Next Left Notes Is A News Magazine Devoted To Direct Action
By Thomas Good
In the Information Technology world, the Free Software Foundation
is the organization that struggles against the drive to convert
knowledge itself into a capitalist commodity known as Intellectual
Property. The emergence of Linux, the fastest growing computer
operating system (OS), has done much to validate the FSF work.
Today, the FSF and the Linux movement have given rise to an increasing
number of politically active programmers, including the Progressive
Programmers League, based in the United States.
How It All Began...
Computer programmer Richard M. Stallman left MIT and launched the GNU
Project in 1984. His goal was to develop a complete UNIX style operating
system free of the restrictions associated with commercial software. UNIX
is the industrial strength operating system (OS) that dominates servers on
the Internet and in the corporate sector.
The Free Software Foundation (FSF), a non-profit charity that distributes
the GNU Project's software and accepts donations to keep the Project alive,
was founded in 1985.
The word GNU is a recursive acronym, meaning "GNU's Not UNIX," a play on
words that is common among hackers (a term of honor that has been
misappropriated by the press).
UNIX Systems are proprietary products of software vendors and are generally
quite expensive (there is a charge per user). They are considered to be
Intellectual Property - they cannot be modified or redistributed without
permission (and substantial payment).
GNU software, now called Free Software, is freely available, freely modifiable
and freely redistributable. Variants of the GNU operating system, which use
the now famous Linux "kernel" (the basic software that starts the computer),
are often simply called Linux but this a misnomer. Systems based on GNU Software
and the Linux kernel are more accurately called GNU/Linux systems.
The Linux kernel was written by Finnish graduate student Linus Torvalds and
published on the Internet in 1991. This pivotal component of an operating system
arrived at just the right moment for the GNU Project which had lacked this
essential ingredient. The combination of the two projects caused a sensation
in the computer world.
In the next decade GNU/Linux moved from being a hobbyist's tool to an enterprise
quality operating system - it is still the fastest growing system on the Internet
to this day.
Free/Open Source Software
Open Source is a popular synonym for Free Software which was coined in 1998. This
was primarily a marketing decision as programmers trying to enter the corporate
sector had difficulty convincing CEOs that Free Software wasn't inferior to
commercial, proprietary software.
According to the Open Source Initiative:
The basic idea behind Open Source is that when programmers can read, redistribute,
and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People
improve it, adapt it and fix bugs, thus creating a better product than the traditional
closed (proprietary) model.
opposes use of the term Open Source and does not wish to be "lumped in"
with the Open Source Movement:
The fundamental difference between the two movements is in their values, their
ways of looking at the world. For the Open Source movement, the issue of whether
software should be open source is a practical question, not an ethical one. As
one person put it, "Open source is a development methodology; free software is
a social movement." For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a suboptimal
solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and
free software is the solution.
Not surprisingly, FSF leader Richard M. Stallman is an outspoken opponent of
George W. Bush and a peace activist. His personal views are online at www.stallman.org
and he has written a book: Free Software, Free Society.
Stallman is well known for publicly stating his opposition to the "Open Source" monicker,
however, the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement do work together
against a common foe:
...the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement... disagree on the
basic principles, but agree more or less on the practical recommendations. So we
can and do work together on many specific projects. We don't think of the Open
Source movement as an enemy. The enemy is proprietary software...The main argument
for the term "open source software" is that "free software" makes some people
uneasy. That's true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about
responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things
they might rather ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject
the idea for that. It does not follow that society would be better off if we stop
talking about these things.
Free Software operating systems (GNU/Linux), productivity applications, databases
and other types of software, are all now freely available. Most of these products
are released under the GNU General Public License (or "CopyLeft") which contains
provisions that block any attempt to make derivative works proprietary. Products
are licensed under the GNU GPL to make certain they, and any derivative works,
From Toy to Cancer
The popularity of GNU/Linux amongst younger programmers produced something many
would have regarded as an oxymoron a decade earlier: the programmer activist.
GNU/Linux activists in the late 1990s began appearing at software stores to protest
new releases of Microsoft Windows - and to hand out free GNU/Linux CDs to shoppers.
In 1999, GNU/Linux activists protested a University of Michigan decision to sell
Microsoft products at the Student Union.
In 2003 independent film producer J.T.S. Moore released Revolution OS: Hackers,
Programmers and Rebels Unite!, which chronicles the rise of GNU/Linux from a "toy"
that Microsoft refused to comment on to a phenomenon that CEO Steve Ballmer called
"a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches."
Today, despite minor disagreements over terminology, licenses and a rivalry between
Linus Torvalds and Richard M. Stallman (known simply as RMS), Free Software developers
and users agree that there many compelling reasons to choose Free Software.
For free speech advocates the pernicious business practices of Microsoft (periodically
investigated by the Department of Justice and a convicted monopolist) and the anti-democratic
Intellectual Property constructs are foremost.
For developers of software the issue of having access to the uncompiled computer source code
(instructions in non-binary human readable form, i.e. the trade secrets) and the ability to
modify this code are paramount.
For discriminating users, weary of the fragile Windows, a stable, reliable operating
system is critical.
For most, these issues meld together into a common belief that Microsoft is not only
ethically challenged but unable to produce viable software.
The Development Model
According to Eric S. Raymond, author of the influential essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar,"
the reason Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) is simultaneously faster to produce and more
reliable than proprietary software is the model of development used by FOSS developers.
The sheer volume of the talent pool that produces GNU/Linux and its productivity applications
could never be equaled by Microsoft. The wide open 24 hour a day international "Team GNU/Linux"
works in a bazaar where progress is the only constant. The closed, proprietary shop of Microsoft
is likened to a cathedral staffed by monks, an environment that stifles creativity and offers
only incremental progress.
The Corporate Sector
Today, many young programmers, weaned on GNU/Linux, are moving into IT jobs. They influence or
may even be the decision makers. This is changing the industry and many proprietary vendors,
like the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), are feeling the pinch.
In fact, SCO is now engaged in what many view as a frivolous lawsuit against IBM. IBM has
embraced GNU/Linux and the Open Source development model (but NOT Free software) and has
published its own AIX (IBM's UNIX) source code in order to donate it to the movement.
SCO claims its has partial ownership of this code and has filed suit. It appears even a
lawsuit has helped the GNU/Linux movement - shortly after the lawsuit was announced, the
Novell corporation bought SuSE, a German brand of Linux. RedHat, the US Linux vendor
allied with IBM, has countersued SCO.
With IBM saturating valuable commercial air time during Fall football games and the IT
giants suing one another it seems clear Linux is at home in the corporate arena. But it
has also moved into the non-profit sector in a big way.
One of the problems that emerged from the technological revolution is the waste issue.
What to do with old computers? The pace of technological change has resulted in a vicious
cycle. Intel produces faster hardware and Microsoft produces feature rich (slower)
"improved" versions of Windows, which in turn demands faster hardware from Intel.
Critics call this the Win-Tel monopoly as users are always chasing new features,
usually in the form of a software upgrade which, after user frustration with poor
performance, results in a hardware upgrade... followed by a new software upgrade.
The old machines are often to be found in landfills.
A Portland, Oregon non-profit founded by Oso Martin has devised a way to address
this problem. Owners of old hardware donate it to "Free Geek" (www.freegeek.org)
in return for a tax writeoff. The computer's hardware is tested and repaired if
The Microsoft software is removed and Linux installed. Much of this work is done
by volunteers who are trained by Free Geek staff. They, in turn, receive free computers
as compensation. Leftover machines are provided to underprivileged children and non-profits.
Some equipment is also sold to computer hobbyists in the Free Geek Thrift Store.
At the same time the Free Geek recycling project was gathering steam in Portland, a
group of programmers, known as the Regina Project (originally based in Regina, Saskatchewan),
were writing software for healthcare providers.
Eventually several software packages appeared from this group, one of which, SQL Clinic,
came to the attention of Free Geek. It arrived in time to help local Oregon social service
agencies confronted with a crisis.
Measure 30 was a tax increase intended, in part, to provide relief to non-profits
in Oregon. It was defeated in a public referendum forced by hard right Republican
Dick Armey and his DC-based group "Citizens for a Sound Economy" which simply spent
tons of money to propagandize against taxes. This exacerbated economic crisis resulted
in a need to drastically reduce costs for agencies operating in Portland and the rest
A regional foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, approved a grant to a local healthcare
provider looking to move from proprietary software to F/OSS. SQL Clinic (www.sqlclinic.net)
was selected for this project. The 2.3 version of the application, however, did not meet
every need. Thus, Free Geek programmers rewrote major portions of it.
Today, SQL Clinic 3.0 is an electronic medical record (EMR) for providers of outpatient
psychiatric services. This program is available for free to any other organization needing
The SQL portion of the name refers to the "Structured Query Language", which is the
interface language for relational databases. Technical details and support contracts
are available from www.freegeek.org or
Support is geared towards fostering independence as each "customer" in turn may become
a vendor, if they are so inclined. In this manner, SQL Clinic's development model is
complimented by a progressive business model: revenue that funds development is generated
not by charging for software but by charging for technical support - support designed
to promote freedom.
Free Geek's new programming arm, Collaborative Technologies, wrote the current version
of the software, in consultation with the original author, adding the features needed
by the Portland provider.
This experience brought together two teams of programmers from the East and West Coasts
of North America. During this collaboration discussions moved from software to
social justice issues.
From these discussion a new group was created: the
Progressive Programmers League. Linux activists in both groups who are committed
communists, socialists, wobblies and greens came together. These progressives united
to form a collective that does free or low cost software development for non-profits
and has stated goal of:
Expanding geek awareness from single issue to a multi-faceted (e.g., class)
consciousness that fosters activism...
The PPL writes CopyLefted software for non-profits which then goes into the pool of
publicly available software, most of which is housed at the
Open Source Developers Network.
PPL also has an online magazine called the Next Left Notes
now under development. Submissions are welcome. To learn more about the Free Software Movement, to get
involved with the Progressive Programmers League, or to get help building a website
or database application for the web, contact email@example.com
This article originally appeared in
Political Affairs - Marxist Thought Online
Next Left Notes
(c) 2004,2006 Thomas Good
Verbatim copying and distribution of entire articles is permitted
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