Soenke Zehle on Thu, 13 Jun 2002 19:26:54 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> NLR Review Stallabrass "Digital Commons"

New Left Review 15, May-June 2002

Julian Stallabrass on Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman¹s
Crusade for Free Software. The iconoclastic hacker who is challenging
Microsoft¹s dominion, using 'copyleft' agreements to lock software source
codes into public ownership. Cultural and political implications of
treating programs like recipes.



The following passage appears very rarely in the copyright notice of a
printed book:

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, Version 1.1 or any
later version published by the Free Software Foundation.

It is to be found on the opening page of a new biography of the
free-software programmer and activist, Richard Stallman, and (as the
epilogue recounts) the unusual arrangement under which it is published is
due to his stern insistence. The notice means what it says: anyone is free
to copy, change and disseminate the book, provided they obey a set of
rules, of which the most important are (a) that they must reproduce
invariant portions of the text, protecting the recognition of its author,
and (b) that any modified or copied text be subject to the same GFD
licence. Furthermore, from June 2002, Sam Williams plans to publish the
biography on the website, where readers

can help to improve the work, or create a personalized version . . . We
realize there are many technical details in this story that may benefit
from additional or refined information. As this book is released under the
GFDL, we are accepting patches just like we would with any free software
program. Accepted changes will be posted electronically and will
eventually be incorporated into future printed versions of this work.

As the book makes plain, Stallman is an extraordinary figure‹a programmer
of surpassing skill, capable of matching the output of entire commercial
teams with his spare, elegant code; and a tireless, principled and
uncompromising activist who initiated and fostered the notion of a data
commons. Stallman not only developed the conceptual details of what has
become known as 'copyleft' (it is sometimes indicated with a reversed ©
symbol), creating public-ownership licences that cover software and
documents, but he also laboured to produce the fundamental elements of a
free-software operating system -- a no-cost alternative to Windows, Mac OS
and the rest, which anyone could download and improve. It was Stallman
who, in the eighties, initiated and led work on a free-software version of
Unix, which he dubbed GNU (a typically recursive programmer¹s joke, this,
the initials standing for GNU¹s Not Unix). The extraordinary ambition to
realize such a system was finally achieved using elements of GNU alongside
a kernel written -- as a stop-gap, originally -- by Linus Torvalds, and
developed into the Linux system; which, thanks to the efforts of thousands
of collaborators internationally, has become a threat to Microsoft¹s

With his waist-length hair, flowing beard, brown polyester trousers and
ill-matched T-shirts, Stallman himself is quite a contrast to Seattle¹s
Digital Godfather. Born in 1953 he was, according to his mother, devouring
calculus textbooks by the age of seven. Educated in New York¹s state
schools, supplemented by Saturday sessions at the Columbia Honours
Programme, he initially led the isolated existence of a mathematical
wunderkind, reading science fiction and MAD magazine, alienated from the
1960s protest movements. Studying mathematics at Harvard, he found his way
to the Artificial Intelligence laboratory at MIT, and moved there for his
postgraduate work. (Though officially independent of the Institute now,
Stallman still operates out of 545 Tech Square.)

It was at the AI lab that Stallman came into his own. There he found a
tight-knit, highly collaborative group of dedicated hackers who exchanged
information freely, working within egalitarian and informal structures.
Openness was central to their ethos, and was defended vigorously and
practically‹by breaking into offices where terminals had been left idle
behind locked doors, for instance. Stallman even fought against the use of

In the 1970s these programmers would freely exchange and tailor
pre-compiled source codes, improving and customizing them to suit their
requirements. From the turn of the 1980s, as the use of computers spread
and software became a valuable commodity, companies copyrighted their
programs and withdrew the source codes from the public domain. For
programmers like Stallman, this was an assault on what they most cared
about, as material that they had worked on for years was snatched from
their grasp‹an act analogous to the enclosure of common land. Stallman
swiftly arrived at a strong position opposing this development: he would
not use software that he was not allowed to alter or give to others.
Computer codes were not scarce in the way that material goods were.
Stallman likened them to recipes: to prevent people from swapping them, or
tinkering with them to suit their tastes, was authoritarian, morally
wrong, and a pollution of once open and collaborative social relations.

Stallman argues that while companies address the issue of software control
only from the point of view of maximizing profits, the community of
hackers has a quite different perspective: 'What kind of rules make
possible a good society that is good for the people in it?¹. The idea of
free software is not that programmers should make no money from their
efforts‹indeed, fortunes have been made‹but that it is wrong that the
commercial software market is set up solely to make as much money as
possible for the companies that employ them.

Free software has a number of advantages. It allows communities of users
to alter code so that it evolves to become economical and bugless, and
adapts to rapidly changing technologies. It allows those with specialist
needs to restructure codes to meet their requirements. Given that programs
have to run in conjunction with each other, it is important for those who
work on them to be able to examine existing code, particularly that of
operating systems -- indeed, many think that one of the ways in which
Microsoft has maintained its dominance has been because its programmers
working on, say, Office have privileged access to Windows code. Above all,
free software allows access on the basis of need rather than ability to
pay. These considerations, together with a revulsion at the greed and
cynicism of the software giants, have attracted many people to the
project. Effective communities offering advice and information have grown
up to support users and programmers.

The free exchange of software has led some commentators to compare the
online gift economy with the ceremony of potlatch, in which people bestow
extravagant presents, or even sacrifice goods, to raise their prestige.
Yet there is a fundamental distinction between the two, since the copying
and distribution of software is almost cost-free -- at least if one
excludes the large initial outlay for a computer and networking
facilities. If a programmer gives away the program that they have written,
the expenditure involved is the time taken to write it -- any number of
people can have a copy without the inventor being materially poorer.

An ideological tussle has broken out in this field between idealists,
represented by Stallman, who want software to be really free, and the
pragmatists, who would rather not frighten the corporations. The term
Œfree¹, Eric Raymond argues in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is
associated with hostility to intellectual property rights -- even with
communism. Instead, he prefers the Œopen source¹ approach, which would
replace such sour thoughts with Œpragmatic tales, sweet to managers¹ and
investors¹ ears, of higher reliability and lower cost and better
features¹. For Raymond, the system in which open-source software such as
Linux is produced approximates to the ideal free-market condition, in
which selfish agents maximize their own utility and thereby create a
spontaneous, self-correcting order: programmers compete to make the most
efficient code, and 'the social milieu selects ruthlessly for competence'.
While programmers may appear to be selflessly offering the gift of their
work, their altruism masks the self-interested pursuit of prestige in the
hacker community.

In complete contrast, others have extolled the 'communism' of such an
arrangement. Although free software is not explicitly mentioned, it does
seem to be behind the argument of Hardt and Negri¹s Empire that the new mode
of computer-mediated production makes Œcooperation completely immanent to
the labour activity itself¹. People need each other to create value, but
these others are no longer necessarily provided by capital and its
organizational powers. Rather, it is communities that produce and, as they
do so, reproduce and redefine themselves; the outcome is no less than Œthe
potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism¹. As Richard
Barbrook pointed out in his controversial nettime posting, ŒCyber
Communism¹, the situation is certainly one that Marx would have found
familiar: the forces of production have come into conflict with the existing
relations of production. The free-software economy combines elements
associated with both communism and the free market, for goods are free,
communities of developers altruistically support users, and openness and
collaboration are essential to the continued functioning of the system.
Money can be made but need not be, and the whole is protected and sustained
by a hacked capitalist legal tool‹copyright.

The result is a widening digital commons: Stallman¹s General Public
Licence uses copyright -- or left -- to lock software into communal
ownership. Since all derivative versions must themselves be 'copylefted'
(even those that carry only a tiny fragment of the original code) the
commons grows, and free software spreads like a virus -- or, in the
comment of a rattled Microsoft executive, like cancer. Elsewhere, a
Microsoft vice-president has complained that the introduction of GPLs
Œfundamentally undermines the independent commercial-software sector
because it effectively makes it impossible to distribute software on a
basis where recipients pay for the product¹ rather than just the
distribution costs.

Asked about his wider political convictions, Stallman replies:

I hesitate to exaggerate the importance of this little puddle of freedom .
. . Because the more well-known and conventional areas of working for
freedom and a better society are tremendously important. I wouldn¹t say
that free software is as important as they are. It¹s the responsibility I
undertook, because it dropped in my lap and I saw a way I could do
something about it. But, for example, to end police brutality, to end the
war on drugs, to end the kinds of racism we still have, to help everyone
have a comfortable life, to protect the rights of people who do abortions,
to protect us from theocracy, these are tremendously important issues, far
more important than what I do. I just wish I knew how to do something
about them.

In fact, a look at Stallman¹s homepage,, shows that he is
trying to mobilize public opinion over a wide range of political issues.

Beyond the Œpuddle¹, though, Stallman¹s ideas do have wider resonance. As
music, films, images and texts have become digitized, lifted from their
material substrata of plastic or paper, many of the considerations that
apply to free software come to bear on them. The issue again is not just
about copying but altering. In NLR 13, Sven Lütticken eloquently described
the advantages of intellectual 'theft'. Online, the challenges to
copyright are considerable, as people swap files using peer-to-peer
programs that sidestep centralized surveillance and control. This free
exchange of cultural goods is pursued not simply for consumption but to
provide material for active alteration‹most clearly so in music, where the
sampling and mixing of diverse sources is common, but also in video, with
Œfan cuts¹ of TV shows and films. Sometimes such appropriations are
undertaken with subversive intent‹for instance, in the copying of official
websites for satirical purposes, such as those sponsored by the group
RTMark, at In the world of online art, attempts to claim
exclusive ownership of works or sites have often been met with the
practical political act of hacking and illicit copying.

Stallman himself distinguishes between what he calls functional works
(software tools, manuals and reference guides, for example), scientific
and historical works, and works of art; in his view, all should be freely
copied and distributed, but the latter two should only be modifiable if
their authors assent. Stallman, whose defence of free software is in
essence a moral one, has no doubt that free distribution should apply
equally to cultural goods: 'The number of people who find Napster useful .
. . tells me that the right to distribute copies not only on a
neighbour-to-neighbour basis, but to the public at large, is essential and
therefore may not be taken away'.

In a now well-known formulation, Stallman says of free software: 'Don¹t
think free as in free beer; think free as in free speech.' Yet in fact
much free software is actually costless, or very nearly so; likewise,
swapped files containing music, pictures or video are extremely cheap to
download. While to do so is often illegal under current copyright law, it
is unclear whether the law could actually be enforced any more
successfully in this area than it was over copying music to cassette

Many of the advantages that work in favour of free software also apply to
other goods‹particularly, but not solely, those in digital form. The
argument about the efficiency that results from rapid peer review is of
considerable importance. At, K. Eric Drexler¹s
pioneering essay on the potential of hypertext points up the fact that
conversation on paper develops slowly (certainly in academic circles), due
to the time needed for review, resubmission, publication and distribution,
and the same is true of any riposte that may be published. What is more,
the final result remains unchangeable, and isolated from the comments it
has provoked. Hypertext allows for rapid revision, collapses the
time-scale involved in getting a response and can link all related texts
together. Free copying, linking and alteration are essential to this
process. With cultural works, the right to alter is a free speech issue,
as becomes clear when artists are sued for tampering with images of
Barbie, using company logos or even invoking company names. Corporations
not only want to give their brands and images powerful cultural currency,
but also to control their further use. To be unable to play with the image
of Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald due to the threat of litigation is a
fundamental form of cultural censorship. Equally, the copying and
alteration of online art works by other artists has been very important to
the development of much Net art‹theft being seen as a form of flattery.

The Œcopyleft¹ issue has major implications for the Left itself. Consider
the example of NLR. Its online policy is to make all current political
interventions, and a selection of articles from each issue, freely
available at, while electronic access to the entire
contents of the journal is available only to subscribers. At the same
time, the journal is protected by copyright and raises the money that it
needs to be published at all from subscriptions, bookshop sales and
reprint rights. Under the copyleft agreement, distribution of NLR material
would be freely granted to all those who had a desire or need for it.
Those who could afford the convenient and attractive packaging of the
material that the physical magazine offers would still buy it, but those
who needed the material without being able to afford the packaging would
not be denied. Furthermore, documents could be annotated, updated, and
placed alongside critiques (this can take place with convenience and speed
on the Web, but need not be confined to the virtual sphere). As with free
software, the ambition would be to foster a widening commons of writing
and other cultural material, a sphere in which access is determined
primarily by need and not price. In cases like this, would not the gamble
offered by copyleft be that widening access, and the goodwill that it
creates, increases rather than reduces income?

Until nanobots labour over physical manufactured goods, free beer will not
be on offer‹though the artist and programmer Joshua Portway has remarked
that Christ¹s miracle with the loaves and fishes produced the first
open-source sandwich. Yet free speech and a free culture‹protected by the
very mechanisms put in place to restrict ownership and maximize
profits‹can be. The Œleft¹ in copyleft should be taken seriously, as a
matter of expediency and principle. In this way, Stallman¹s small puddle
of freedom may become connected to an ocean.

New Left Review 15, May-June 2002

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: