Free For All - How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High Tech Titans
Peter Wayner (2002-12-22)

13. Politics

One of the great questions about the free source movement is its politics. The world loves to divide every issue into two sides and then start picking teams. You're either part of the problem or part of the solution. You're either for us or against us. You're either on the red team or the blue team.

The notion of giving software and source code away isn't really a radical concept. People give stuff away all the time. But when the process actually starts to work and folks start joining up, the stakes change. Suddenly it's not about random acts of kindness and isolated instances of charity--it's now a movement with emotional inertia and political heft. When things start working, people want to know what this group is going to do and how its actions are going to affect them. They want to know who gets the credit and who gets the blame.

The questions about the politics of the free source world usually boil down to a simple dilemma: some think it's a communist utopia and others think it's a free market nirvana. Normally, the two ideas sit on the opposite ends of the spectrum looking at each other with contempt and disdain. In the strange world of software, ideas aren't so easy to place. Anyone can duplicate software as many times as they want and it's still useful. The communist notion of sharing equally is much easier to achieve in this realm than in the world of, say, grain, which requires hard work in the sun to make it grow. On the other hand, the ease of exchange also means that people are able to swap and trade versions of software with little overhead or restriction. The well-greased marketplace in the free marketer's dreams is also easy to create. The act of giving a disk to a friend could either be a bona fide example of universal brotherhood or the vigorously competitive act of trying to win the hearts and minds of a software consumer. Take your pick.

The nature of software also mitigates many of the problems that naturally occur in each of these worlds. There is no scarcity, so there is no reason why sharing has to be so complicated or orchestrated from the central planning committees of the Soviets. People just give. On the other hand, the lack of scarcity also limits the differences between the rich and the poor. There's no reason why everyone can't have the same software as the rich because it's so easy to duplicate. Folks who are into economic competition for the ego gratification of having a bigger sport utility vehicle than everyone else on the street are going to be disappointed.

To some extent, the politics of the free source movement are such a conundrum that people simply project their wishes onto it. John Gilmore told me over dinner, “Well, it depends. Eric Raymond is sort of a libertarian but Richard Stallman is sort of a communist. I guess it's both.” The freedom makes it possible for people to mold the movement to be what they want.

Raymond has no problem seeing his libertarian dreams acted out in the free software community. He looked at the various groups creating their own versions of free source code and saw a big bazaar where merchants competed to provide the best solutions to computer users everywhere. People wrote neat stuff and worked hard to make sure that others were happy. It was competition at its finest, and there was no money or costs of exchange to get in the way.

Most people quickly become keenly aware of this competition. Each of the different teams creating distributions flags theirs as the best, the most up-to-date, the easiest to install, and the most plush. The licenses mean that each group is free to grab stuff from the other, and this ensures that no one builds an unstoppable lead like Microsoft did in the proprietary OS world. Sure, Red Hat has a large chunk of the mindshare and people think their brand name is synonymous with Linux, but anyone can grab their latest distribution and start making improvements on it. It takes little time at all.

Stallman and his supposed communist impulse is a bit harder to characterize. He has made his peace with money and he's quick to insist that he's not a communist or an enemy of the capitalist state. He's perfectly happy when people charge for their work as programmers and he often does the same. But it's easy to see why people start to think he's something of a communist. One of his essays, which he insists is not strictly communist, is entitled “Why Software Should Not Have Owners.”

Some of his basic instincts sure look Marxist. The source code to a program often acts like the means of production, and this is why the capitalists running the businesses try to control it. Stallman wanted to place these means of production in the hands of everyone so people could be free to do what they wanted. While Stallman didn't rail against the effects of money, he rejected the principle that intellectual capital, the source code, should be controlled.

Stallman stops well short of giving everything away to everyone. Copyrighting books is okay, he says, because it “restricts only the mass producers of copies. It did not take freedom away from readers of books. An ordinary reader, who did not own a printing press, could copy books only with pen and ink, and few readers were sued for that.” In other words, the copyright rules in the age of printing only restricted the guy across town with a printing press who was trying to steal someone else's business. The emergence of the computer, however, changes everything. When people can copy freely, the shackles bind everyone.

Communism, of course, is the big loser of the 20th century, and so it's not surprising that Stallman tries to put some distance between the Soviet and the GNU empires. He notes puckishly that the draconian effects of the copyright laws in America are sort of similar to life in the Soviet Union, “where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying, and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it from hand to hand as samizdat.” He notes, however, that “There is of course a difference: the motive for information control in the Soviet Union was political; in the U.S. the motive is profit. But it is the actions that affect us, not the motive. Any attempt to block the sharing of information, no matter why, leads to the same methods and the same harshness.”

Stallman has a point. The copyright rules restrict the ability of people to add, improve upon, or engage other people's work. The fair use rules that let a text author quote sections for comment don't really work in the software world, where it's pretty hard to copy anything but 100 percent of some source code. For programmers, the rules on source code can be pretty Soviet-like in practice.

He's also correct that some companies would think nothing of locking up the world. A consortium of megalithic content companies like Disney and the other studios got the U.S. Congress to pass a law restricting tools for making copies. Ostensibly it only applied to computer programs and other software used to pirate movies or other software, but the effect could be chilling on the marketplace. The home video enthusiast who loves to edit the tapes of his child's birthday party needs many of the same functions as the content pirate. Cutting and pasting is cutting and pasting. The rules are already getting a bit more Soviet-like in America.

But Stallman is right to distance himself from Soviet-style communism because there are few similarities. There's little central control in Stallman's empire. All Stallman can do to enforce the GNU General Public License is sue someone in court. He, like the Pope, has no great armies ready to keep people in line. None of the Linux companies have much power to force people to do anything. The GNU General Public License is like a vast disarmament treaty. Everyone is free to do what they want with the software, and there are no legal cudgels to stop them. The only way to violate the license is to publish the software and not release the source code.

Many people who approach the free software world for the first time see only communism. Bob Metcalfe, an entrepreneur, has proved himself several times over by starting companies like 3Com and inventing the Ethernet. Yet he looked at the free software world and condemned it with a derisive essay entitled “Linux's 60's technology, open-sores ideology won't beat W2K, but what will?”

Using the term “open sores” may be clever, but it belies a lack of understanding of some of the basic tenets. The bugs and problems in the software are open for everyone to see. Ideally, someone will fix them. Does he prefer the closed world of proprietary software where the bugs just magically appear? Does he prefer a hidden cancer to melanoma?

The essay makes more confounding points equating Richard Stallman to Karl Marx for his writing and Linus Torvalds to Vladimir Lenin because of his aim to dominate the software world with his OS. For grins, he compares Eric Raymond to “Trotsky waiting for The People's ice pick” for no clear reason. Before this gets out of hand, he backpedals a bit and claims, “OK, communism is too harsh on Linux. Lenin too harsh on Torvalds [sic].”Then he sets off comparing the world of open source to the tree-hugging, back-to-the-earth movement.

Of course, it's easy to see how the open source world is much different from the Soviet-style world of communism. That experiment failed because it placed the good of the many above the freedom of the individual. It was a dictatorship that did not shirk from state-sponsored terrorism or pervasive spying. It was no surprise, for instance, to discover that East German athletes were doped with performance-enhancing drugs without their knowledge. It was for the glory of Lenin or Marx or Stalin, or whoever held the reins. Does the country need someone to live in Siberia to mine for minerals? Does the country need land for vast collective farms? The state makes the call and people go.

The Soviet Union didn't really fail because it clung too deeply to the notion that no one should own property. It failed when it tried to enforce this by denying people the fruits of their labor. If someone wanted to build something neat, useful, or inventive, they had better do it for the glory of the Soviet state. That turned the place into a big cesspool of inactivity because everyone's hard work was immediately stolen away from them.

The free software world is quite different from that world. The GPL and the BSD licenses don't strip away someone's freedom and subjugate them to the state, it gives them the source code and a compiler to use with it. Yes, the GPL does restrict the freedom of people to take the free source code and sell their own proprietary additions, but this isn't the same as moving them to Siberia.

The Free Software State doesn't steal the fruits of someone's labor away from them. Once you develop the code, you can still use it. The GPL doesn't mean that only Torvalds can sit around his dacha and compile the code. You get to use it, too. In fact, one of the reasons that people cite for contributing to GPL projects is the legal assurance that the enhancements will never be taken away from them. The source will always remain open and accessible.

Metcalfe's point is that communism didn't work, so the free software world will fail, too. He makes his point a bit clearer when he starts comparing the free software folks to tree-hugging environmentalists.

“How about Linux as organic software grown in utopia by spiritualists?” he wonders. “If North America actually went back to the earth, close to 250 million people would die of starvation before you could say agribusiness. When they bring organic fruit to market, you pay extra for small apples with open sores--the Open Sores Movement.”

The problem with this analogy is that no one is starving with open source software. Data is not a physical good. Pesticides and fertilizers can boost crop yields, but that doesn't matter with software. If anything, free software ends up in even more people's hands than proprietary software. Everyone in the free software world has a copy of the image editing tool, GIMP, but only the richest Americans have a copy of the very expensive Adobe Photoshop.

Of course, he has half a point about the polish of open source code. The programmers often spend more time adding neat features they like instead of making the code as accessible as possible. The tools are often designed for programmers by programmers. There isn't much of a quality assurance and human factors team trying to get them to engineer it so the other 95 percent of humanity can use it.

But this problem is going away. Companies like Red Hat and Caldera have a profit motive in making the software accessible to all. The tools look nicer, and they are often just as presentable as the tools from the proprietary firms. The programmers are also getting more sensitive to these problems. In the past, the free software world was sort of an alternative Eden where programmers went to escape from the rest of programmatically challenged society. Now the world is open to free software and the programmers are more open to taking everyone's needs into account.

The problem with all of Metcalfe's analogies is that he assumes the same rules that control the world of physical goods also govern the world of ideas. The software industry likes to pretend that this isn't true by packaging the software in big, empty boxes that look good on shelves. Swapping ideas is easy and costs little. Of course, the Soviet Union worried about the swapping of ideas and tried to control the press and all forms of expression. The free software movement is the exact opposite of this.

In fact, it is much easier to see the free software world as the libertarian ideal of strong competition and personal freedom if you remember that it exists in the realm of ideas. The landscape is similar to universities, which usually boast that they're just big melting pots where the marketplace of ideas stays open all night. The best ideas gradually push out the worst ones and society gradually moves toward a total understanding of the world.

Perhaps it's just not fair to characterize the politics of the open source or free software world at all. Terms like communism, libertarianism, liberalism, and Marxism all come from an age when large portions of society did not have easy access to ample supplies of food and housing.

Data and information are not limited goods that can only be consumed by a limited group. One person or one million people can read a computer file and the marginal costs aren't very different. Sharing is cheap, so it makes sense to use it to all of its advantages. We're just learning how to use the low cost of widespread cooperation.

Perhaps it's better to concentrate on the real political battles that rage inside the open source code community. It may be better to see the battle as one of GPL versus BSD instead of communist versus libertarian. The license debate is tuned to the Internet world. It sets out the debate in terms the computer user can understand.

License: Free For All is Licensed under a Creative Commons License. This License permits non-commercial use of this work, so long as attribution is given. For more information about the license, visit

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