10.2 Copyleft

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.

If Stallman's first great insight was that the world did not need to put up with proprietary source code, then his second was that he could strictly control the use of GNU software with an innovative legal document entitled GNU General Public License, or GPL. To illustrate the difference, he called the agreement a "copyleft" and set about creating a legal document defining what it meant for software to be "free." Well, defining what he thought it should mean.

The GPL was a carefully crafted legal document that didn't put the software into the "public domain," a designation that would have allowed people to truly do anything they wanted with the software. The license, in fact, copyrighted the software and then extended users very liberal rights for making innumerable copies as long as the users didn't hurt other people's rights to use the software.

The definition of stepping on other people's rights is one that keeps political science departments at universities in business. There are many constituencies that all frame their arguments in terms of protecting someone's rights. Stallman saw protecting the rights of other users in very strong terms and strengthened his grip a bit by inserting a controversial clause. He insisted that a person who distributes an improved version of the program must also share the source code. That meant that some greedy company couldn't download his GNU Emacs editor, slap on a few new features, and then sell the whole package without including all of the source code they created. If people were going to benefit from the GNU sharing, they were going to have to share back. It was freedom with a price.

This strong compact was ready-built for some ironic moments. When Apple began trying to expand the scope of intellectual property laws by suing companies like Microsoft for stealing their "look and feel," Stallman became incensed and decided that he wouldn't develop software for Apple machines as a form of protest and spite. If Apple was going to pollute the legal landscape with terrible impediments to sharing ideas, then Stallman wasn't going to help them sell machines by writing software for the machines. But the GNU copyleft license specifically allowed anyone to freely distribute the source code and use it as they wanted. That meant that others could use the GNU code and convert it to run on the Apple if they wanted to do so. Many did port much of the GNU software to the Mac and distributed the source code with it in order to comply with the license. Stallman couldn't do anything about it. Sure, he was the great leader of the FSF and the author of some of its code, but he had given away his power with the license. The only thing he could do was refuse to help the folks moving the software to the Mac. When it came to principles, he placed freedom to use the source code at the top of the hierarchy.