography of Richard Stallman is a welcome departure.

Stallman, as some Delhi-based list readers will remember, spoke at Sarai on 
February of this year.

New Left Review 15, May-June 2002
URL: http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24907.shtml


The following passage appears very rarely in the copyright notice of a 
printed book:

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under 
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, Version 1.1 or any later 
version published by the Free Software Foundation.

It is to be found on the opening page of a new biography of the 
free-software programmer and activist, Richard Stallman, and (as the 
epilogue recounts) the unusual arrangement under which it is published is 
due to his stern insistence. The notice means what it says: anyone is free 
to copy, change and disseminate the book, provided they obey a set of 
rules, of which the most important are (a) that they must reproduce 
invariant portions of the text, protecting the recognition of its author, 
and (b) that any modified or copied text be subject to the same GFD 
licence. Furthermore, from June 2002, Sam Williams plans to publish the 
biography on the web site www.faifzilla.org, where readers
can help to improve the work, or create a personalized version . . . We 
realize there are many technical details in this story that may benefit 
from additional or refined information. As this book is released under the 
GFDL, we are accepting patches just like we would with any free software 
program. Accepted changes will be posted electronically and will eventually 
be incorporated into future printed versions of this work.
As the book makes plain, Stallman is an extraordinary figurea programmer of 
surpassing skill, capable of matching the output of entire commercial teams 
with his spare, elegant code; and a tireless, principled and uncompromising 
activist who initiated and fostered the notion of a data commons. Stallman 
not only developed the conceptual details of what has become known as 
‘copyleft’ (it is sometimes indicated with a reversed © symbol), creating 
public-ownership licences that cover software and documents, but he also 
laboured to produce the fundamental elements of a free-software operating 
system a no-cost alternative to Windows, Mac OS and the rest, which anyone 
could download and improve. It was Stallman who, in the eighties, initiated 
and led work on a free-software version of Unix, which he dubbed GNU (a 
typically recursive programmer’s joke, this, the initials standing for 
GNU’s Not Unix). The extraordinary ambition to realize such a system was 
finally achieved using elements of GNU alongside a kernel written as a 
stop-gap, originally by Linus Torvalds, and developed into the Linux 
system; which, thanks to the efforts of thousands of collaborators 
internationally, has become a threat to Microsoft’s monopoly.

With his waist-length hair, flowing beard, brown polyester trousers and 
ill-matched T-shirts, Stallman himself is quite a contrast to Seattle’s 
Digital Godfather. Born in 1953 he was, according to his mother, devouring 
calculus textbooks by the age of seven. Educated in New York’s state 
schools, supplemented by Saturday sessions at the Columbia Honours 
Programme, he initially led the isolated existence of a mathematical 
wunderkind, reading science fiction and MAD magazine, alienated from the 
1960s protest movements. Studying mathematics at Harvard, he found his way 
to the Artificial Intelligence laboratory at MIT, and moved there for his 
postgraduate work. (Though officially independent of the Institute now, 
Stallman still operates out of 545 Tech Square.)

It was at the AI lab that Stallman came into his own. There he found a 
tight-knit, highly collaborative group of dedicated hackers who exchanged 
information freely, working within egalitarian and informal structures. 
Openness was central to their ethos, and was defended vigorously and 
practicallyby breaking into offices where terminals had been left idle 
behind locked doors, for instance. Stallman even fought against the use of 

In the 1970s these programmers would freely exchange and tailor 
pre-compiled source codes, improving and customizing them to suit their 
requirements. From the turn of the 1980s, as the use of computers spread 
and software became a valuable commodity, companies copyrighted their 
programs and withdrew the source codes from the public domain. For 
programmers like Stallman, this was an assault on what they most cared 
about, as material that they had worked on for years was snatched from 
their graspan act analogous to the enclosure of common land. Stallman 
swiftly arrived at a strong position opposing this development: he would 
not use software that he was not allowed to alter or give to others. 
Computer codes were not scarce in the way that material goods were. 
Stallman likened them to recipes: to prevent people from swapping them, or 
tinkering with them to suit their tastes, was authoritarian, morally wrong, 
and a pollution of once open and collaborative social relations.

Stallman argues that while companies address the issue of software control 
only from the point of view of maximizing profits, the community of hackers 
has a quite different perspective: ‘What kind of rules make possible a good 
society that is good for the people in it?’. The idea of free software is 
not that programmers should make no money from their efforts indeed, 
fortunes have been made but that it is wrong that the commercial software 
market is set up solely to make as much money as possible for the companies 
that employ them.

Free software has a number of advantages. It allows communities of users to 
alter code so that it evolves to become economical and bugless, and adapts 
to rapidly changing technologies. It allows those with specialist needs to 
restructure codes to meet their requirements. Given that programs have to 
run in conjunction with each other, it is important for those who work on 
them to be able to examine existing code, particularly that of operating 
systems indeed, many think that one of the ways in which Microsoft has 
maintained its dominance has been because its programmers working on, say, 
Office have privileged access to Windows code. Above all, free software 
allows access on the basis of need rather than ability to pay. These 
considerations, together with a revulsion at the greed and cynicism of the 
software giants, have attracted many people to the project. Effective 
communities offering advice and information have grown up to support users 
and programmers.

The free exchange of software has led some commentators to compare the 
online gift economy with the ceremony of potlatch, in which people bestow 
extravagant presents, or even sacrifice goods, to raise their prestige. Yet 
there is a fundamental distinction between the two, since the copying and 
distribution of software is almost cost-free at least if one excludes the 
large initial outlay for a computer and networking facilities. If a 
programmer gives away the program that they have written, the expenditure 
involved is the time taken to write it any number of people can have a copy 
without the inventor being materially poorer.
An ideological tussle has broken out in this field between idealists, 
represented by Stallman, who want software to be really free, and the 
pragmatists, who would rather not frighten the corporations. The term 
‘free’, Eric Raymond argues in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is 
associated with hostility to intellectual property rights even with 
communism. Instead, he prefers the ‘open source’ approach, which would 
replace such sour thoughts with ‘pragmatic tales, sweet to managers’ and 
investors’ ears, of higher reliability and lower cost and better features’. 
For Raymond, the system in which open-source software such as Linux is 
produced approximates to the ideal free-market condition, in which selfish 
agents maximize their own utility and thereby create a spontaneous, 
self-correcting order: programmers compete to make the most efficient code, 
and ‘the social milieu selects ruthlessly for competence’. While 
programmers may appear to be selflessly offering the gift of their work, 
their altruism masks the self-interested pursuit of prestige in the hacker 

In complete contrast, others have extolled the ‘communism’ of such an 
arrangement. Although free software is not explicitly mentioned, it does 
seem to be behind the argument of Hardt and Negri’s Empire that the new 
mode of computer-mediated production makes ‘cooperation completely immanent 
to the labour activity itself’. People need each other to create value, but 
these others are no longer necessarily provided by capital and its 
organizational powers. Rather, it is communities that produce and, as they 
do so, reproduce and redefine themselves; the outcome is no less than ‘the 
potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism’. As Richard 
Barbrook pointed out in his controversial nettime posting, ‘Cyber 
Communism’, the situation is certainly one that Marx would have found 
familiar: the forces of production have come into conflict with the 
existing relations of production. The free-software economy combines 
elements associated with both communism and the free market, for goods are 
free, communities of developers altruistically support users, and openness 
and collaboration are essential to the continued functioning of the system. 
Money can be made but need not be, and the whole is protected and sustained 
by a hacked capitalist legal tool copyright.

The result is a widening digital commons: Stallman’s General Public Licence 
uses copyright or left to lock software into communal ownership. Since all 
derivative versions must themselves be ‘copylefted’ (even those that carry 
only a tiny fragment of the original code) the commons grows, and free 
software spreads like a virus or, in the comment of a rattled Microsoft 
executive, like cancer. Elsewhere, a Microsoft vice-president has 
complained that the introduction of GPLs ‘fundamentally undermines the 
independent commercial-software sector because it effectively makes it 
impossible to distribute software on a basis where recipients pay for the 
product’ rather than just the distribution costs.

Asked about his wider political convictions, Stallman replies:
I hesitate to exaggerate the importance of this little puddle of freedom . 
. . Because the more well-known and conventional areas of working for 
freedom and a better society are tremendously important. I wouldn't say 
that free software is as important as they are. It’s the responsibility I 
undertook, because it dropped in my lap and I saw a way I could do 
something about it. But, for example, to end police brutality, to end the 
war on drugs, to end the kinds of racism we still have, to help everyone 
have a comfortable life, to protect the rights of people who do abortions, 
to protect us from theocracy, these are tremendously important issues, far 
more important than what I do. I just wish I knew how to do something about 

In fact, a look at Stallman’s homepage, www.stallman.org, shows that he is 
trying to mobilize public opinion over a wide range of political issues.

Beyond the ‘puddle’, though, Stallman’s ideas do have wider resonance. As 
music, films, images and texts have become digitized, lifted from their 
material substrata of plastic or paper, many of the considerations that 
apply to free software come to bear on them. The issue again is not just 
about copying but altering. In NLR 13, Sven Lütticken eloquently described 
the advantages of intellectual ‘theft’. Online, the challenges to copyright 
are considerable, as people swap files using peer-to-peer programs that 
sidestep centralized surveillance and control. This free exchange of 
cultural goods is pursued not simply for consumption but to provide 
material for active alteration most clearly so in music, where the sampling 
and mixing of diverse sources is common, but also in video, with ‘fan cuts’ 
of TV shows and films. Sometimes such appropriations are undertaken with 
subversive intent for instance, in the copying of official websites for 
satirical purposes, such as those sponsored by the group RTMark, at 
www.rtmark.com. In the world of on-line art, attempts to claim exclusive 
ownership of works or sites have often been met with the practical 
political act of hacking and illicit copying.

Stallman himself distinguishes between what he calls functional works 
(software tools, manuals and reference guides, for example), scientific and 
historical works, and works of art; in his view, all should be freely 
copied and distributed, but the latter two should only be modifiable if 
their authors assent. Stallman, whose defence of free software is in 
essence a moral one, has no doubt that free distribution should apply 
equally to cultural goods: ‘The number of people who find Napster useful . 
. . tells me that the right to distribute copies not only on a 
neighbour-to-neighbour basis, but to the public at large, is essential and 
therefore may not be taken away’.

In a now well-known formulation, Stallman says of free software: ‘Don’t 
think free as in free beer; think free as in free speech.’ Yet in fact much 
free software is actually costless, or very nearly so; likewise, swapped 
files containing music, pictures or video are extremely cheap to download. 
While to do so is often illegal under current copyright law, it is unclear 
whether the law could actually be enforced any more successfully in this 
area than it was over copying music to cassette tapes.

Many of the advantages that work in favour of free software also apply to 
other goods particularly, but not solely, those in digital form. The 
argument about the efficiency that results from rapid peer review is of 
considerable importance. At www.foresight.org, K. Eric Drexler’s pioneering 
essay on the potential of hypertext points up the fact that conversation on 
paper develops slowly (certainly in academic circles), due to the time 
needed for review, resubmission, publication and distribution, and the same 
is true of any riposte that may be published. What is more, the final 
result remains unchangeable, and isolated from the comments it has 
provoked. Hypertext allows for rapid revision, collapses the time-scale 
involved in getting a response and can link all related texts together. 
Free copying, linking and alteration are essential to this process. With 
cultural works, the right to alter is a free speech issue, as becomes clear 
when artists are sued for tampering with images of Barbie, using company 
logos or even invoking company names. Corporations not only want to give 
their brands and images powerful cultural currency, but also to control 
their further use. To be unable to play with the image of Mickey Mouse or 
Ronald McDonald due to the threat of litigation is a fundamental form of 
cultural censorship. Equally, the copying and alteration of online art 
works by other artists has been very important to the development of much 
Net art theft being seen as a form of flattery.

The ‘copyleft’ issue has major implications for the Left itself. Consider 
the example of NLR. Its on-line policy is to make all current political 
interventions, and a selection of articles from each issue, freely 
available at www.newleftreview.org, while electronic access to the entire 
contents of the journal is available only to subscribers. At the same time, 
the journal is protected by copyright and raises the money that it needs to 
be published at all from subscriptions, bookshop sales and reprint rights. 
Under the copyleft agreement, distribution of NLR material would be freely 
granted to all those who had a desire or need for it. Those who could 
afford the convenient and attractive packaging of the material that the 
physical magazine offers would still buy it, but those who needed the 
material without being able to afford the packaging would not be denied. 
Furthermore, documents could be annotated, updated, and placed alongside 
critiques (this can take place with convenience and speed on the Web, but 
need not be confined to the virtual sphere). As with free software, the 
ambition would be to foster a widening commons of writing and other 
cultural material, a sphere in which access is determined primarily by need 
and not price. In cases like this, would not the gamble offered by copyleft 
be that widening access, and the goodwill that it creates, increases rather 
than reduces income?

Until nanobots labour over physical manufactured goods, free beer will not 
be on offer - though the artist and programmer Joshua Portway has remarked 
that Christ’s miracle with the loaves and fishes produced the first 
open-source sandwich. Yet free speech and a free culture protected by the 
very mechanisms put in place to restrict ownership and maximize profits can 
be. The ‘left’ in copyleft should be taken seriously, as a matter of 
expediency and principle. In this way, Stallman’s small puddle of freedom 
may become connected to an ocean

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