Bradley M. Kuhn: Free Software in the Land of Opportunity

By Bradley M. Kuhn

When I was in grade school, right here in the United States of
America, I was taught that our country was the “land of
opportunity”. My teachers told me that my country was special,
because anyone with a good idea and a drive to do good work could
make a living, and be successful too. They called it the “American

What was the cornerstone to the “American Dream”? It was
equality—everyone had the same chance in our society to choose
their own way. I could have any career I wanted, and if I worked
hard, I would be successful.

It turned out that I had some talent for working with
computers—in particular, computer software. Indoctrinated with
the “American Dream”, I learned as much as I could about computer
software. I wanted my chance at success.

I quickly discovered though, that in many cases, not all the
players in the field of computer software were equal. By the time I
entered the field, large companies like Microsoft tended to control
much of the technology. And, that technology was available to me
under licensing agreements that forbid me to study and learn from
it. I was completely prohibited from viewing the program source
code of the software.

I found out, too, that those with lots of money could negotiate
different licenses. If they paid enough, they could get permission
to study and learn from the source code. Typically, such licenses
cost many thousands of dollars, and being young and relatively
poor, I was out of luck.

After spending my early years in the software business a bit
downtrodden by my inability to learn more, I eventually discovered
another body of software that did allow me to study and learn. This
software was released under a license called the GNU General Public
License (GNU GPL). Instead of restricting my freedom to study and
learn from it, this license was specifically designed to allow me
learn. The license ensured that no matter what happened to the
public versions of the software, I’d always be able to study its
source code.

I quickly built my career around of this software. I got lots of
work configuring, installing, administrating, and teaching about
that software. Thanks to the GNU GPL, I always knew that I could
stay competitive in my business, because I would always be able to
learn easily about new innovations as soon as they were made. This
gave me a unique ability to innovate myself. I could innovate
quickly, and impress my employers. I even was able to start my own
consulting business. My own business! The pinnacle of the American

Thus, I was quite surprised last week when a vice president at
Microsoft hinted that the GNU GPL contradicted the American

The GNU GPL is specifically designed to make sure that all
technological innovators, programmers, and software users are given
equal footing. Each high school student, independent contractor,
small business, and large corporation are given an equal chance to
innovate. We all start the race from the same point. Those people
with deep understanding of the software and an ability to make it
work well for others are most likely to succeed, and they do

That is exactly what the American Way is about, at least the way
I learned it in grade school. I hope that we won’t let Microsoft
and others change the definition.

Copyright (C) 2001, Bradley M. Kuhn

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is
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