intellectual property (246)
Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@VM.EPAS.UTORONTO.CA)
Mon, 6 Feb 89 20:04:37 EST
Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 566. Monday, 6 Feb 1989.
Date: Mon, 6 Feb 89 10:18 CDT
Subject: intellectual property
[The following was passed to me by Stephen Clark. Perhaps it will start
a worthwhile discussion about software development. Let me observe, in
passing, that although some commercial ventures deserve our suspicion,
or worse, some receive it unjustly. Most of us get paid for what we do
and would not do it, at least on present terms, were the money not
necessary. So, I wonder, is an edenic campaign for a free interchange of
software itself entirely free from the serpent's influence? -- W.M.]
New York Times.....Mid-January 1989
A BATTLE TO MAKE SOFTWARE FREE
By JOHN MARKOFF
Richard M. Stallman is a computer programmer obsessed with a
mission. He wants to bring back the good old days when programming
was a communal activity and those toiling at the craft freely
shared their ideas and their source code, the internal instructions
that tell the computer what to do.
Mr. Stallman, known among his colleagues as the "The Last
Hacker", has spent the last decade battling a computer software
industry that increasingly builds ownership walls around
intellectual property. He believes that computer software should be
freely shared and devotes himself to creating sophisticated
programs that he gives away.
He spends his days and nights in a cramped office at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory working to spread his philosophy that software is
different from other physical commodities since it can be copied at
virtually no cost. He believes there should be no restrictions on
freely copying and distributing it.
Mr. Stallman's ideas have gained increasing importance of late
because the computer industry has been moving toward "open"
software that will run on many different brands of computers.
Consortiums of computer companies have formed to champion their
version of the open software, based on the popular Unix computer
software operating system.
But Mr. Stallman carries the idea one step further. Not only
should the software run on different computers, but it should also
Mr. Stallman is doing nothing illegal, but his is an argument
that raises bitter objections from many programmers and companies.
They counter that protecting intellectual property is vital to
During the last two decades intellectual property protection
has become the foundation of the modern software industry. However,
Mr. Stallman asserts that what he calls "the use of human knowledge
for personal gain" has had a negative impact because information is
no longer widely shared.
"It's impossible to do anything without copying something that
has come before," he said. "People talk about the bad effects of
government secrecy in Russia. The U.S. is heading for the same
place in terms of commercial software."
In a manifesto that outlines his philosophy, Mr. Stallman says
that software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them by
making each agree not to share with others.
"I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free
software so that I will be able to get along without any software
that is not free," he writes.
Perhaps Mr. Stallman's concept of free software would be
easier to dismiss if he was not university considered-even by his
enemies-to be one of the nation's most outstanding programmers. And
his body of software is considered distinguished by industry
The computer industry is now evenly split between two giant
consortiums that each claim to champion open software systems based
on the Unix system. They contend that the open systems will
emancipate the computer user from a single company's private
standards. One has allied I.B.M., the Digital Equipment Corporation
and others opposite American Telephone and Telegraph and Sun
Microsystems. Mr. Stallman is somewhere in the middle and his
alternative of truly free software is gaining attention-and
For example, Steve Job's Next computer comes bundled with Mr.
Stallman's free software, and a number of other computer companies,
including the Sony Corporation, Sun, the Hewlett-Packard Company,
the Intel Corporation and the Data General Corporation, are now
giving support to aid Mr. Stallman's development work
From his outpost on the M.I.T. campus, Mr. Stallman operates
the Free "Software Foundate, a loosely run organization of
part-time staff members and volunteers that is now will on its way
to creating a complete software system called GNU. The name is a
Mobius strip-like acronym that stands for "GNU's no Unix."
When complete, GNU will include a computer operating system
and all the tools needed by programmers to design and write the
most sophisticated applications for a wide variety of computers. It
will also include word processors, spreadsheets, data base managers
and communication software, making it just as useful to non-
It is a Herculean undertaking, comparable to those that
corporations like I.B.M., D.E.C. and A.T.& T. each devote millions
of dollars and hundreds of programmers to annually
But unlike commercial software ventures, GNU programmers are
distributed with source code, the original programmer's
instructions. This permits any user to modify the program or
improve it. While most software companies jealously guard their
source code, Mr. Stallman argues that by freely sharing it he has
created a software community in which each programmer contributes
improvements, thereby bettering the program for all.
Mr. Stallman, who likes to be called by his initials, R.M.S.,
forged his values as a member of an elite group of M.I.T. computer
hackers who, during the 1960's and 70's, conducted pioneering
research in developing the world's first minicomputers and the
first time- sharing computers. M.I.T., which is where the term
hacker was born, also served as the incubator for many early
computer hardware and software companies.
In that community, software was freely shared among the
hackers, who would build their work on the earlier programming
efforts of their friends.
While the press has come to identify the term hacker with
malicious individuals who break into computers over telephone
lines, the hackers themselves have an earlier and different
definition. A hacker, Mr. Stallman said, is one who "acts in the
spirit of creative playfulness."
But while hacking began as intellectual sport and became a way
of life in the mid-1970's, many of the hackers who had participated
in the tightly knit community of computer researchers left to take
advantage of lucrative employment opportunities at the new
companies. Only Mr. Stallman remained behind, intent on carrying
on the traditions.
The breakup of the hacker community embittered him and for
several years he labored in solitude, intent on the incredible task
of matching the world's best programmers, writing for free the same
programs they were developing on a for profit basis at their new
In his book, "Hackers", Steven Levy describes how during 1982
and 1983 Mr. Stallman matched the work of more than a "dozen
world-class hackers" at Symbolics Inc., rewriting their programs
and then placing them in the public domain.
"He believes that information should be free and he interprets
it in the most literal fashion, "Mr. Levy said in an interview.
"Most hackers make accommodations with the way the world works.
Stallman doesn't want to make those concessions. He's a total
Some computer scientists believe there is a place for Mr.
Stallman's free software. "There is room in the world for free
stuff and commercial stuff," said Brian Harvey, a computer science
lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. "We don't
have to take over the world. Its good enough that I can run his
software on my computer."
The most popular GNU program is an extremely flexible editing
program known as Emacs. The software package, originally written by
Mr. Stallman at M.I.T. in the early 1970's, has become one of the
most widely used-and imitated-programming editors. Another widely
used GNU program is s compiler, a program that translates text into
a form that can be executed by a computer.
For a programmer, a compiler and editor are equivalent to a
carpenter's hammer and saw, the to most important tools of the
craft. Emacs's popularity is due to its flexibility, programmers
say. An entire computer language is embedded in the program, giving
it the utility equivalent to that of a Swiss Army Knife. For tens
of thousands of programmers, Emacs has become virtually the only
program they use because they can fashion it into a data base, word
processor, appointment calendar or whatever else they need.
"You start up Emacs and you never leave it," said Russell
Brand, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in
GNU software is freely distributed, but in a different manner
from public domain and "freeware" software among personal computer
users. While public domain software can be freely copied, freeware
authors ask users to contribute a fee if they find a program
useful. In contrast, GNU programs are not placed in the public
domain. Instead they are distributed with a public license that Mr.
Stallman calls a "copyleft." This license insures that the software
will stay freely copyable and not be incorporated into a
While Mr. Stallman's software is widely used at universities
and research centers and by professional programmers, his zealous
commitment to the idea of free software has angered others.
Several years ago the idea led to a bitter dispute when
executives at Unipress Software Inc., an Edison, N.J., company that
sells a commercial version of Emacs, pointed out that some of their
code appeared in aversion of Mr. Stallman's Emacs.
The problem stemmed from the fact that Mr. Stallman had
decided that because the original idea of Emacs was his, he could
freely borrow parts of a version written by another programmer,
James Gosling, who now works at Sun. While a student at Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mr. Gosling had written his own
version of Emacs and distributed it to friends giving it to
Unipress to sell commercially.
Mr. Stallman said he had been told by a friend of Mr.
Gosling's that he could use parts of the program. Angry messages
passed back and forth over computer networks before Mr. Stallman
decided that the way to end the dispute was simply to rewrite the
"We thought it was a little ironic," said Mark Krieger,
president of Unipress. "He says he plans on taking on the giants
and then the first company he goes after is little Unipress."
Despite the remaining bitterness over the quarrel, Mr. Krieger
said he had great respect for Mr. Stallman's programming prowess.
"I would give him negative credit for his ideas on free software,"
he said, "but give him a lot of positive credit as a brilliant
design engineer and the creator of the first Emacs."
Today, although he uses an office at the M.I.T. Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory, he is no longer a staff member. He
resigned a number of years ago when he set out to create the GNU
software system. He makes a living as a part-time software
[above forwarded from a local bbs]