Dies ist eine Übersetzung der Rede, das
ist ebenfalls verfügbar und wird empfohlen.
Georg C. F. Greve
History and Philosophy of the
This speech was given at the CLOWN (Cluster of Working Nodes),
a 512-node Cluster project of Debian GNU/Linux machines in the
University of Paderborn, Germany.
5. December 1998
[Note: In translating this speech I have tried to stay as close as possible to the original speech that I have given in German. Breaking up the German structures and turning them into reasonable English has been quite some work, and I would like to thank my roommate Doug Chapin, a good friend and native American who helped me with some phrases and words. The translation will never hold the same emotions and implications but I think we got very close...]
During the preparation of this speech I have read several documents
and spoken to a lot of people. In doing so I realized that even people
whose jobs have been created more or less directly by the GNU project
did not know it's true meaning. In the overall rush we are
experiencing at the moment, it seems that a basic awareness of the
roots has been lost. Tonight I hope I'll be able to uncover some of
those roots again.
The origin lies somewhere in the transition from the 70's to the 80's,
when the software industry became what we accept so willingly
today. In the initial competition, some firms
took to hording code as a survival strategy. While attempting
to support this behaviour's legality, they created phrases like
"Software Piracy" because they suggest that something is lost when
software is copied. People were forced to yield to licenses that bound
them to make sure that no one else had access to these programs.
When a friend asked you whether he could copy a program from you, you
immediately faced a dilemma. There are no disadvantages for you in
copying the program, and it doesn't deteriorate during the copying
process... it would be more restrictive if he asked you to pass the
salt, since you can't both use it at the same time. The
politics of the companies forced you to choose between legality
A lot of people were upset about this and most of them copied the
program anyway--very often using lame excuses that were mostly
aimed at calming their own troubled consciousness (induced by the
firms' choice of words). The absolute hit was probably "If I would use
it more often I would pay it" ... a phrase that probably everyone
caught himself using if he ever had to rely on proprietary software.
One man found this situation unbearable. Used to the early days, the
(as he says himself) "paradise,", where freedom and responsible use of
the possibilities determined the situation, Richard Stallman
envisioned the concept of a completely free system. Very quickly it
became clear that this system would be Unix-compatible and it was
baptized--recursive acronyms were very popular back then--GNU,
which means "GNU's Not Unix."
Stallman gathered some people who shared his fascination with a free system and founded the GNU Free Software Foundation, of which he is still the president today.
Since first of all a Unix system requires a large set of components,
it became clear that these were the the first step towards a
completely free system. The GNU FSF worked on implementing
them, and by the beginning of the 90's the GNU system was complete (with
the exception of the kernel).
The GNU kernel--project name "HURD"--has an extremely ambitious layout that proved to be very slow and clumsy in development. Fortunately at this point Linus Torvalds's first Linux kernel was in the test phase, and when he saw the work already done by the GNU FSF he put his kernel under the GNU GPL and made it the kernel of the GNU system.
There is no need to tell the rest of the story since most of us have
experienced it themselves.
A little earlier I said that Richard Stallman envisioned the concept
of Free Software--what I didn't tell you about was the Philosophy
that stands behind it.
The "Free" in Free Software does not refer to the price but to
"Freedom". This is no unproblematic topic and recently some of the
visionaries of the movement (like Eric Raymond) have begun to talk
about "Open Source" because "Freedom" has an uneasy sound to it for
most people. Freedom rings of "making world a better place"
and insecurity. It rings of change, and change frightens many people.
To numb this fear, other licenses for free software have been
invented in order to make the concept digestible for more people
and to avoid scaring the industry.
That is the reason why the GNU Project dislikes the term "Open
Source." We think it makes more sense to take away people's fears of
the idea instead of blurring the concept. Only if users and firms are
aware of the importance of freedom can we avoid falling back into old
The philosophy of the GNU Project says that everyone shall have
the granted right to use a program, to copy it, and to change it to
make it fit his or her needs. The only restriction the GNU
General Public License makes, is that NO ONE has the right to
take away this freedom from anyone else.
When an author puts his code under the GNU GPL, the freedom is an
inseperable part of his program. Of course, this is a thorn in the side
of a lot of businesses eyes because
it stops them from taking the code, modifying it, and then selling it
as a proprietary program. As long as there are people who try to live
the dream of instant wealth it is this freedom that stops firms like
Microsoft from corrupting the future development of our system.
The most used argument against the GNU Philosophy is probably that
software is the "intellectual property" of the programmer and it is
only right if he can decide the price for which the program is
distributed. This argument is easy to understand for everyone since
it is exactly what we have been told to believe during the last 20
Reality is a little different, though. Private programmers who can
live off selling self-written software are the exception. Usually they
give their rights to the firm they work at and this firm earns the
money by restricting access to that program. Effectively, the
firm has the rights for that program and decides it's price
--not the programmer.
A lawyer who invents an especially brilliant strategy has no right to
claim it as his "intellectual property;" the method is freely
available to anyone. Why do we so willingly accept the concept that
every line of code--no matter how poorly written or uninspired it may
be--is so unique and incredibly personal ? The zeal for control
has taken over in a way that even human genes are subject to
patents...although usually not by the people who "use" them. Should
really everything be allowed to be patented and licensed?
This is the question that is one of the core thoughts of the GNU
Project. Let us just imagine there would be no such concept as
patented software or patenting software would be unusual because
everyone published his programs under the GNU GPL.
Solutions for standard problems that had to be solved over and over
again can be accessed easily. No one has to waste his time ever again
to work on the same problem dozens of times--programmers could search
for new ways and approach new problems. If a group of users needs a
certain feature in a program they just hire a programmer and let him
implement it. Freed of the limitations of licenses and money only two
criteria would determine the development of programs: demand and
Speaking of quality--nowadays more and more firms realize that
allowing the users to access the sourcecode gives them a huge
advantage. To say it in a simple way: more eyes can see
more. Solutions that are unimaginable for one person are painfully
obvious for someone else. Due to this advantage Free Software is very
often so much better than its proprietary counterpart.
The train of thought that now appears to be establishing itself
within some firms is to give users access to the source code but
not grant any other rights. Improvements are obediently being sent
back to the firm that advances it's product with them. Basically as a
gigantic gratis development division. If we do not pay attention to
these things now it might happen that in 5 years we will have
to pay for a version that has been produced by applying our own
The concept of software as "intellectual property" carries the seed of
doom inside itself (please forgive me for the pathos here).
As long as we accept this concept, we accept the danger that
another firm will attempt to take control. Microsoft is
not evil incarnate as some people seem to percieve. Microsoft
is the natural consequence of the widely accepted system.
The fear of sawing the branch you´re sitting on is also commonly
spread, but completely irrational. Better
programs lead to more users that have other needs and new ideas,
creating more demand. The structure will change to fit the new
situation but work will increase rather than decrease--and it will
become less routine and hence more interesting.
The last common fear that remains is the fear over lack of
recognition. Well, the respect held for the frontmen of the different
philosophies speaks for itself. I on my part would prefer to be as
respected as Linus Thorvalds or Richard Stallman than having the
reputation of Bill Gates.
Admittedly, this does sound like bettering the world and idealism, but
a lot of the really great ideas were driven by the wish to make the
world a little better.
And to settle one point very clearly: no, the GNU Project is not
agains capitalism or firms in general and it is not against software
firms in particular. We do not want to diminish the potential for
profit--quite to the contrary. Every firm is being told to make as
much money as they can off the sale of software, the documentation and
the service--as long as they stick to the basic principles of Free
The more these firms earn the more they can invest into the development of new software. We do not want to destroy the market, we just want to fit it to the times.
One short note about the basic principles: of course Free Software
also requires free documentation. It doesn't make any sense to free
the successor of the book--software--while accepting control of
the direct digital equivalent. Free documentation is as important as
Free Software itself.
Maybe someone discarded my statement about seeking to "fit the market to
the times" as a rethorical stament--but it is an
important point in the GNU Philosophy:
the time when software was only relevant for a few freaks and some firms is long gone. Nowadays software is the pathway to information. A system that blocks the pathways to information and in doing so the access to the information itself must be reconsidered.
When Eric Raymond published the so called "Halloween Document" it
triggered emotions from euphoria to paranoia. For those of you who did
not read it: it is a Microsoft internal study in which the strengths
and weaknesses of Free Software in general and Linux especially are
analyzed. The author basically concluded that Microsoft has two
possibilities to counter the threat.
The first is the creation of new or modification of old protocols
documenting them only poorly or not at all, so that only Windows-based
machines will have a working implementation.
One example of this tactic is the protocol used by HP "Cxi"
printers which have entered the market as extremely cheap
"Windows-Printers." The specifications have only been given
to Microsoft, so these printers are not usable by any other
I have been told by a "professionally trained" computer salesperson that
the "for Windows" sticker means that the printer needs a
very special kind of RAM that only Windows machines have--that's why
it cannot be used under Linux. Something like this confuses the
typical user, which brings me directly to the second described
These tactics are usually gathered under the synonym "FUD" (Fear
Uncertainty Doubt) and were used by IBM long before Microsoft
unconvered them. The idea is clear: If you make someone uncertain
enough, he or she will not dare to make any decission, effectively
remaining in his or her current position. That is the thought.
For all times, education has been the arch-enemy of superstition.
We must not allow education to be hindered by allowing ourselves to
The most recogniziable split in the recent history has been the
already noted distinction between "Open Source" and "Free
Software." Telling both concepts apart is not an easy task even for
most insiders and it is only understandable if viewed in a historical
context. Since this is a central point I'd like to say a few words
With the completion of the GNU System with the Linux Kernel there was
suddenly a complete, powerful, free system available. This inevitably
had to raise the public's attention sooner or later.
When this attention came a lot of firms were disconcerted by the word
"Free." The first association was "no money" which immediatly meant
"no profit" for them. When people then tried to tell them the "Free"
truly stands for "Freedom" they were completely shaken.
Infected by this insecurity and doubt the idea arose to avoid words
like "Free" and "Freedom" at all costs. The term "Open Source" was
Admittedly it is easier to sell the idea is you use the term "Open
Source" instead of "Free Software."
But it has the consequence that the "newbies" have no knowledge or understanding of the original idea. It splits the movement and leads to incredibly unproductive trench wars that waste a huge amount of creative energy.
A larger interested audience does not mean we should talk less about the
underlying philosophy. Quite to the contrary: the more people and
firms do not understand that this freedom is also in their interest,
the more we need to talk about it. The Freedom of software offers a
huge potential for all of us--firms and users.
The plan is not to remove capitalism or destroy firms. We want to
change the understanding of software for the benefit of all
participants to fit the needs of the 21 century. This is the core of
the GNU Project.
Each of us can do his share - be it in form of a program,
documentation, or just by spreading the word that there is another way
of handling things.
It is crucial to explain to the firms that Free Software is no
threat, but an opportunity. Of course this doesn't happen
when all participants realize the possibilities and perspectives, all
of us will win. So if you are working in the software business, make
yourself at home with the topic, talk about it with friends and
colleagues. And please refrain from trying to "missionize" them--I
know most of us have this tendency - the arguments speak for
themselves. Give them the time and the peace to think it over and to
befriend themselves with the concept. Show them that the concept of
Freedom is nothing to be feared.
I hope I was able to convey the philosophy or at least stimulate
consideration of some new ideas. If you have questions or would like to
discuss some things, I'll be here all night and all questions are
welcome. I wish everyone a very interesting night. Thank you.
Please send FSF & GNU inquiries & questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. There are also other ways to contact the FSF.
Please send comments on this speech to email@example.com, send comments on these web pages to firstname.lastname@example.org, send other questions to email@example.com.
Copyright (C) 1998 Georg C. F. Greve
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this transcript as long as the copyright and this permission notice appear.
Updated: 11 Dec 1999 jonas