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section heading icon
     the Open Source
and Free Software movements

This page highlights writing about the Open Source and Free Software movements.

section marker icon     odium theologicum

Although terms such as Free Software, Open Source, GNU and Linux are often used interchangeably, there are differences ... which sometimes excite passion among devotees. For a quick introduction to the theological niceties we recommend Thomas Scoville's article Untangling the Open Source/Free Software Debate and Maureen O'Sullivan's 2001 paper Making Copyright Ambidextrous: An Expose of Copyleft.

In essence both are a move away from the proprietary products ('closed source') that turns users into captives of particular hardware, software or service vendors.

Free software, as articulated by the GNU Project founded by Richard Stallman, involves code that can be freely modified and redistributed in accord with the 'copyleft' GNU General Public License (GPL).

That license implicitly blocks commercial use, requiring those who adopt, modify and redistribute GPL code to give users all the rights they themselves enjoyed (including the right to see and modify the code free of charge) - a restriction that reduces the profit on commercialisation of the code. Stallman quipped that

When I speak of free software, I'm referring to freedom, not price. So think of free speech, not free beer.

Microsoft's exhortation to corporate America to abjure GPL and free software's hellish ways is here.

Open Source software, promoted by the Open Source Initiative under the auspices of Eric Raymond, involves somewhat more restrictive licensing as the basis of standards for development by commercial and other entities.

Open source licenses typically allow users to incorporate open source code into larger packages that are then marketed on a commercial basis as closed source.

Section 1 of the official Open Source Definition for example indicates that open source licenses "shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale."

IBM has thus been able to incorporate the open source Apache web server code into its closed source WebSphere product.

section marker icon     Linux

Linus Torvalds, aka the Big Penguin and Linux guru, was profiled in a 1998 Wired and features in Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution (Sebastopol: O'Reilly & Associates 99) edited by Chris Dibona & Mark Stone. 

Mavericks Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman are also given voice in that book, although you might want to turn to the latter's The Cathedral & the Bazaar (Sebastopol: O'Reilly 99) and documents on his site. The account of GNU/Linux is of particular interest.

A perspective's provided by Peter Salus' A Quarter Century of UNIX (Reading: Addison-Wesley 94) and Ronda Hauben's more engaging account The History of UNIX, which should be read in conjunction with David Lancashire's 2001 paper The Fading Altruism of Open Source Development, Richard Barbrook's influential 1998 paper The High-Tech Gift Economy and Steven Weber's 2000 The Political Economy of Open Source Software (PDF).

Stallman collaborated with David Diamond on the autobiographical Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary (New York: Harper Business 01), over-full of his musings about the meaning of life and the wickedness of intellectual property.

Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software
(Sebastopol: O'Reilly 02) by Sam Williams traverses much of the same ground. An online taste is here. It was lauded as

a case study in classical liberal philosophy, a history of the free software movement, and a life of that movement's patron saint. It is also a book about a disappearing personality type, that of the individual who stands on principle alone, who does not bend to pressure, succumb to convenience, or compromise his beliefs. It's an investigation of just how viable such an ethically unyielding character is in a morally relativist world of bargains, trades, and deals

section marker icon     rebel code and corporate capture?

Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond have characteristically quirky homepages mixing politics, verse, guns and code. We preferred the poetry on Stallman's page to the guns on Raymond's. 


Peter Wayner's Free For All: How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High Tech Titans (New York: Harper 00) is a somewhat rose-tinted account of the free software push. 

Robert Young's Under the Radar: How Red Hat changed the software business and beat Microsoft (New York: Coriolis 99) offers an account of commercializing Linux. As yet there has been no major study of IBM's adoption of GNU/Linux, one of the more interesting developments, although there are insights in Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Random 01).

Glyn Moody's Rebel Code: Linux & the Open Source Revolution (Cambridge: Perseus 00) is drier and perhaps more perceptive than Wayner, although understating the extent to which all 'revolutions' are captured by the dreaded 'establishment'.

Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning ... Was the Command Line (New York: Avon 99) is concise and thoughtful. Pekka Himanen's The Hacker Ethic & the Spirit of the Information Age (New York: Random House 01) is another exercise in sniffing the digital zeitgeist.


We'd suggest instead David Bretthauer's 2002 Open Source Software: A History article and Steve Lohr's Go To - The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts - The Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution (New York: Basic Books 01).

The latter is just a smidgin less breathless than its title and includes treasures such as Brian Behlendorf's edict that programming must be

accessible to everyone. ... Not being able to program is going to be like not being able to drive lacking a fundamental skill in our society.

That is questioned in Thomas Streeter's paper That Deep Romantic Chasm: Libertarianism, Neoliberalism & the Computer Culture and other works highlighted in discussion of the 'californian ideology' as part of our profile on myths of cyberspace.

section marker icon     copyleft, right and centre

The intellectual property guide on this site features writing about 'copyleft', software patents, questions about incentives and innovation, and other issues.

Some of the more interesting papers are

Ethan Moglen's polemical Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software & The Death of Copyright (here) - "free software, far from being a marginal participant in the commercial software market, is the vital first step in the withering away of the intellectual property system"

Donald Rosenberg's Copyleft & the Religious Wars of the 21st Century (here)

Dennis Kennedy's 2001 St Louis University Public Law Review paper (PDF) A Primer on Open Source license Legal Issues: Copyright, Copyleft & Copyfuture

Aaron Schiff's 2002 The Economics of Open Source Software: A Survey of the Early Literature (PDF) and Sandeep Krishnamurthy's 2002 Cave or Community?: An Empirical Examination of 100 Mature Open Source Projects (here)

Margaret Elliott's Computing in a Virtual Organisational Culture: Open Software Communities as Occupational Subcultures (PDF).

Johan Soderberg's 2002 Copyright vs Copyleft: A Marxist Critique paper announces that "to oppose copyright is to oppose capitalism" and that

Marxism is a natural starting point when challenging copyright. Marx's concept of a 'general intellect', suggesting that at some point a collective learning process will surpass physical labour as a productive force, offers a promising backdrop to understand the accomplishments of the free software community. Furthermore, the chief concerns of hacker philosophy, creativity and technological empowerment, closely correspond to key Marxist concepts of alienation, the division of labour, deskilling, and commodification.

Darren Wershler-Henry's Free as in Speech and Beer: open source, peer-to-peer and the economics of online revolution (Toronto: Financial Times/Prentice Hall Canada 02) announces that

people are coming to the conclusion that the death of intellectual property as we know it is a good and laudable turn of events, that software and other types of intellectual property should be free -- free as in "speech," free as in "beer," and sometimes free as in speech and beer.

There's more detail about free at his "politics, poetics and practice of digital potlatch" site.



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version of December 2002
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