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Free as in Freedom (Part I)

by Adam Engel
December 28, 2004

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"How far can free software go? There are no limits, except when laws such as the patent system prohibit free software entirely. The ultimate goal is to provide free software to do all of the jobs computer users want to do--and thus make proprietary software obsolete."

-- Richard Stallman (

[Note: all dialogue is culled from email conversations unless otherwise noted]

Time to start rethinking things.  We "progressives" (leftists, anarchists, libertarians, liberals, etc. -- a wide spectrum of opinion usually lumped together by mainstream media under the codename "fringe", or the even scarier “radical” or “free thinker”) who fill hundreds of websites with our words and images may be making a few corporations very rich in the process. Corporations whose vision of software as "proprietary" property, something to own, like land or employees, with all the rules and regulations about trespassing and fiddling with "personal" corporate property, intact.

Diebold. Another “questionable” election. This whole computer voting scam comes down to a test of freedoms. The freedom of citizens of a Republic to control their own destinies, or the freedom of corporations of a global marketplace to control everything up to and including the citizens' illusions that they are citizens of a Republic, the future of which they control. Scam: a corporation using the law to guard their proprietary software, the public be damned, though this software is being used by the public, in public, to decide the future of the (Re)public. This is not just a computer thing, it's a human rights thing.

Let's take me, for instance, or you:

Unless you paid for every piece of software on your proprietary operating system, or received it as a gift for your personal use only, or are using it for work under a license purchased by your employer, you are a criminal.  You stole hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars -- it's their call, they can charge whatever they want and that price becomes the "market value" -- from some of the richest, most powerful people on earth, and for this you must pay dearly.  Heavy fines.  Jail time.  A criminal record.

Unless... you're running the GNU/Linux operating system and any combination of its literally thousands of free software programs and applications available for free download off hundreds of websites around the world.  Then there's no problem.  You're free. But still...

No matter how radical you think you are, both the activist who writes his incendiary manifesto on a Word .doc and the cop who files the police report, cutting and pasting radicals into columns of his Windows Graphical User Interface (GUI) database, are working for Microsoft.

So before you write your next piece on the PATRIOT ACT or the incredibly shrinking Bill of Rights (some animals are more equal than others) or any number of breaches of free speech and free choice our corporate masters are imposing on the world, think about what kind of software you're using, or rather, whose. Whose software are you using to email your work to your editor or newsgroup, or representative, and what kind of software runs the list, blog or website where it will be posted? Are you and your editor and colleagues defending free speech on your own free software, or is the whole thing, the writing, coding, and publication, both by your “progressive” website and its “reactionary” counterparts all working together to make more money for a few software giants that own the means of production and the means of reproduction and distribution?

No matter who wins the “battle”, it seems, Microsoft, Adobe, Macintosh etc. won the war a long time ago by defining the "personal computer" and how it's used in public and private, work, play and education.

GNU Possibilities

It all began...(of course it never really all begins anywhere ever, but sometimes someone steps up and says "No way," so we'll take that as a beginning, here) around 1983 with Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto and his stated goal to create a free operating system.

Yeah, someone's always stating something, but in this case, as millions of computer users can attest, the guy who stated wasn't just talking.  Stallman, as we shall see, came through. Big Time.

(While GNU/Linux's file system and commands are Unix-like, according to Stallman, “it is dangerously misleading to say that GNU is ‘based on Unix.’ Unix is proprietary software, and we could not use any of it.  We had to start over from scratch. That's why it is so important that GNU’s *Not* Unix.’  The name ‚ “GNU” -- pronounce the “g” -- is in fact a recursive acronym for “GNU's Not Unix”)

Stallman already had a track record as one of the most inventive programmers around. In 1975 he created the text editor Emacs, which he would re-create, using entirely different code, in 1984 as GNU Emacs, one of the first major features of the GNU Operating System. GNU Emacs is the de facto text editor of GNU/Linux as well as many corporate owned Unixes (it shares proponents and disk space with one of the original Unix text editors, VI (and its powerful free upgrade, VIM). When people say Emacs they mean GNU Emacs, though a popular more graphic version, XEmacs, also grew out of GNU Emacs and shares much of the same code.

“The revolutionary text editor Emacs that I developed in 1975 was not a version of anything else.  It had nothing to do with Unix, which in 1975 was hardly known‚” Stallman emailed me regarding the origins of Emacs.

As a staff member of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab from 1971 to 1983, Stallman created and worked on important computer stuff and established himself as a major hacker.

Mainstream media turned "hacker" into a "bad" word to describe bad people; hackers are in fact just people who live for programming computers and are very good at it. They are proud to call themselves hackers and care as much about the media's opinion of their culture as they do the media's opinion of the validity of their calling: zilch.  Unlike, say, the Generic Office Worker in the Generic Labyrinth (third cubicle to the left), they don't hang up their titles at the end of the day when they get off the train.  They are hackers 24/7, or as long as they live and love to program computers. It's who they are, it's what they do. Hackers.  This is important.

There are a lot of name distinctions and language manipulations in this story, including the distinction between GNU/Linux and what most people call plain old Linux. They are all important, for most of the names and terms are or were created by the creators themselves, only to have them twisted, hyphenated, out-quoted (and out-sourced) by our old friend, The Corporation, for the sake of corporate ownership and profit.

These are real people who have done real things and have real beliefs. These aren't "like, the spaced-out, hacker-snackers on TV, like you know, dude?"  The success of the GNU/Linux model in standing up for freedom -- real freedom, not the freedom to “say no” to medical marijuana and live in unnecessary agony or go to jail -- is a powerful example of community over the Corporation, and something we, especially we who write about freedom and act for freedom should study in great detail. Your life will or will not change for the better due to the real or imposed outcome of the 2004 Presidential election, or who wins, or imagines they do, in 2008. The only way to change your life and anyone else's for the better is to help wrest the fate of humanity from its current corporate ownership (all rights reserved).

Life is fleeting regardless, but must it also be licensed and subject to review and revocation by those who had zero participation in its creation and whose only purpose is to excise profit from the necessities of its maintenance? Corporate ownership of data, of knowledge, can change your life in a big way, especially if you get caught using illegal knowledge on your computer or worse, legal knowledge without a license.

Again, it started like it often does. Paradigmatic. Like the German writer Kleist's classic Michael Kohlhaas (transliterated into the character Colehouse Porter in E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime). Someone saw his community, his habitat, and everything in it of value to him destroyed by corporate greed and laws created and imposed to sanctify these actions, make them seem “right”,  “the natural order of things,” and decided to fight back. This is the story of his fighting and winning, for a time, for we only win for a time until things change, everything changes, and even the movement we thought was ours, the movement we started, moves away from us in every direction.

“Linux” is big business, or is on the cusp of becoming big business. It can go the way of the corporate citizen, or the free individual.  It cannot continue the balancing act it has maintained of being both. Or can it?

The correct name of the operating system is GNU/Linux, but almost everyone in the world refers to it as "Linux."  Ben Okopnik, Editor-In-Chief of the Linux Gazette (LG) wrote that this is merely a matter of convenience:

"Note that this distinction, much as (Richard Stallman) and others may have tried to promote it, did not make it into the common lexicon. Just as in the case of the "X Window System", universally known as "X", a short simple identifier is what people will use when it's available," wrote Okopnik.

But it also might have much to do with mythology that has grown up around both the Linux kernel and its chief architect, Linus Torvalds.   Many people believe, and this has been amplified in mainstream media, that the "Linux Operating System" was created from scratch by Linus Torvalds in 1991, with some help from hackers around the world connected via the Internet.  This makes for a good story because it displays the power of the Internet, especially during GNU/Linux's formative years   in the hyped-up 1990s, and GNU/Linux is indeed a product of collaboration that could only have happened on the Internet. Also it presents us with an archetypal hero/genius of the Robin Hood ilk who led his band of merry hackers through the proprietary coded forests to wreak havoc on the corporate desktop.

Of course it's not so simple.

Linux is the kernel, not the operating system. The kernel is like the medulla, the "lizard brain" responsible for the automatic functions of the operating system -- for us: breathing, heartbeat, swallowing; for computers: background processes, daemons, the ability to read certain drivers and communicate with the user via the "shell." If the medulla is the kernel in this analogy, and the cerebrum is what it is, whether with human bodies or computers, the cerebrum, "us" the conscious User/programmer, then the rest of the body is the operating system.  Arms, legs, eyes, skin.  For computers it's the shell  (a huge program that serves as the interface between the user and the kernel), and the rest of the operating system, consisting of various tools, commands, programs and the libraries that run them.

The Unix and GNU/Linux system libraries are code that allows the system to recognize and execute various functions, including communicating with itself and recognizing that "it computes, therefore it exists."  In order to have a complete Unix or GNU/Linux operating system you need a kernel, and an system of programs, tools and commands, including the shell. Without the rest of the system, the kernel isn't very useful.  Sort of like a medulla on a plate.

The system of tools that enabled the Linux kernel to merge into a functional operating system existed at the time of Linux's release in 1991.  That operating system was developed by Richard Stallman and other hackers, many from the Free Software Foundation (FSF), ( and it was called GNU.  Its development, essential but often neglected in importance, was a revolutionary move.

After I mentioned a series of common programs, utilities and applications, Stallman emailed me, "All programs that run on GNU/Linux are linked with GNU libc. [Libc, part of the GNU/Linux library] is the only way most programs talk to Linux."

Perhaps the only development that rivals the creation of the GNU operating system, in terms of protecting the freedoms of software users, programmers and documentation writers are the copyleft licenses, such as the GNU General Public License (GPL) for software, and the various others for documentation.

Stallman wrote, "Copy left is a technique used in unilateral copyright licenses. The technique is to require modified versions to be under the same license.  One can design the details in many different ways.  For instance the GNU GPL and the GFDL are both copy left licenses--the former primarily meant for software, the latter primarily meant for documentation--and their requirements are quite different."

Since the creation of the GNU GPL there have been many variations to serve specific needs, but the essence is the same: Copyleft ensures that software code and the documentation of how to use that code remain, to quote Stallman, "free as air."

When Stallman worked through the seventies at the AI lab at MIT, things were different. There was no market, hence no marketplace. Programmers and other computer users routinely shared files and software.  Everything was "open source" simply because there wasn't much around.  They were creating it.  Even corporate owned software, tools and systems -- the C language, the Unix System, the Internet etc. -- had to be invented before they could be locked away, given away, or shared according to what could or could not be feasibly controlled and by what means.

"When I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking....We did not call our software "free software", because that term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program," Stallman wrote on the GNU web site (

But once the corporate sector figured out how to make money and that there was money to be made, things changed. The "community" that Stallman worked with during the seventies, developing the prototypes for what we take for granted as the modern operating systems of today, was gone by 1981, hired away by corporations arming themselves for the coming computer market wars or prohibited from exercising the kind of freedom that resulted in much creativity and experimentation by non-disclosure laws of proprietary systems.

Stallman wrote, "This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, 'If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them. The idea that the proprietary-software social system‚ the system that says you are not allowed to share or change software is antisocial, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong, may come as a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless? Readers who find the idea surprising may have taken proprietary-software social system as given, or judged it on the terms suggested by proprietary software businesses. Software publishers have worked long and hard to convince people that there is only one way to look at the issue."  (

Stallman's questioning of the corporate assumptions that software must be owned by corporate mediators and licensed to users is examined in detail on the site's philosophy pages such as the arguments for free software ( and against terminology such as "intellectual property‚"

With the development of GNU, as with most revolutionary movements, there was no middle ground for compromise.

Stallman wrote, "With my community gone, to continue as before was impossible. Instead, I faced a stark moral choice. The easy choice was to join the proprietary software world, signing nondisclosure agreements and promising not to help my fellow hacker. Most likely I would also be developing software that was released under nondisclosure agreements, thus adding to the pressure on other people to betray their fellows too. I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life making the world a worse place."   (

The history of his response to this choice can be found in extensive detail on the site.  What Stallman did, in a nutshell, was to write The GNU Manifesto,  ( in which he explained to his fellow hackers and the computer using community at large the issues they faced and his determination to create a fully functional Unix-like operating system, but written from scratch, with no proprietary code, and absolutely free.  His goal was to make it as good as or better than Unix -- and in this, many agree, he succeeded; various GNU tools, programs, applications and components (such as the C library and compiler, gcc) are faster, more robust and offer more options than their proprietary counterparts. But even if he had to fall short of that goal in order to keep GNU absolutely free, he would have done so.

It is in this spirit that the GNU GPL and other copyleft licenses and declarations of "non-ownership" are based.  The creation of the copyleft type of license is as radical as the creation of the GNU software itself.  It takes the corporate idea of "ownership" and "copyright" created to serve a few at the expense of the many, inside out, and upside down.  In order for code to be considered Free Software and therefore useable under the GNU GPL, it must be accessible to all. Anyone can change it, customize it, or make improvements on it, so long as the original code and authorship is included and this new code is also open for others to examine and modify, whether for personal customization or general improvement.

One misconception is that "free software‚" means that one cannot charge money for it.  In fact, the opposite is the case. In the early days the FSF earned the bulk of its funding not through donations, but sales of its manuals, hard-copy books, and software. Though this is no longer true today, the FSF still sells software documentation and books on their website,  

"Free as in free speech, not free beer" is the GNU slogan that sums it up best.  One is free to charge for such services as distribution or redistribution of software, writing   documentation or new software based on the original GPL code, etc., so long as the source remains free, prior versions and authors are listed, and other rules of the GNU GPL are followed.

While it is possible to download the Linux kernel, all of GNU's several thousand programs and applications, and the hundreds of third-party offerings for GNU/Linux, such as the X Windows GUI and window managers, the KDE desktop environment (which I'll examine in further detail in Part Two of this article) and many other components, the easiest and least time-consuming way to obtain GNU/Linux, especially for those who are new to it, is to plunk down roughly $30 for a "distribution" on CD or DVD from companies such as Red Hat, Debian, SuSE and others.

These companies make money by gathering all the components of GNU/Linux under one roof, in addition to adding their own components, such as SuSE's YaST GUI system manager, or Red Hat's rpm (Red Hat Package Manager) software bundling application.  Nearly all the distributions come with customized easy-install GUI interfaces for new users.

GNU + Linux = GNU/Linux?

While the popularity of GNU/Linux is exploding, Stallman and others in the free software community face significant threats from a Corporate friendly business environment, always ready to lend a legal hand with restrictive copyright law. Then there's the jealous rage of Microsoft, who views the FSF and its works as a significant threat worth spending a lot of money on (and spending lots of money to make people miserable is what Microsoft does best, second only to charging lots of money for making people miserable).

But the most serious threat comes from the "Linux" community itself.  Very few people outside of GNU and the FSF refer to GNU/Linux as anything but "Linux." In addition, as with all successful radical movements, as we move further in time from the origins of the necessary development of free software, people tend to associate less with "free software" and more with "Linux" itself, as if it were a sports team or some other symbolic source of identification, like "America."

Thus, many will root for the success of the nominally free "Linux" over  "Microsoft" in winning the bid for a Government/Military computing contract or the unofficial "support" of governments, such as China or India and other political entities supporting the development of GNU/Linux as the "official state Operating System," or what not.  Working for the authorities to help destroy the Gaea and impinge on freedom is supposed to be the job of proprietary operating systems, not GNU/Linux!  But then, as Stallman himself said, GNU was developed to solve some of the world's problems, not all of them. Though the success of GNU and GNU/Linux, representing a victory of a community of individuals (that began with hundreds and has grown to millions) over a handful of corporate super powers forces anyone who values his/her liberty to pause and wonder: what else is possible?  What else can be done to change this mess for the better?

In response to my confusion regarding the free software versus the "open source‚" movements, Stallman emailed me this information, put out by Slackware, a GNU/Linux distribution:



Open Source and Free Software


Within the Linux community, there are two major ideological movements at work. The Free Software movement, which we'll get into in a moment, is working toward the goal of making all software free of intellectual property restrictions, which it believes hamper technical improvement and work against the good of the community. The Open Source movement is working toward most of the same goals, but takes a more pragmatic approach to them, preferring to base its arguments on the economic and technical merits of making source code freely available, rather than the moral and ethical principles that drive the Free Software Movement. The Free Software movement is headed up by the Free Software Foundation, which is a fund-raising organization for the GNU project. Free software is more of an ideology. The oft-used expression is ‚"free speech, not free beer‚". In essence, free software is an attempt to guarantee certain rights for both users and developers. These freedoms include the freedom to run the program for any reason, the freedom to study and modify the source code, the freedom to redistribute the source, and the freedom to share any modifications you make. In order to guarantee these freedoms, the GNU General Public License (GPL) was created. The GPL, in brief, provides that anyone distributing a compiled program which is licensed under the GPL must also provide source code, and is free to make modifications to the program as long as those modifications are also made available in source code form. This guarantees that once a program is opened to the community, it cannot be closed except by consent of every author of every piece of code  (even the modifications) within it. Most Linux programs are licensed under the GPL.


It is important to note that the GPL does not say anything about price. As odd as it may sound, you can charge for free software. The ‚"free‚" part is in the liberties you have with the source code, not in the price you pay for the software. (However, once someone has sold you, or even given you, a compiled program licensed under the GPL they are obligated to provide its source code as well.)


At the forefront of the younger Open Source movement, the Open Source Initiative is an organization that solely exists to gain support for open source software. That is, software that has the source code available as well as the ready-to-run program. They do not offer a specific license, but instead they support the various types of open source licenses available.


The idea behind the OSI is to get more companies behind open source by allowing them to write their own open source licenses and have those licenses certified by the Open Source Initiative. Many companies want to release source code, but do not want to use the GPL. Since they cannot radically change the GPL, they are offered the opportunity to provide their own license and have it certified by this organization.


While the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative work to help each other, they are not the same thing. The Free Software Foundation uses a specific license and provides software under that license. The Open Source Initiative seeks support for all open source licenses, including the one from the Free Software Foundation.


The grounds on which each argues for making source code freely available sometimes divides the two movements, but the very fact that two ideologically diverse groups are working toward the same goal lends credence to the efforts of each.

Thus, Stallman and others in the Free Software movement are opposed to any compromise that would threaten the initial goal of a free operating system. For instance,, which develops a full desktop environment that enables the "average user" to use GNU/Linux as easily as he/she would Windows or Macintosh, with little or no knowledge of basic Unix or GNU/Linux commands, utilized a proprietary code called Qt.  Rather than accept this breach of the GPL, GNU developed an alternative desktop environment called GNOME (  Fortunately, KDE licensed Qt under the GPL, so now users have two Windows/Mac-like GUI environments to choose from.  But if push came to shove, those dedicated to the principles of the free software movement would have stuck with GNOME even if it was behind scheduled release or was qualitatively inferior to KDE, while those in the "open source" movement, whose primary goal is the development of "Linux" into an operating system that will compete on a global scale with Microsoft, might have accepted the proprietary use of Qt. 

Ben Okopnik, Editor-in-Chief of the Linux Gazette, wrote, "The proprietary bits of Qt were a problem. They did a tremendously intelligent thing by opening it up; KDE, and Qt development in general, simply exploded as soon as they did."

But even Stallman admits that there will be other threats to an absolutely free software movement, particularly by "open source," espoused by corporations who cannot bear even the word "freedom."

Stallman wrote, "Teaching new users about freedom became more difficult in 1998, when a part of the community decided to stop using the term "free software" and say "open source software" instead. Some who favored this term aimed to avoid the   confusion of "free" with "gratis"-- a valid goal. Others, however, aimed to set aside the spirit of principle that had motivated the free software movement and the GNU project, and to appeal instead to executives and business users, many of whom hold an ideology that places profit above freedom, above community, above principle. Thus, the rhetoric of "open source" focuses on the potential to make high quality, powerful software, but shuns the ideas of freedom, community, and principle...The support of business can contribute to the community in many ways; all else being equal, it is useful. But winning their support by speaking even less about freedom and principle can be disastrous; it makes the previous imbalance between outreach and civics education even worse...."Free software" and "open source" describe the same category of software, more or less, but say different things about the software, and about values. The GNU Project continues to use the term "free software", to express the idea that freedom, not just technology, is important." (   

In my email interview with Stallman, I too made the mistake of equating "free‚" with "open source."

Stallman wrote, "You mentioned the FSF but not the Free Software Movement, which leads me to wonder if you have fallen prey to a common misunderstanding. Did you know that the Open Source Movement is a right-wing reaction against the Free Software Movement, which came first?  Many people think that I support the Open Source Movement.  The reason they think so is that the people in the Open Source Movement work hard to give that impression.  Since they have the support of corporations and the main media, they have spread this misunderstanding quite far.  But it's as mistaken to label my work as 'open source' as to label Nader 'Republican'."

Stallman is a visionary and, like Nader, a people's advocate, only more so.  His advocacy stretches beyond the efficiency of consumer goods and laws protecting consumer rights and into the discussion of the basis of The Law itself.  Who is The Law serving, computer users and programmers, that is, citizens of a free society, or mere consumers in a market whose rules are defined and created by the corporations who, should they have their way, will not merely monopolize the market, but be the market, the only alternative for those who wish to write and use computer programs?

Stallman and others like him are the incorruptible, uncompromising fighters the left has been calling for, all the while we settle for the lesser of evils or hope the Democratic Party, the political arena's version of the ‚"open source initiative‚" will somehow manage to beat the corporate state while joining it.  The struggle to defend the basic rights of software users and developers inherent in the free software movement and its creation of the GNU/Linux alternative to proprietary systems is obvious.  This struggle is not merely about being free at the computer, but living free everywhere.  GNU can't solve all the world's problems, but the values   it espouses can be harnessed in support of any struggle, whether for a clean environment or a real democracy, rather than the bloated, trash-talking, murderous Empire we think, like those befuddled by the rhetoric of proprietary software corporations, we have no choice but to accept as "The Nature of Things. "

Again, Stallman, linking the rhetoric of epic struggle with its counterpart in modern film, writes of a fight worth fighting for, and his words resonate, even as we squander lives by the thousands in Iraq:

Yoda's philosophy (“There is no, ‘try’”) sounds neat, but it doesn't work for me. I have done most of my work while anxious about whether I could do the job, and unsure that it would be enough to achieve the goal if I did. But I tried anyway, because there was no one but me between the enemy and my city. Surprising myself, I have sometimes succeeded...Sometimes I failed; some of my cities have fallen. Then I found another threatened city, and got ready for another battle. Over time, I've learned to look for threats and put myself between them and my city, calling on other hackers to come and join me...Nowadays, often I'm not the only one. It is a relief and a joy when I see a regiment of hackers digging in to hold the line, and I realize, this city may survive--for now. But the dangers are greater each year, and now Microsoft has explicitly targeted our community. We can't take the future of freedom for granted. Don't take it for granted! If you want to keep your freedom, you must be prepared to defend it. (

Well, what are we waiting for?  Where do we stand?

Adam Engel ( writes for numerous Progressive, Leftist and Libertarian websites and magazines. His novel, Topiary, will be published by Dandelion Books in the spring of 2006.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license. It is free to distribute, reproduce or modify with the author's consent. Read more about licensing software, text and documentation at

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