Freeing the Mind

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Title: Freeing the Mind : Free Software and the Death of Proprietary Culture

Eben Moglen's basic essay explaining the philosophy behind free software.


Excerpt: The Philosophy of open source

By Eben Moglen at

"The idea of ``Open Source Software is software that people can read, and I am for that. But it is important to understand that that inadequately describes what we were trying to do, or why. Dylan Thomas refers in ``The Child's Christmas in Wales to the ideal Christmas present of the book that told everything about the wasp, except why. This is, from my point of view, the problem with the discussion about Open Source: it tells you everything, except why. I have now told you why.

Free software is an invocation for particular social purposes of the ability to develop resources in commons. This is not, as I have pointed out, an economic novelty. It is the single way in which we have produced the most important works of Western intellectual achievement since the Renaissance. It is also the way in which we have managed for all time fisheries, surface water resources, and large numbers of other forms of resource beyond human production. Free software presents an attempt to construct a commons in cyberspace with respect to executable computer code. It works. It works, with one interesting subdivision of structural decision-making on how to construct the commons. When we come to the technicalities of licensing, we will observe that there are two philosophies in the construction of the commons, one of which is characterized, oddly enough, by a license with the three-letter name BSD, the Berkeley Systems Division license, which originally covered the distribution of a Unix-like operating system, written on free-sharing principles, primarily at the University of California. The BSD license says: ``Here is a commons. It is not defended by copyright against appropriation. Everything in the commons may be taken and put into proprietary, non-commons production as easily as it may be incorporated into commons production. We encourage people to put material into commons, and we are indifferent as to whether the appropriative use made of commons resources is proprietary, or commons-reinforcing.

The second philosophy for the production of software in commons is embodied in the GNU General Public License of the Free Software Foundation, known universally throughout the world by another three-letter abbreviation, GPL. The GPL says: We construct a protected commons, in which by a trick, an irony, the phenomena of commons are adduced through the phenomena of copyright, restricted ownership is employed to create non-restricted, self-protected commons. The GPL, whose language you've been referred to, is not quite as elegant a license as I would like but it is pretty short; yet I can put it more simply for you. It says: ``Take this software; do what you want with it--copy, modify, redistribute. But if you distribute, modified or unmodified, do not attempt to give anybody to whom you distribute fewer rights than you had in the material with which you began. Have a nice day. That's all. It requires no acceptance, it requires no contractual obligation. It says, you are permitted to do, just don't try to reduce anybody else's rights. The result is a commons that protects itself." (