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CHAPTER 2 A HISTORY AND POLITICS LESSON
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Note Stallman created the Emacs text editor and the GNU C Compiler (GCC). Together, they allow the creation of yet more software, so it s no surprise that one of the very first programs Torvalds used in the early days to create Linux was Stallman s GCC.
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Back in Stallman s day at the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), computer software was shared. If you came up with a program to perform a particular task, you offered it to practically anyone who wanted it. Alternatively, if you found an existing program wasn t adequate or had a bug, you improved it yourself, and then made the resulting program available to others. People might use your improved version, or they might not; it was up to them. This way of sharing software was disorganized and done on an ad hoc basis, but came about of its own accord. Nobody questioned it, and it seemed the best way of doing things. There certainly wasn t any money involved, any more than there would be money involved in one friend explaining an idea to another.
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RICHARD STALLMAN
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Richard Matthew Stallman, usually referred to as RMS, was born in 1953 in Manhattan. He comes from the old school of computing forged during the 1970s and was a member of MIT s legendary Artificial Intelligence Lab. Seemingly destined for a life in academia, Stallman left MIT in 1984 to found the GNU Project. This was as a reaction to the increasing commercialization of computer software. Whereas once all hackers (that is, programmers) had shared ideas and program code, the trend in the 1980s was toward proprietary, nonshared code, as well as legal contracts, which forced programmers to keep secrets from one another. Stallman is a very talented programmer and is considered a genius by many observers. He single-handedly created many essential programming tools in his initial efforts to get GNU off the ground. Many of these find a home in Linux. Stallman is also widely applauded for the creation of the GNU Public License. This is a legal document that lets people share software. It introduces the concept of copyleft and is opposed to the legal concept of copyright, which attempts to limit the freedom of individuals when using a piece of software (or any other creative work). Nowadays, the concept of copyleft has been applied to literature, music, and other arts in an attempt to avoid restricting who can and cannot access various items, as well as to encourage a collaborative working environment.
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Proprietary Software and the GPL
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In the 1980s, everything changed. The world became more corporate, and with the rise of the desktop PC, the concept of proprietary software became prevalent. More and more companies started to sell software. They reasoned that this was impossible to do if they shared it with everybody else, so they kept it secret. Microsoft led this charge and did very well with its proprietary software. To Stallman, this trade secrets approach to software was anathema. He had nothing against software being sold for a profit, but he hated the fundamental ideas behind software being kept secret. He felt passionately that sharing software and being able to understand how
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CHAPTER 2 A HISTORY AND POLITICS LESSON
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it worked was akin to free speech necessary and vital for the furthering of technology, and therefore society itself. How could the new generation of programmers improve on the previous generation s work if they were unable to see how it worked It was absurd to need to create software from scratch each time, rather than taking something that already existed and making it better. Because of his beliefs, Stallman resigned from his job in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and founded GNU. His aim initially was to produce a complete clone of Unix that would be shared in the ways he knew from the early days of computing. This software would be available for everyone to use, to study, and to adapt. It would be free, in the same sense as free speech shared and unrestricted. This gave rise to the vital concept of free software and soon GNU, and the FSF, became not just a programming venture, but also a political movement.
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Note A very common misconception of free software is that it is always free of charge. This isn t correct.
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The word free is used here in its political sense, as in free speech. Many companies and individuals make a healthy profit from selling free software and, in fact, selling free software is encouraged by the GNU Project.
To protect the rights of people to share and adapt the GNU software, Stallman came up with the GNU Public License (GPL). Various drafts of this license were produced over time, until it became a completely watertight legal contract, which furthered the concept of free software. Most software you buy comes with a license agreement that big chunk of text you must agree to when installing software (in the case of Windows desktop software, it s frequently referred to as the End-User License Agreement, or EULA). The license agreement usually says that you cannot copy the software or share it with friends. If others want to use the software, they must buy their own version. The GPL turns this on its head. Rather than restricting what people can do with the software, it gives them permission to share the software with whomever they wish. However, if they modify the program in any way, and then distribute it to others, the program they come up with must also be licensed under the GPL. In other words, people cannot make changes to a program that has a GPL, and then sell the modified program, keeping their improvements secret.
Note An interesting side note is that the actual wording of the GPL says that any changes you make should be shared with others only if the software is redistributed. This means that if you modify some GPL software and don t give it to anyone else, there s no need for you to publish your changes or make others aware of those changes.
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