Free & Open Source Software: Notes from a lecture

For a large period of time in computing history software was not seen as the primary component. It was all about the hardware, the machine. The code that made the machine work and useable was simply seen as part and parcel of the machine.

One reason for this may be the way in which we tended to understand software. Another reason may have been that hardware of that size and complexity was not sold, it was leased. The “buyer” therefore was paying for a solution rather than a system. This was a very lucrative way of doing business.

The early punch card system that became the solution for the US Census was the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, these were leased to the Census Bureau. Hollerith’s company would later merge with others to become IBM whose punch card tabulators were leased to governments and organizations around the world. One advantage of the leasing system is that the company could control which cards were used in the system and also charge for maintenance and training.

With digitalisation many companies made source code available and engineers could make changes to the software. Improvements could be included into the code and sold on to the next company.

In 1969, IBM began to charge separately for (mainframe) software and services, and ceased to supply source code. By withholding the source code, only the company could make changes (and presumably charge their buyers for these changes).

The ability to “own” software, or at least control it through copyright was beginning to become a discussion among programmers. For example in 1976 Dr Li-Chen Wang released Tiny Basic under a Copyleft license which included the catch phrase “All Wrongs Reserved” Copyleft_All_Wrongs_ReservedIt is fair to say that the history of free software (and copyleft) truly begins with Richard Stallman‘s attempts to create a “technical means to a social end.” The story behind the creation of free software starts with his attempts to make a printer work and the company’s (who owned the printer) refusal to give access to the necessary code. He launched the GNU Project in 1983.

Free software is all about ensuring that we have access to, and control over, the basic infrastructures of our lives. It is not about having software at no cost – it’s about ensuring that our technology works in ways that suit our lives. In order to enact this the software that is produced by teams and individuals around the world is licensed under the GPL (General Public License) summing up the license is a bit tricky but it is common to refer to the Four Freedoms, to be considered to be Free Software it must:


The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).

Access to the source code is a precondition for this. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).

A precondition for these freedoms is that the code must be accessible to those who would want to read it. The importance of Free Software is much like the arguments for free speech or freedom of information. It is not that everyone wants, or has the competency, to use these rights but without them all of us are a little less informed about what is happening around us.

Once again it is important to stress Free Software is not about price. Nor is it about doing whatever you like with the code. From the Free Software Manifesto (1985)

GNU is not in the public domain. Everyone will be permitted to modify and redistribute GNU, but no distributor will be allowed to restrict its further redistribution. That is to say, proprietary modifications will not be allowed. I want to make sure that all versions of GNU remain free.

It is a gift with a very clear condition.

Free Software is sometimes confused with Open Source software. They are both similar but they have different conditions:

The term “open source” software is used by some people to mean more or less the same category as free software. It is not exactly the same class of software: they accept some licences that we consider too restrictive…

A common difference that can easily be seen in many open source licenses is the lack of the clear condition that nothing can be made into proprietary software.

Here are the slides I used.

The importance of not losing

Each time free copyright licenses such as the GPL or the suit of Creative Commons licenses go to court and win we confirm that the legal theory behind the licenses is correct. In a strange way the courts take the position that they agree with the practice of law and licensing being established in practice. Naturally they would not agree if the practices were totally outlandish so in actual fact what we have is the establishment of a school of thought – a consensus. Or what Ludwik Fleck called a thought collective. In the thought collective an idea is proposed and eventually gains momentum until it becomes an established norm.

This is what happens every time a free license is tested by the legal system.

This is because despite their theory and their use the free copyright license remains a different school of thought – a modification of the past thought collective of the established copyright regime. The problem is that often established regimes are seen as laws of nature. Permanent and everlasting. We know that copyright has not always been and does not always have to be – and yet many modifications are viewed with intense suspicion.

There is a snappy quote attributed to Henry Kissinger on the differences between conventional forces and guerrilla forces:  the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.

So free copyright licenses win in court but in reality they do not lose. We know when we have established them as a conventional norm not only when they keep winning in court but when they fact that they lose a day in court they are still seen as viable, valuable and an ordinary part of the copyright ecosystem.

Can a license be too ethical?

The Gnu General Public License (GPL) holds an amazing position as the premier free and open source software license but this position may be slipping since its move to version 3 in 2007. In an article entitled Does GPL still matter? Yahoo Tech News reports:

A June study conducted by Black Duck Software, an open source development tools vendor, shows that the Free Software Foundation‘s GPL — although far and away still the dominant open source licensing platform — could be starting to slide. The survey found that despite strong growth in GPLv3 adoption, the percentage of open source projects using GPL variants dropped from 70 to 65 percent from the previous year.

This is interesting. But the question is what does this decrease (if it should be seen as a decrease) mean? The GPL has been in controversies before during its history (Wikipedia historical background) – in fact it’s monunmental position in free and open source software is built upon its unflinching ideological stance which has often been the root of controversy.

The question is whether the GPL has gone too far and is losing its position or if this should be seen as the GPL taking a new moral stance and waiting for the rest of the world to realise the wisdom of its position?

Work and art

Finally finished the mind-numbingly boring work of reading proofs for a manual on the GPL license. It’s so boring that I have broken records in procrastination but today surrounded by loud music I stayed at home and finished. In front of me is my latest acquisitio, a color lithograph graphic by Claude Weisbuch which I brought home today.


While on the subject of art I cannot help but spreading this anecdote about Dali which I just read on _Paddy K_

Apparently Dali liked to eat out, with large groups of friends in tow, but was not so fond of paying the bill. So he made a point of paying using a check from his checkbook and, just before handing the check over, scribbled a little drawing on the back and signed it.

And now the owner, suddenly in possession of a signed Dali, would usually just frame it and hang it on the wall and show it to his friends instead of cashing it at the bank.

Sitting with licenses is sooo boring.

Combining GPL and Proprietary Software

Bruce Perens has written an interesting article about combining GPL with proprietary software the main point of discussion concerns the problem of combining software under different licenses in embedded devices. The article ends with a paragraph on what not to do:

Don’t assume that you can put proprietary kernel drivers in a run-time loadable kernel module. The legality of such a practice is dubious, and there have not been sufficient cases to say reliably what would happen if you were to get sued.

Also, don’t look for, and use loopholes in the Open Source licenses. Nothing makes your company look worse than taking unfair advantage of people who provided their work to you without charge, expecting in good faith that you’d honor their license. It also tends to make Open Source folks reluctant to cooperate with your company, the next time you need help with their software. And it looks bad to judges, too.

Don’t try to do what I’ve discussed without legal counsel to advise and review your actions.

This is a particularly tricky subject and every time a writer tackles it we slowly move towards a better understanding – but there is still a long way to go. In fact that shortest answer to the problem of combining GPL & proprietary software in one device may be “don’t do it if you are not sure” but not many are going to follow that advice since free and open source software is too much of a competitive advantage for developers to ignore.

(via Slashdot)

Comment on the Open Source Decade

It’s been ten years since the term open source was launched and one of the architects behind it, Bruce Perens, discussed this in an interview

“No. If Bruce Perens could change anything from that day in February 1998 when he announced the Open Source Definition and the Open Source Initiative he’d alter the very way open source licenses are ratified, to halt what he regards as the chief threat to the next ten years of open source: license proliferation.

Perens said the growth in licenses, especially the emergence of “badgeware”, or attribution licenses used by numerous open source companies, such as last year’s Common Public Attribution License (CPAL), is dangerous. Today, we have 68 licenses ranging from the well-known GNU General Public License (GPL) to the, well… the OCLC Research Public License 2.0 recognized by the OSI.”

For more on this check out the State of Open Source Message on Bruce Perens’ own website

Real academics walk the walk they talk

Like most academics I know, I tend to say yes to most offers to do extra work. Your schedule seems too full? No way! Of course you accept to give a lecture, write a chapter, hold a seminar, write a short text, give an interview…

Therefore at the beginning of the new year I doubt that I am alone in playing Tetris with my calender in a vain attempt to fit in all the things I promised and still find time to work with the mundane everyday task of research. Despite being aware of this I have already promised to do several things besides my actual work for example:

  • Book chapter on digital resistance in Swedish
  • Revise two research papers
  • Review two research papers
  • Write a commentary on the GPLv3
  • Launch a new journal
  • Teach in Lund & Göteborg
  • Lecture in Stockholm
  • Hold a seminar in Göteborg

And it’s still only January. I must be more protective of my time or I shall be totally unable to implement my major plan for being a productive academic. Why is it that most academics seem to be only too happy to say yes to all the extra work? In the past I had an idea that if I turned an extra task down I would never be asked again. This may be true but it is still not really a strong reason for saying Yes.

Part of me says Yes because I am flattered simply by the fact that I was asked. Another part of me says Yes because I want to show that I can do the job. The academic system that schooled me taught that many of the extra tasks we do (for which the only reward is a dubious honor or community recognition) are all part of the way in which an academic should behave. Part of the norms which make up the academic community. In a sense the extra work is not our reward but it actually defines who we are as academics. Or could it just be that I am a glutton for punishment?

GPLv3 Resources

Today is the official release of the GPLv3 license by the Free Software Foundation. This is a major event within the software community yet at the same time there are many who do not understand the purpose, point and meaning of the GPL so it’s time for a refresher course.

From the GPLv3 Press collection you can read about the purpose and meaning of free software, the relationship between GNU and Linux and the important difference between free software and “open source”.

On 1 April 2007 Richard Stallman gave a speech on the GPLv3 in Brussels you can listen to it here in Ogg/Vorbis. In the summer of 2006 Eben Moglen gave a talk in Barcelona discussing the wording of the changes in version 3 (listen in Ogg/Vorbis).

Personal Notes has collected great links about the GPLv3

So to begin withâ?¦Why would someone need or want to upgrade from the GPLv2 to the GPLv3? Let the person who started it all to explain why :)

Here there’s a really nice and clear A&Q ‘session’ on GPLv3 wrote by Luis Villa and divided in 3 blog entries (probably more to come):

Groklaw, as usual, is an incredible source of interesting material: