Ideological Origins of the Open-Source Movement

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“Coders of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your proprietary agreements.”

OK, so this wasn’t really the rallying cry of open-source community’s revolt against the idea of intellectual property. But it might as well have been, as the Copyleft ideal served as a kind of ideological cornerstone for the open-source movement. A concept born out of a yearning to be liberated from legal restrictions, Copyleft specifies that all software that adheres to this standard can be duplicated, changed to any extent desired and redistributed to anyone anywhere as long as the subsequent solution also follows that standard.


Copyleft is a play on words that kind of pokes fun at its opposite, copyright. However, the suffix is somewhat misleading. In the traditional parlance, the “left” side of the political spectrum indicates socialism, equality, and government controls and regulations as favored solutions to societal challenges, whereas the “right” denotes support for the free market, competition and the private sector. Whether this is true in practice is irrelevant to this discussion—take those issues up in your blogs, if you like—it’s what these words represent that matter most. And Copyleft, with its oh-so-clever title, might be something of a misnomer.


The History of Copyleft
In the early 1970s, a Harvard physics student by the name of Richard Stallman, who also worked in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) artificial intelligence lab, observed the process by which he and other top tech students worked on a wide range of software projects. (Incidentally, Stallman graduated from Harvard the same year that Microsoft founder Bill Gates enrolled there.) In these assignments, the software would evolve as it was passed back and forth between these students, who would change it to meet their particular needs or enhance functionality.


Fast-forward about a decade: Now a professor at MIT, Stallman was frustrated by what he perceived to be freedom-stifling proprietary policies of the rising IT companies. In 1984, he left his position at the school to fully devote himself to the GNU project, which he’d launched just a few months prior. GNU, which stands for GNU’s Not UNIX (a recursive acronym, and another example of the droll semantics of this bunch), was a UNIX-ish operating system that was more or less available for anyone to tweak and tune. Additionally, in 1985 Stallman established the Free Software Foundation (FSF), an organization created to advocate—you guessed it—free software.


It was around this time that the term Copyleft was introduced—not by Stallman, but rather by his colleague Don Hopkins, who would go on to contribute to popular computer games like Sim City and The Sims. Hopkins had written a letter that included the phrase “Copyleft: All Rights Reversed.” However, clearly Stallman was the main driver behind the idea, and efforts like his GNU Manifesto played the biggest role in shaping and promoting the concept.


Linus ’n’ Linux
A few years later—in Helsinki, Finland, of all places—a then-unknown college student named Linus Torvalds was studying computer science and in his spare time, devoting his tech talents to making things like Pac Man videogame knock-offs. In 1991, Torvalds unveiled a “hobby” he had been working on in a USENET newsgroup, an operating system kernel based on the Minix OS previously invented by Andrew Tanenbaum.


Linux, or Linus’ Minix, caught on like wildfire on a dry prairie, and part of its success was due to the GNU components that Torvalds used in its development. Also, the accessibility and cost of the open-source OS contributed to its rapid adoption. Today, Linux occupies the second spot in terms of operating system market share, behind the slightly older Microsoft Windows. Torvalds himself still promotes the open-source ideal generally, although he has been criticized by Stallman and other GNU luminaries for what they believe to be a lack of zeal on his part.


Here Comes the Internet
Although software developers and designers had used open-source methodologies as far back as the 1960s, the idea of open source as a philosophy really picked up once the Internet came into its own as a medium for the masses. This allowed for the free exchange of ideas (and software) among people who had formerly been severely limited by space and time constraints. It also allowed open-source solutions to progress to dizzying new heights by frequent changes. In fact, only about 2 percent of the current Linux kernel was actually authored by Torvalds.


Although open source still applies largely to IT, it’s becoming something of a way of life for people as well. On the Web, interested parties can download recipes for open-source soda and beer (now we’re talking), and refine either to suit their own tastes. There have even been some discussions online around open-source pharmaceuticals. (But I think I’ll be sticking to the corner drug store for my medicine, thanks.)


What Are the Implications?
Because of the communal nature and language of Copyleft and open source, there is a tendency among those who might not know better (or those with an agenda) to think of the concept as being something akin to the unholy spawn of Marx and Engels. It is sometimes frowned upon as being an idea that goes against capitalism, entrepreneurship and other widely valued Western traditions. But is it? Not exactly.


Although Copyleft heavily promotes the rights of the user—much more so than the profit margins of the software manufacturers—it’s not really anti-business. The “free” in free software refers to what users are allowed to do with it, which is whatever they want, provided they follow Copyleft guidelines. It does not indicate that something is free of charge. In fact, the FSF has an initial distribution price for its GNU OS. And even if it is no cost, like Linux, there are other ways to make money off of it, as companies like Red Hat and IBM have found. Even Microsoft employs open-source development techniques in-house, though once its products hit the shelves, you’d better have a license if you want to use any of them.


–Brian Summerfield,

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