The "free software" movement was once considered a hippy relic of the pre-Microsoft era. No longer.by John Naughton / October 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
A spectre is haunting the software industry-or at least the part of it controlled by Bill Gates and his fellow moguls. It’s called the Open Source movement; its basic proposition is that proprietary software (the kind created and sold by companies like Microsoft) is a flawed idea. For some Open Source activists this is about technology; they are convinced that proprietary programmes are less reliable, less stable and more bug-ridden than programmes which are communally owned and created through the cooperative efforts of hundreds, even thousands, of dedicated hackers. Other Open Source adherents believe that their software is not only technically better than anything produced by Gates & Co., but also that it is ethically superior. For them, the notion that programmes should be “owned” by individuals or corporations is as odious as the idea that humans could be owned and traded as slaves.
The term “Open Source” is a recent euphemism, coined by the pragmatic wing of the movement to ease acceptance of their ideas by big business. They felt that “free software” sounded too frightening. In fact the movement dates back to the early 1980s when Richard Stallman, an MIT researcher, developed the idea of free software. “Think of free speech, not free beer,” he says. Users ought to be free to modify programmes to meet their own needs. The only way to make that possible is to distribute programmes in their original code, rather than the binary form in which proprietary software comes. This is why my Microsoft Internet Explorer is not free in Stallman’s sense: although Microsoft gave it to me gratis, I am not free to alter it, because I only have the binary code. The source code is locked in Bill Gates’s safe.
Stallman’s other contribution was to invent a new type of licence which gives one the right to alter a programme and pass (or even sell) it on to others-provided one also passes on the same right to them. He calls it “copyleft,” to distinguish it from…