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When, one beautiful day in 1980, the new Xerox printer in the MIT artificial intelligence laboratory suffered yet another paper jam, Richard Stallman, a young programmer aged 27, thought he would solve the problem as he had always done: by directly modifying the machine’s code. But there was a problem – the manufacturer had not made the printer’s source code available, and the engineer who had programmed the machine was bound by non-disclosure clauses that prevented him from sharing it. And so Stallman threw himself into the fight of his life: an IT crusade to defend and promote free software.
This famous story highlights the face of the free software movement in its early years: a community of libertarian programmers faced with code’s growing inaccessibility under the protection of trade secrets. “In the early days of computer science, the concept of ‘proprietary’ code did not exist,” recalls Raoul Delpech, a partner at Linagora, a leading French free software publisher. “Code was regularly shared by manufacturers of huge infrastructures, who relied on feedback from customers in order to improve their settings and fix various bugs. This wasn’t born of a desire to do good, it was simply a form of pragmatism; in any case, there was no real software market back then, nor the concept of portability. So it was impossible to design code exchanges between users of different machines.”
Until the late 1960s, machines were rare and expensive, and code, considered little more than an ornament, was virtually never sold. The narrow range of backgrounds among early users – primarily members of academic circles, for whom the sharing of knowledge was the norm – encouraged code’s exchange and modification. It was in this context that the term “hacker” was born, a nickname later appropriated by rogue users of a future era.
But this period of relative freedom was not to last. “With the rapid development of computing and the emergence of portability, it became profitable for small companies to reuse their code to market competitive machines, cheaper due to the cost savings of these software developments,” explains Delpech. “Faced with this risk, made greater by the expanding PC market, computer manufacturers stopped disclosing their software source code and imposed non-disclosure clauses on their developers.”
A drastic development in American law came in 1984 with the Computer Software Protection Act, which extended the concept of copyright to computer programs. Proprietary software thus became the norm, and paved the way for significant profits for a large number of companies in a rapidly expanding market. Businesses such as Microsoft, IBM, Adobe and Apple benefited greatly, guarding their patents jealously and enjoying the protection of legions of lawyers.
Enter Richard Stallman, the MIT programmer frustrated by his Xerox printer and its proprietary code.
Leaving his job permanently in order to found the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985, Stallman – better known by his initials RMS – developed the fundamental concepts of his philosophy, in particular the four freedoms that would define free software: the freedom to run the program, whatever the purpose; the freedom to study its operation and adapt it to the user’s needs; the freedom to redistribute copies (even for a fee); and, finally, the freedom to improve the program and distribute these improvements. Combining words with action, Stallman and his supporters launched the GNU project, aiming to create an operating system composed entirely of free software. But the real conceptual revolution came in 1989, when Stallman published the first version of his copyleft licence, the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL). “Copyleft uses the legal norm of copyright to protect free software,” explains Delpech. “Free software is published under a licence that guarantees the four fundamental freedoms, under one condition: any distribution of the same program or a modified version must guarantee the same freedoms to others.” In other words, copyleft ensures the preservation of free software, whilst enabling legal action against non-compliance with the GNU GPL licence through copyright law.
Two key events eventually acted as catalysts in the distribution of free software: the creation of Linux, and the widespread adoption of the internet
Though the foundations of free software were laid in the late 1980s, the movement concerned only a small number of enthusiastic supporters and activists. Information technology, which was undergoing a period of significant growth among both businesses and the general public, remained almost entirely under the thumb of proprietary software. Two key events eventually acted as catalysts in the distribution of free software: the creation of Linux, and the widespread adoption of the internet.
“By the early 1990s, the GNU project had already successfully developed a range of software products, but it still lacked a central piece, a core to make it a fully-functional operating system,” explains Dr Matthias Stürmer, head of the Research Center for Digital Sustainability at the University of Bern and vice-president at CH Open, a Swiss organisation that aims to promote free and open-source software. This missing piece was the kernel, a fundamental element controlling access to the various components of an operating system, be they hardware or software.
It was then that Linus Torvalds, a 21-year-old computer science student from Finland, published online the code of a rudimentary operating system developed during his spare time, asking for feedback from other developers. Very soon, the project gained a great deal of support, with users contributing to it on a voluntary basis. Linus decided to publish his kernel under the GNU GPL licence the following year. “This decision enabled the rapid development and distribution of the Linux kernel and its transformation into a fully-fledged operating system, thanks to the programs developed by the GNU project,” continues Stürmer.
The combination of the Linux kernel and the software published by the GNU project represented the creation of a complete and entirely free operating system. GNU/Linux was born – and with it, an initial ecosystem of technical distribution and support, as well as a significant ideological clash that is still relevant today.
“When open source started to grow, companies like Microsoft initially felt threatened"
Matthias Stürmer, head of the Research Center for Digital Sustainability at the University of Bern and vice-president at CH Open
“In the late 1990s, free software began to attract interest from business circles,” explains Stürmer. “The term ‘open source’ was coined then, because the political implications of free software and the Free Software Foundation scared away investors.” Unlike the FSF, supporters of open source emphasised the practical advantages of access to source code, including reduced development costs and improvements in quality and efficiency. Taking a more pragmatic approach, they permitted the use of less restrictive licences, allowing combinations of free and proprietary code.
The rapid development of the internet gradually encouraged the use of free licences and collaborative approaches, and free and open-source software gained more and more ground with developers – a cause for concern among traditional software publishers, Microsoft in particular. Eventually, the Redmond firm changed its attitude and embraced the movement: “When open source started to grow, companies like Microsoft initially felt threatened, but before long they recognised the competitive advantages of collaborative development. Ultimately, they had no choice but to follow and support the movement,” explains Stürmer.
The reason? Open source had become so omnipresent that overlooking it posed a considerable risk for companies in the IT industry. “Today, open source is the technological foundation of just about everything on the internet,” adds Raoul Delpech. “The GAFA companies built their success on open source, and continue to be major contributors. For instance, 85% of smartphones run Android, itself an open-source operating system. Microsoft too has joined in on a massive scale, for fear of becoming completely outdated and overlooked by young talent, who learn their trade using open technologies. Open source has won, that’s for sure.”
Yet there remains a fundamental opposition between the supporters of free software and those of open source, resulting in frequently bitter confrontations, be it over terminology – the FSF categorically refuses to be associated with open source – or fundamental issues, such as the use of proprietary code for access to certain peripheral devices. “However, from a technical point of view, this opposition no longer has any real impact. Today, free and opensource licences are almost all 100% compatible,” says Delpech.
It looks like free and open-source software has a bright future ahead of it: “In Switzerland, the use of open source is increasingly prevalent in the banking and pharmaceutical industries,” notes Stürmer. “We are living in a new period of acceleration,” agrees Delpech. “For the adoption rate of these technologies, the only way is up.”
A WORRYING CONCENTRATION
Good news or bad news? IBM’s takeover of Red Hat, shortly after Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub, triggered many questions among supporters of free software, some of whom see these purchases as the death knell for the opensource model. “We are currently witnessing a concentration of the market – and this is just the beginning. Further takeovers are soon to come,” explains Marc Palazon, chairman of Syntec Numérique’s Open Source Committee and CEO of Smile. “These mergers must be carefully monitored, as new owners may be tempted to change the model by ‘closing’ code – though I must say I don’t set too much store by this hypothesis.
"If Microsoft or IBM were to take such a step, the developer community could simply respond by creating a fork, i.e. new software created from the code that existed before the takeover.” Companies acquired for billions would then lose all value.