March 1, 2001

The GNU GPL and the American way, by RMS

Author: JT Smith

Stallman is passing around this article: "Microsoft describes the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) as an
"open source" license, and says it is against the American Way. To
understand the GNU GPL, and recognize how it embodies the American
Way, you must first be aware that the GPL was not designed for open
source."The Open Source Movement, which was launched in 1998, aims to develop
powerful, reliable software and improved technology, by inviting the
public to collaborate in software development. Many developers in
that movement use the GNU GPL, and they are welcome to use it. But
the ideas and logic of the GPL cannot be found in the Open Source
Movement. They stem from the deeper goals and values of the Free
Software Movement.

The Free Software Movement was founded in 1984, but its inspiration
comes from the ideals of 1776: freedom, community, and voluntary
cooperation. This is what leads to free enterprise, to free speech,
and to free software.

As in "free enterprise" and "free speech", the "free" in "free
software" refers to freedom, not price; specifically, it means that
you have the freedom to study, change, and redistribute the software
you use. These freedoms permit citizens to help themselves and help
each other, and thus participate in a community. This contrasts with
the more common proprietary software, which keeps users helpless and
divided: the inner workings are secret, and you are prohibited from
sharing the program with your neighbor. Powerful, reliable software
and improved technology are useful byproducts of freedom, but the
freedom to have a community is important in its own right.

We could not establish a community of freedom in the land of
proprietary software where each program had its lord. We had to build
a new land in cyberspace--the free software GNU operating system,
which we started writing in 1984. In 1991, when GNU was almost
finished, the kernel Linux written by Linus Torvalds filled the last
gap; soon the free GNU/Linux system was available. Today millions of
users use GNU/Linux and enjoy the benefits of freedom and community.

I designed the GNU GPL to uphold and defend the freedoms that define
free software--to use the words of 1776, it establishes them as
inalienable rights for programs released under the GPL. It ensures
that you have the freedom to study, change, and redistribute the
program, by saying that nobody is authorized to take these freedoms
away from you by redistributing the program.

For the sake of cooperation, we encourage others to modify and extend
the programs that we publish. For the sake of freedom, we set the
condition that these modified versions of our programs must respect
your freedom just like the original version. We encourage two-way
cooperation by rejecting parasites: whoever wishes to copy parts of
our software into his program must let us use parts of that program in
our programs. Nobody is forced to join our club, but those who wish
to participate must offer us the same cooperation they receive from
us. That makes the system fair.

Millions of users, tens of thousands of developers, and companies as
large as IBM, Intel, and Sun, have chosen to participate on this
basis. But some companies want the advantages without the

From time to time, companies have said to us, "We would make an
improved version of this program if you allow us to release it without
freedom." We say, "No thanks--your improvements might be useful if
they were free, but if we can't use them in freedom, they are no good
at all." Then they appeal to our egos, saying that our code will have
"more users" inside their proprietary programs. We respond that we
value our community's freedom more than an irrelevant form of

Microsoft surely would like to have the benefit of our code without
the responsibilities. But it has another, more specific purpose in
attacking the GNU GPL. Microsoft is known generally for imitation
rather than innovation. When Microsoft does something new, its
purpose is strategic--not to improve computing for its users, but to
close off alternatives for them.

Microsoft uses an anticompetitive strategy called "embrace and
extend". This means they start with the technology others are using,
add a minor wrinkle which is secret so that nobody else can imitate
it, then use that secret wrinkle so that only Microsoft software can
communicate with other Microsoft software. In some cases, this makes
it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program when others you work
with use a Microsoft program. In other cases, this makes it hard for
you to use a non-Microsoft program for job A if you use a Microsoft
program for job B. Either way, "embrace and extend" magnifies the
effect of Microsoft's market power.

No license can stop Microsoft from practicing "embrace and extend" if
they are determined to do so at all costs. If they write their own
program from scratch, and use none of our code, the license on our
code does not affect them. But a total rewrite is costly and hard,
and even Microsoft can't do it all the time. Hence their campaign to
persuade us to abandon the license that protects our community, the
license that won't let them say, "What's yours is mine, and what's
mine is mine." They want us to let them take whatever they want,
without ever giving anything back. They want us to abandon our

But defenselessness is not the American Way. In the land of the brave
and the free, we defend our freedom with the GNU GPL.

Addendum: Microsoft says that the GPL is against "intellectual
property rights." I have no opinion on "intellectual property
rights," because the term is too broad to have a sensible opinion
about. It is a catch-all, covering copyrights, patents, trademarks,
and other disparate areas of law; areas so different, in the laws and
in their effects, that any statement about all of them at once is
surely simplistic. To think intelligently about copyrights, patents
or trademarks, you must think about them separately. The first step
is declining to lump them together as "intellectual property".

My views about copyright take an hour to expound, but one general
principle applies: it cannot justify denying the public important
freedoms. As Abraham Lincoln put it, "Whenever there is a conflict
between human rights and property rights, human rights must prevail."
Property rights are meant to advance human well-being, not as an
excuse to disregard it.

Copyright 2001 Richard Stallman
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