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Caldera Sings Stallman's Praises - Updated
Friday, October 13 2006 @ 03:26 PM EDT

I thought you might enjoy to read something written some years ago by Caldera System's Dean Zimmerman on the history of Linux, in a "Channel Marketing White Paper" titled "OpenLinux and Open Source" [PDF]. One of the stated purposes behind writing the paper was to answer Microsoft FUD about Linux. He begins, as one must, with Stallman's contributions, his purpose, and the reasons for inventing the GPL. And since we are currently seeing what appears to me to be a coordinated campaign of smears against Richard Stallman, I thought it would be in the recursive tradition to let Caldera Systems itself answer Stallman's critics.

: )

Because they do, in this paper. And you'll find some other gems in there that prove SCO's claims regarding methods and concepts to be exactly what you thought they were. But it's nice to have proof.

From the opening section of the paper:

A Brief History of Linux

We can all be grateful for the careful and concise writing of Ganesh C. Prasad, whose monumental document, "The Practical Manager's Guide to Linux," includes this brief history:

"From a purely technical standpoint, Linux is just another variant of Unix. What makes it unique is something other than its technology. To really understand the reasons for its amazing popularity, it may be worth delving into a bit of history.

"The GNU project was started in 1984 by Richard Stallman, a researcher at MIT's Artificial Intelligence labs, in reaction to the (then) new practice of keeping source code secret and enforcing software licensing. Stallman saw the withdrawal of source code as a curtailment of programmers' freedom to modify and improve software. He also saw the license restrictions on copying as being at odds with his philosophy of being a good neighbour and sharing ideas. So he set out to rewrite all the software then commonly in use, single-handed if need be, and make it free for everyone to use, modify and redistribute, without any restrictions. (A task as enormous as this would have put off a lesser man, but Stallman's determination, self-confidence and technical skill are now legendary.) His goal was to recreate a complete operating environment that was free of such restrictions, with all the tools and utilities that a computer user would ever need.

"The model he chose was Unix, because it was technically better than the other operating systems of the day. But because he was against the restrictive licensing of Unix by AT&T, he called his project by a recursive acronym, GNU, for 'GNU's Not Unix'.

"(Free software programmers often display a wacky sense of humor. For example, the free equivalent of the Unix Bourne shell is called bash, for 'Bourne again shell'.

"Richard Stallman proved to be a formidable hacker. (He uses the word 'hacker' in the positive sense of master programmer, reserving the word 'cracker' for people who break into systems.) He single-handedly wrote free versions of many popular Unix utilities. Among his lasting software contributions are the GNU C compiler gcc and the emacs text editor.

"Richard Stallman established the Free Software Foundation to raise funds to produce free software. For him, the 'free' in free software refers to freedom, not price. He is not against software being sold for money as long as the source code is available and others programmers have full rights to modify and redistribute the software. As he is fond of saying, 'When you say Free, think free speech, not free beer'.

"Richard Stallman is a great hacker who wrote some really amazing software, but the contribution for which he will probably be remembered is not a piece of software but a legal document. He quickly realized that even if he wrote great software and gave it away, someone else could come along, make a few changes to the code and then copyright the whole lot by claiming it to be a differentiated product. Thus, the aim of sharing would be defeated and he would be foolishly giving away something which others could simply exploit.

"He came to the conclusion that he had to design a special license to ensure that the software remained public and all modifications and improvements, no matter who made them, were made available to everyone. Ironically, as the legal system has no mechanism to protect publicly-owned intellectual work, Stallman had to rely on copyright law itself to design a license that was opposed to it in spirit! The way it works is very interesting, demonstrating that even Law can be a malleable medium to a creative mind. To protect his software for everyone, he first copyrights it, thereby preventing someone else from seizing control of it at a later date, then gives it away under controlled conditions ... The conditions are that anyone modifying the code for later redistribution has to make their source code public on the same terms. No proprietary modifications are allowed, except for private use. This license is known as the 'GNU General Public License' or GPL. It's also called copyleft, because in a deep sense, it is the opposite of copyright. It gives freedom instead of restricting it. (Stallman has often been accused of being a socialist or communist, an anti-commercial crusader, but the reality is probably simpler than that. He is an idealist who just believes very strongly in the 'right' of programmers to share code without artificial restrictions.")

I asked Stallman once pointblank if he was a socialist, and he said no. After all, he's still living, so we don't have to guess or imagine or wonder or impute. We can just ask him, and I did. Even his critics don't accuse the man of being dishonest, and I believe his answer was truthful. He's not a socialist.

The aim of the GPL was from the beginning, as you can see in Caldera Systems' explanation, to enable sharing of source code by anyone and to prevent proprietary tricksters from closing it off or bypassing the "price" of the code, namely sharing public modifications back and allowing everyone to modify. It was very nice of Caldera Systems to defend Stallman's honor, importance, and place in history, don't you think? And to stress the value of the GPL. I guess it isn't "unConstitutional", or void, after all, according to their own white paper, which views it as Stallman's masterpiece.

But of course, the paper is also full of other choice bits that would interest SCO watchers. For example, this paragraph on page 5, on restrictions, or more accurately the lack of them, on AT&T's Unix, in the beginning:

Perhaps because AT&T, the developer of UNIX, had been prohibited from competing in the computer market, they freely licensed the software to universities for a minimal fee. As educators and students began creating programs, they shared them without restriction.

Some of the finest software available on any platform was created during these days -- and it was all shared throughout the computer community.

The story of the Internet is the story of shared computer software on UNIX systems.

That's exactly what IBM has just been explaining to the court in its magnus opus, what I now call IBM's Greatest Hits, the nearly 600 exhibits provided to support its various summary judgment motions. I'll have all the links on that finally finished later today, except for a couple of links to articles where I haven't yet arranged permissions. It's done up to the mid-500s now.

The Caldera white paper goes on to retell the story of Bill Gates defining software he and Paul Allen created for the MITS Altair 8800 computer by "proprietary" terms, and quoting from his notorious flame letter to "hobbyists" 1 about MIT and Harvard students "stealing" his software:

"Most of you steal your software... One thing you do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"

Well, aside from Unix having already been written largely by unpaid volunteers, Stallman and many programmers decided they could continue to do it without being paid, and they did. You see, Gates was the radical. The tradition was openness. Stallman continued that tradition, but he didn't invent it. He invented a way to ensure its survival. Nowadays, folks sometimes paint Stallman as a "radical" but his ideas are strongly rooted in software history from its inception. Commercializing and closing it off was the radical move.

So, in view of history since 1976, with the two competing ideas playing out in reality, was Gates right? At first, it might have seemed so. But look at all the fabulous, professional-level software FOSS has produced by volunteers, and its adoption, and you have your answer. I could be mean and mention Patch Tuesday's problems and Vista's delays and security woes, but why be petty?

Instead, I suggest you put the two men's ideas side by side in your mind, and then ask yourself, how will they go down in history? And deeper, who would you rather buy a used car from?

That's not just a joke. One of the value-adds of FOSS *is* the community values, knowing that the kinds of corporate dirty tricks and sleaze we read about in the news is pretty much nonexistent, and that you can trust that if you do business with the community, you don't have to watch your back every stupid minute to make sure you don't end up corporate road kill. There is competition, of course. But it's not based on war concepts of kill or be killed. It's based on technical merit. Which method is more likely to produce excellent and useful software, looking at it from the public's point of view?

That's why attacks on Stallman and the GPL are short-sighted, even from a purely pragmatic point of view. This value-add is the one thing Microsoft can't embrace, extend and extinguish. It's unique to FOSS. And although some might wish they could separate themselves from Stallman, for whatever reason, such as wishing to appeal to commercial points of view, or ideological differences, or whatever, it just can't be done. He is part of the history, and with all his flaws as you may see them, without him there would be no Linux. By that I mean a kernel can't do much all by itself, you know. The rest was available to the kernel because of his determination to make it available. And it was the GPL that made it popular and protected it. And there is no way to rewrite that history without being dishonest.

I point that out because sometimes corporations can be short-sighted. They might imagine that if they could just can the ethics and emasculate the GPL, they'd have a winner and their bottom line would be enhanced. But what they might not have understood is that the values behind the code are what made -- and make -- it popular. It's why I buy it and use it. And it's a large part, therefore, of what makes it valuable in the market, just as this Caldera paper told you.

And it's the truth. If the corporate side managed to overthrow the ethics, the majority of the community would simply walk away and let the corporations try to figure out on their own how to do what these volunteers did without them.

Yes. They will.

Thanks to the foresight of the GPL, nobody needs the corporations, not to put too fine a point on it, to keep the software body of work going and available, although their participation is certainly valuable and, by me, welcome. The corporations, however, do need the community. Frankly, if the corporate guys knew how to develop FOSS or Linux, they would have done it themselves, instead of having to hop onboard an already moving train. If they were to be foolish enough, bull-in-a-china-shop style, to muscle their way into the engine car, toss the original engineer out onto the field on his noggin, so they can drive the train themselves, they would find most of the cars on the train decoupling from the engine and happily running along a different, faster and eventually more popular track, and then we'd be right back where we started in 1976, with some unnecessary damage just another blip in the road.


1 A volunteer sought and received permission to publish here that Gates statement, and this is the time and the place, but somehow I've misplaced it. If you are that volunteer, can you please resend it? I'll put it right here.

Update: Here is the letter, which Bob Crotinger resent. Thank you so much for going to all the trouble on our behalf. And a huge thank you to the publisher for allowing us to present it here:

Reprinted from Radio-Electronics, May 1976 issue. Copyright Gernsback Publications Inc. 1976.


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