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Re: GPLv3 comedy unfolding -- raya's research on "The Four Freedoms"

From: Alexander Terekhov
Subject: Re: GPLv3 comedy unfolding -- raya's research on "The Four Freedoms"
Date: Thu, 05 Oct 2006 15:11:00 +0200

More perspectives...
(The GNU General Public License)

Although helpful in codifying the social contract of the Emacs Commune, 
the Emacs 15 license remained too "informal" for the purposes of the 
GNU Project, Stallman says. Soon after starting work on a GNU version 
of Emacs, Stallman began consulting with the other members of the Free 
Software Foundation on how to shore up the license's language. He also 
consulted with the attorneys who had helped him set up the Free 
Software Foundation.

Mark Fischer, a Boston attorney specializing in intellectual-property 
law, recalls discussing the license with Stallman during this period. 
"Richard had very strong views about how it should work," Fischer says, 
"He had two principles. The first was to make the software absolutely 
as open as possible. The second was to encourage others to adopt the 
same licensing practices."

Encouraging others to adopt the same licensing practices meant closing 
off the escape hatch that had allowed privately owned versions of 
Emacs to emerge. To close that escape hatch, Stallman and his free 
software colleagues came up with a solution: users would be free to 
modify GNU Emacs just so long as they published their modifications. In 
addition, the resulting "derivative" works would also have carry the 
same GNU Emacs License.

The revolutionary nature of this final condition would take a while to 
sink in. At the time, Fischer says, he simply viewed the GNU Emacs 
License as a simple contract. It put a price tag on GNU Emacs' use. 
Instead of money, Stallman was charging users access to their own 
later modifications. That said, Fischer does remember the contract 
terms as unique.

"I think asking other people to accept the price was, if not unique, 
highly unusual at that time," he says. 


In fashioning the GPL, Stallman had been forced to make an additional 
adjustment to the informal tenets of the old Emacs Commune. Where he 
had once demanded that Commune members publish any and all changes, 
Stallman now demanded publication only in instances when programmers 
circulated their derivative versions in the same public manner as 
Stallman. In other words, programmers who simply modified Emacs for 
private use no longer needed to send the source-code changes back to 
Stallman. In what would become a rare compromise of free software 
doctrine, Stallman slashed the price tag for free software. Users 
could innovate without Stallman looking over their shoulders just so 
long as they didn't bar Stallman and the rest of the hacker community 
from future exchanges of the same program.

Looking back, Stallman says the GPL compromise was fueled by his own 
dissatisfaction with the Big Brother aspect of the original Emacs 
Commune social contract. As much as he liked peering into other 
hackers' systems, the knowledge that some future source-code 
maintainer might use that power to ill effect forced him to temper 
the GPL. 

As hacks go, the GPL stands as one of Stallman's best. It created a 
system of communal ownership within the normally proprietary confines 
of copyright law. More importantly, it demonstrated the intellectual 
similarity between legal code and software code. Implicit within the 
GPL's preamble was a profound message: instead of viewing copyright 
law with suspicion, hackers should view it as yet another system 
begging to be hacked.

"The GPL developed much like any piece of free software with a large 
community discussing its structure, its respect or the opposite in 
their observation, needs for tweaking and even to compromise it 
mildly for greater acceptance," says Jerry Cohen, another attorney 
who helped Stallman with the creation of the license. "The process 
worked very well and GPL in its several versions has gone from 
widespread skeptical and at times hostile response to widespread 

In a 1986 interview with Byte magazine, Stallman summed up the GPL 
in colorful terms. In addition to proclaiming hacker values, Stallman 
said, readers should also "see it as a form of intellectual jujitsu, 
using the legal system that software hoarders have set up against 
them."5 Years later, Stallman would describe the GPL's creation in 
less hostile terms. "I was thinking about issues that were in a sense 
ethical and in a sense political and in a sense legal," he says. "I 
had to try to do what could be sustained by the legal system that 
we're in. In spirit the job was that of legislating the basis for a 
new society, but since I wasn't a government, I couldn't actually 
change any laws. I had to try to do this by building on top of the 
existing legal system, which had not been designed for anything like 


5. See David Betz and Jon Edwards, "Richard Stallman discusses his 
public-domain [sic] Unix-compatible software system with BYTE editors," 
BYTE (July, 1986). (Reprinted on the GNU Project web site:

This interview offers an interesting, not to mention candid, glimpse at 
Stallman's political attitudes during the earliest days of the GNU 
Project. It is also helpful in tracing the evolution of Stallman's 

Describing the purpose of the GPL, Stallman says, "I'm trying to change 
the way people approach knowledge and information in general. I think 
that to try to own knowledge, to try to control whether people are 
allowed to use it, or to try to stop other people from sharing it, is 

Contrast this with a statement to the author in August 2000: "I urge 
you not to use the term `intellectual property' in your thinking. It 
will lead you to misunderstand things, because that term generalizes 
about copyrights, patents, and trademarks. And those things are so 
different in their effects that it is entirely foolish to try to talk 
about them at once. If you hear somebody saying something about 
intellectual property, without quotes, then he's not thinking very 
clearly and you shouldn't join."  


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