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Defiant idealism

Like most ideas and movements that make a difference, free software began on the fringes, and to the uninitiated, was a shockingly unrealistic idea. "The only reason we have a wholly free operating system", Richard Stallman told Glyn Moody in 1999, "is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free. If you don't have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there's some practical convenience in making an exception."

It was this kind of defiant idealism – and the slight craziness of setting out to write a wholly free operating system from scratch – which captured the imagination of the coders who wrote the Linux kernel and put together the early GNU/Linux distributions in their spare time; and against the odds, turned free software and 'open source' into the serious proposition they later became for the world of commerce. In his introduction to 'Free Software, Free Society', a selection of Richard Stallman's essays, Larry Lessig wrote of Stallman:

"Every generation has its philosopher – a writer or artist who captures the imagination of a time. Sometimes these philosophers are recognized as such. Often it takes generations before the connection is made real. But recognized or not, a time gets marked by the people who speak its ideals, whether in the whisper of a poem, or the blast of a political movement."

"Our generation has a philosopher," he wrote. "He is not an artist, or a professional writer. He is a programmer." Not everyone would agree with this portrayal of Stallman, but the measure of his achievement is the extent to which GNU, the FSF and the GPL have provided a coherent framework for the proposition that software should be free.

Stallman, GNU and the GPL brought a narrative to the concept of free software, and gave it a unifying story and a purpose, framing it in terms such as 'freedom' and a 'movement' and a 'philosophy' – and as Stallman tells it himself, this process was the exercise of "pragmatic idealism", bending the rules of copyright to achieve the primary objective of software freedom.

Stallman's narrative helped to define the meaning of free software for those who already practised it, and gave those that followed a set of tools and values against which they could measure their own relationship to their work, whether they agreed with his ideas or not.

The copyleft as pragmatism

But the moment that made free software a concept to be reckoned with came with the release of the Linux kernel. Free software was a world changing idea that the Linux community of the 90s managed to both capture and encapsulate. Linux was licensed under the GPL, and as much as 'open source' or any other pragmatic approach to software development, the GPL contributed to the success of Linux and the growth of the Linux community. Torvalds later said "Making Linux GPL'd was definitely the best thing I ever did."

The distinctive element of the GPL was the copyleft, or Section 2(b), which was the ultimate pragmatic response to the conundrum of how to keep free software free – use copyright law to turn copyright law on its head. The paradox of Section 2(b) of the GPL, the so-called 'viral clause' to which so many people objected because it wasn't business friendly, was that it served to make the licence more business friendly. Once GNU/Linux had been adopted by more than one hardware company it became obvious to many other companies that there was a mutual advantage in contributing back to the project, and they did. There was nothing to be gained by forking the code.

Companies don't use GNU/Linux because of sentimental attachment to Linux, or the GPL, or 'open source'. They use GNU/Linux and free software because it makes business sense. And the GPL, which gives assurance of the continued freedom and commonality of the code, is the driver behind it. Obliquely, Stallman's 'pragmatic idealism' has been as useful and business friendly to commercial interests as the OSI or the benefits that 'open source' proclaims for free software.

Hands across the water

In more recent years the proponents of 'free software', in the shape of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and the pragmatists, in the shape of the OSI, have increasingly come together in search of common goals.

Phipps recalls that when he was still employed by Sun, he often liaised with Peter Brown of the FSF "over the GPLv3 process, to arrange for Richard Stallman's video about OpenJDK, and when Sun resumed its donations to FSF, as a Corporate Patron."

"More recently, as a director of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), I have had the pleasure of working with him on joint FSF-OSI projects. The most public was the joint position our two organisations took over the acquisition of Novell's patents by the Microsoft-initiated CPTN consortium, but we have also ensured the two organisations stay in sync over various issues during the last year including our mutual opposition to software patents."

Just as tellingly Phipps was instrumental in gaining the support of the FSF for LibreOffice. "While the FSF and OSI have clear philosophical differences," says Phipps, "both are committed to software freedom and it makes sense to collaborate on the many issues where our conclusions match."

A little bit of pragmatism can be a good thing. Sometimes you have to route around your goal to find the best route to your goal. And sometimes you have to hold onto your ideals, because "they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety" – Benjamin Franklin.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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