June 20, 2003
@ 12:58 AM
How It All Began: Motivation for the GPL

Whenever the origins of the GNU Public Licence (GPL), copyleft and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) are told, there are typically two pivotal events that are described as the catalysts that led up to these events.

The first is the the tale of the printer driver where Richard Stallman wanted to modify the source code to the driver for a Xerox printer which frequently got jammed and thus wasted a lot of his time and that of others as they waited for print jobs that never got printed. Although Stallman felt capable to modify the printer driver, there was no way for him to do this because the source code was not available and the only person he knew who had the access to the source code refused to give it him due to a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). This situation was rather frustrating and infuriating to Richard Stallman especially considering that up until then sharing source code had been the norm in interactions between himself and other programmers.

The second pivotal event involved another brush with Non-Disclosure Agreements and was the straw that broke the camel's back. In the early 1980s, many of the hackers who had been an active part of the code sharing community in which Richard Stallman participated joined a company called Symbolics. Symbolics' deal with MIT with regards to licensing thier Lisp Machines involved certain conditions which Richard Stallman thought were unacceptable and for this reason he worked with a rival company named LMI to reverse engineer the work of Symbolics. Stallman describes helping LMI to compete with Symbolics in an interview with Michael Gross where he details how the shift to making the MIT Lisp Machines proprietary was unsatisfactory. However the interview fails to mention that relations became so strained between Stallman and Symbolics that he made a bomb threat against them which he never carried out.

The unwelcome side effect of so many hackers leave the MIT AI lab for Symbolics was that there wasn't enough manpower to continuing maintaining the operating system the were using at the time (ITS) and instead they moved to utilizing a proprietary operating system which required signing NDAs to access the source code. Soon afterwards, Stallman left and began work on GNU's Not Unix (GNU).

A more complete account of the central events of the Free Software Movement were detailed by Richard Stallman in the book, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution in the chapter entitled The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement: The First Software-Sharing Community

Free as in Speech: The Customer Is Always Right, But At What Cost?

Anarchism, Capitalism, & Marxism: Socio-Economic Theories and the GPL

Too Free, Truly Free or Not Free Enough: Does It Really Matter?


[KDE devs]

[Productivity Paradox & rise of consulting in GPL world]




Get yourself a News Aggregator and subscribe to my RSSfeed

Disclaimer: The above comments do not represent the thoughts, intentions, plans or strategies of my employer. They are solely my opinion.