Richard Stallman: The GNU GPL and the American Way

By Richard Stallman

Microsoft describes the GNU
General Public License (GNU GPL) as an “open source” license, and
says it is against the American Way. To understand the GNU GPL, and
recognize how it embodies the American Way, you must first be aware
that the GPL was not designed for open source.

The Open Source Movement, which was launched in 1998, aims to
develop powerful, reliable software and improved technology, by
inviting the public to collaborate in software development. Many
developers in that movement use the GNU GPL, and they are welcome
to use it. But the ideas and logic of the GPL cannot be found in
the Open Source Movement. They stem from the deeper goals and
values of the Free Software Movement.

The Free Software Movement was founded in 1984, but its
inspiration comes from the ideals of 1776: freedom, community, and
voluntary cooperation. This is what leads to free enterprise, to
free speech, and to free software.

As in “free enterprise” and “free speech”, the “free” in “free
software” refers to freedom, not price; specifically, it means that
you have the freedom to study, change, and redistribute the
software you use. These freedoms permit citizens to help themselves
and help each other, and thus participate in a community. This
contrasts with the more common proprietary software, which keeps
users helpless and divided: the inner workings are secret, and you
are prohibited from sharing the program with your neighbor.
Powerful, reliable software and improved technology are useful
byproducts of freedom, but the freedom to have a community is
important in its own right.

We could not establish a community of freedom in the land of
proprietary software where each program had its lord. We had to
build a new land in cyberspace–the free software GNU operating
system, which we started writing in 1984. In 1991, when GNU was
almost finished, the kernel Linux written by Linus Torvalds filled
the last gap; soon the free GNU/Linux system was available. Today
millions of users use GNU/Linux and enjoy the benefits of freedom
and community.

I designed the GNU GPL to uphold and defend the freedoms that
define free software–to use the words of 1776, it establishes them
as inalienable rights for programs released under the GPL. It
ensures that you have the freedom to study, change, and
redistribute the program, by saying that nobody is authorized to
take these freedoms away from you by redistributing the

For the sake of cooperation, we encourage others to modify and
extend the programs that we publish. For the sake of freedom, we
set the condition that these modified versions of our programs must
respect your freedom just like the original version. We encourage
two-way cooperation by rejecting parasites: whoever wishes to copy
parts of our software into his program must let us use parts of
that program in our programs. Nobody is forced to join our club,
but those who wish to participate must offer us the same
cooperation they receive from us. That makes the system fair.

Millions of users, tens of thousands of developers, and
companies as large as IBM, Intel, and Sun, have chosen to
participate on this basis. But some companies want the advantages
without the responsibilities.

From time to time, companies have said to us, “We would make an
improved version of this program if you allow us to release it
without freedom.” We say, “No thanks–your improvements might be
useful if they were free, but if we can’t use them in freedom, they
are no good at all.” Then they appeal to our egos, saying that our
code will have “more users” inside their proprietary programs. We
respond that we value our community’s freedom more than an
irrelevant form of popularity.

Microsoft surely would like to have the benefit of our code
without the responsibilities. But it has another, more specific
purpose in attacking the GNU GPL. Microsoft is known generally for
imitation rather than innovation. When Microsoft does something
new, its purpose is strategic–not to improve computing for its
users, but to close off alternatives for them.

Microsoft uses an anticompetitive strategy called “embrace and
extend”. This means they start with the technology others are
using, add a minor wrinkle which is secret so that nobody else can
imitate it, then use that secret wrinkle so that only Microsoft
software can communicate with other Microsoft software. In some
cases, this makes it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program
when others you work with use a Microsoft program. In other cases,
this makes it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program for job A
if you use a Microsoft program for job B. Either way, “embrace and
extend” magnifies the effect of Microsoft’s market power.

No license can stop Microsoft from practicing “embrace and
extend” if they are determined to do so at all costs. If they write
their own program from scratch, and use none of our code, the
license on our code does not affect them. But a total rewrite is
costly and hard, and even Microsoft can’t do it all the time. Hence
their campaign to persuade us to abandon the license that protects
our community, the license that won’t let them say, “What’s yours
is mine, and what’s mine is mine.” They want us to let them take
whatever they want, without ever giving anything back. They want us
to abandon our defenses.

But defenselessness is not the American Way. In the land of the
brave and the free, we defend our freedom with the GNU GPL.

Addendum: Microsoft says that the GPL is against “intellectual
property rights.” I have no opinion on “intellectual property
rights,” because the term is too broad to have a sensible opinion
about. It is a catch-all, covering copyrights, patents, trademarks,
and other disparate areas of law; areas so different, in the laws
and in their effects, that any statement about all of them at once
is surely simplistic. To think intelligently about copyrights,
patents or trademarks, you must think about them separately. The
first step is declining to lump them together as “intellectual

My views about copyright take an hour to expound, but one
general principle applies: it cannot justify denying the public
important freedoms. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “Whenever there is a
conflict between human rights and property rights, human rights
must prevail.” Property rights are meant to advance human
well-being, not as an excuse to disregard it.

Copyright 2001 Richard Stallman Verbatim copying and distribution
of this entire article are permitted in any medium without royalty
provide the copyright notice and this notice are preserved.

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