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Why I'm Proud To Be A Dirty GNU Hippy

It's not just because Information wants to be Free,
but because one has a responsibility to create Free Information.

Michael D. Crawford

Michael David Crawford P.E., Process Architect
Solving The Software Problem
mdcrawford@gmail.com

July 12, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Michael David Crawford.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

In response to helpful advice I posted in the WebmasterWorld AdSense Forum, moneyraker wrote:

MichaelCrawford, I am really amazed at the painstaking detail with which you share your experiences and knowledge with us :). Each of your posts can probably stand on its own as a page worthy of an Adsense block. Can I have your permision to collate them all on a new website related to giving Adsense Advice so I can earn money from them?

You ask a very reasonable question, but I'm afraid my answer cannot be a simple "Yes" or "No". The best I can say is "Maybe, but only under certain conditions". These conditions are difficult to explain, and when I explain them, I need to explain why I feel as I do. Hold onto your seat:

Many of my articles and essays began as community website, Usenet or mailing list posts. It is often not until after I've posted something that I see its potential to be a new article. At that point I copy its text to my PC so I can mark it up for presentation on the web.

While I know I might make more money if my writing was only available at my own site, or if I forced you to pay for it in dead-tree form, you must know by now that it's important to me to do good with my writing.

Sometimes I can do the most good when I not only allow, but encourage copying. Therefore several of my articles and essays are published under a Creative Commons license or the GNU Free Documentation License.

If you find such a license in one of my articles, click the link in the license notice then read the license terms carefully to understand the rights they grant you and the responsibilies they require of you. But if my writing - or anyone else's - doesn't bear an explicit license notice then you must assume it's copyrighted and "All Rights Reserved". That's established law, not just my opinion: copyright descends on a creative work the instant it is created.

But I'm not an unreasonable man - if you'd like to copy a specific post of mine, ask me and maybe I'll place it under a Creative Commons license. But that would mean you would have to allow copying too.

What inspired my thinking?

When I started working as a computer programmer, it wasn't because I liked it or was any good at it but because I had to pay the rent somehow after I dropped out of college, and I'd learned to write a little code in school.

What convinced me to make a career of programming was when a visitor installed a massive Free Software package called GNU Emacs on my Sun workstation back in 1988. He explained that it came with all the source code - we had to compile it ourselves - and that not only was I free to read the source, but to tinker with it, and if I liked, to give away or even sell my modified version of Emacs.

But if I distributed any updates to Emacs at all, I had to give away my source code with it, not just the binary executable. You see, what was "Free" about this kind of Free Software was not that one didn't have to pay to get it, but that it was Free as in Freedom. This does not mean simply that programmers are Free to monkey with the code, but that the code itself has Freedom.

The Emacs source code was and is copyrighted, but licensed under an expertly-written legal document called the GNU General Public License that was written to ensure that Emacs' source code, once Free, remained Free. In the nearly twenty years since the publication of the Emacs Public License from which the GPL was derived, the GNU GPL has never been defeated in a court of law.

I capitalize this usage of Free to distinguish it from "without monetary charge". It is unfortunate that the English language cannot distinguish between Free as in Freedom and free as in free beer. Spanish does better: Free in the sense I mean is "Libre" in Spanish, free as in free beer is "gratis". For that reason, many in the Free Software movement prefer to call it Libre Software.

What was most important to me then was not getting the source code to Emacs, but an essay that came with it, called the GNU Manifesto, written by Emacs' author, a visionary computer programmer named Richard Stallman. The GNU Manifesto explained the need for software to be Free, and that Stallman had founded the Free Software Foundation to develop from scratch a totally Free operating system that he would call GNU. GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix". (It's recursive see? It's a programmer joke.) GNU was to be a clone of the very proprietary Unix operating system.

Stallman's plans for GNU were ambitious, as he intended to improve upon Unix in many ways. Many say he bit off more than he could chew because it's been almost twenty years and he's still working on it. But Stallman - with the help of many other volunteers - wrote many important components of GNU in just the first few years, all but the operating system kernel.

By the early 90's a bright young Finnish computer science student named Linus Torvalds grew tired of MS-DOS but didn't have the cash to buy Unix for his PC, so he wrote a kernel himself, much simpler than what Stallman envisioned for GNU, and called it "Linux".

Perhaps you've heard of it. When combined with what Stallman had created of GNU by then, the kernel that Linus Torvalds wrote gave birth to a complete, ready to use operating system that was not simply free as in free beer, but Free as in Freedom. The operating system as a whole - including the application and utility programs as well as the runtime libraries - is properly called "GNU/Linux". Linux, strictly speaking, is just the central core, what programmers call the "kernel".

It was reading the GNU Manifesto that convinced me that being a programmer was worth a damn after all. I could easily see that Emacs was an incredible achievement, and wondered what kind of program I might write someday if I learned how. From that point on I began to work and to study very hard to learn my craft, for example by reading Stanford computer science professor Donald Knuth's fundamental book The Art of Computer Programming on the bus during my hour-long commute to work.

But I discovered I had a problem. Others have overcome it, yet somehow I have never been able to. Not with any software I have ever written:

By earning my bread through writing software, I made a pact with the Devil. In seventeen years spent working as a software engineer, I have been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement by everyone I have ever worked for. I have never been allowed to write Free Software. All but a tiny bit of the source code I have written in seventeen years of hard labor is now kept a jealously guarded trade secret by those who paid me to write it. Many of those companies are now long out of business, yet I could still be sued or even imprisoned should I release any of the source code I wrote for them.

Many have succeeded where I failed. One can generally write Free Software by doing it on one's own time. But even when I had the time, often I had to work so hard just to survive that I was too tired to ever write any Free Software. After a long hard night writing code for pay, the last thing I ever wanted to do was write software for fun, even if it would be the Right Thing to Do.

But the news has not been all bad. There has been something I have been able to do, for fun, that is as Free As The Wind:

I Like To Write.

Some people - many people - often tell me that I like to write only because I like to hear myself speak. But that's not why. It's because by writing I am able to be true to myself. The Free Software movement says "Information wants to be Free," but there is more to it than that:

One has a responsibility to create Free Information.

I have been given a precious gift, in being able to write well, so I bear a heavier burden than most others to do so. But it is a burden that I bear gladly, because by writing I am able to live true to one of the principles I hold most dear: the Spirit of Academic Freedom.

You see, while I eventually did complete my degree, it is in Physics, not Computer Science. I decided at a very early age to pursue a career in science, but for reasons I won't go into right now, it never worked out for me. Many of the books I read as a child about the lives of the great scientists emphasized that they all shared their discoveries openly and freely by publishing them in the peer-reviewed academic journals.

When I was a student at Caltech, many of us jokingly called the Computer Science students "prostitutes" because we all knew they had high-paying jobs waiting for them after graduation. But I and my fellow Physics majors aimed instead to use our minds for the benefit of society, rather than to sell our minds' creations to make a buck.

That's why from the very start I found it absolutely appalling that the best parts of any computer program - the source code, and even more important, any newly discovered algorithms - were kept secret from the public, lest my employers' competitors found out how to duplicate our work.

I did not then and do not now feel that that was right. But I had to find a way to get by somehow, and I was eventually able to learn to program with great skill. For many years my work was in such great demand that I was able to command the highest salaries. But I am very determined never to compromise my principles that way again. I expect that someday I will write code again, but never again will I sign a nondisclosure agreement, nor will I ever assign my creative work's copyright to anyone else for as long as I live.

For years I searched for a way out. I knew that I liked to write, and that many liked to read my writing. I had the idea I could write a book, or write for magazines. But somehow I never found it in myself to approach a publisher.

I did write, in fact I wrote a great deal all these years, but I published everything I wrote freely on my own website as well as several community websites. Until I found my way out of programming, it was enough for me to write things that others liked to read, or that they found helpful.

I was reluctant to submit my work to publishers because I knew they would require me to assign my copyright to them. Although I had long grown cynical about my software I could not bear to do that to my writing. It was not that someone else would be able to profit from my work. What I objected to was that if I lost my copyright, others would be forced to pay to read my writing, and I found that prospect intolerable.

One day, more out of desperation than for any other reason, I stumbled across the magic formula I sought, that would allow me to live off my writing while still allowing it to be read freely:

ADVERTISING!

Strange, don't you think, that after living all my life in a culture inundated with television, radio and now the Web, all free content paid for by advertising, that it would take me so long to figure that out.

It took only a few hours of publishing Google AdSense on my site to realize that someday I might earn my entire income through advertising. It was because this came after so many years of quiet, clawing desperation, barely able to feed myself through my programming anymore because I had come to hate it so, that when I realized I had found my salvation, as I said before "It made me break down and cry."

In What Sense Free?

I want to explain some historical events that will help you understand the choice you have should you decide to set your work Free as well.

First, I have already said that not all of my work is Free. Most of it is merely free as in free beer. In those cases it's because I want not that others should be able to copy it, but that they should enjoy or learn from what I wrote without having to pay. I apply copyleft to my writing when I feel that I have either an important message that I want heard more widely, or because I have written strictly technical documentation that I want others to maintain over time.

Writing has an advantage over software in that it cannot be read in such a way that the ideas behind it are still kept secret.

Richard Stallman called the GNU General Public License a "copyleft" license because it reverses the traditional sense of copyright: rather than forbidding copying, the GPL requires it. But not every programmer is comfortable applying the GPL to his work.

This led another pioneering programmer named Eric Raymond to found a new movement as an offshoot of Free Software that he calls "Open Source". He did not so much create the Open Source movement as give a respectable name and a formal structure to a practice that was already widespread. By doing so he packaged the idea of sharing source code in a way that was acceptable to business, especially big business.

He introduced his ideas in a book called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. "The Cathedral" is his metaphor for the traditonal proprietary, closed-source methods by which most companies develop software. "The Bazaar" refers to the Open Source way, and is an apt metaphor because developing Open Source software is often a wild, out-of-control experience. It yields mixed results, with some resounding successes such as the FireFox web browser and the Apache web server, and many dismal, abortive failures.

Raymond's Open Source Initiative published an "Open Source Definition" that serves as a definitive standard for what they consider an acceptable Open Source license. The OSI has certified a wide variety of licenses, starting with the GPL, that offer software developers a wide choice of rights to grant to licensees, as well as control over the responsibilities the developers require of them.

The range of Open Source licenses thus spreads copyleft across a spectrum rather than solely occupying the narrow extreme held by the GNU General Public License.

It is a shame that Open Source got all the press when it was Stallman's lone cry in the wilderness - the GNU Manifesto - that started it all. I think this happened because many businesses that found the message behind Free Software unacceptable discovered Open Source to be more to their liking and thus set their marketing departments to selling Open Source software to the public.

One would expect Stallman and Raymond to be the best of friends but they are in fact bitter enemies whose rancorous and very public debates have been broadcast over the Internet and in the press for years. Stallman often points out that they disagree because Raymond promotes Open Source as a way to create software more easily, at lower cost, and with higher quality than is possible through The Cathedral method. But the objective of Free Software is to create a community, at first a community of software developers and then a community of software users. Or rather, to bring back the days before that community was destroyed by greed:

You see, in the old days, and to a large extent up until just after Stallman started working as a programmer, software was often - always at first - distributed in source code form. Sometimes that was the only way to obtain it: users were expected to compile applications from source themselves.

The result was that an international community of programmers developed in the early years of computing, and it was common, expected even, for programmers to improve upon the work of others and then share their work back to the community.

This all ended when computing technology reached the point that software became a product that could be sold in its own right, largely because of the development of the microcomputer, as software applications could then be distributed in binary-only form on floppy disk.

Many say that Stallman is angry that Raymond gets all the credit for the movement that Stallman started. I'm sure he is, and I think rightly so. But Stallman's problem is that the Men in Gray Wool Suits have never been comfortable either with the message of Free Software or the company of Stallman himself. Aside from the fact that Stallman's message sounds alarmingly leftist, Stallman himself has long hair, a long beard, and generally dresses quite casually.

That's why many who object to Stallman's message call him a Dirty GNU Hippy. But I have thought long and hard about whether to back Raymond, or Stallman, and after quite some contemplation years ago decided to stand with Stallman and for Free Software, not with Raymond and Open Source.

And that's why, if Stallman is in fact a Dirty GNU Hippy, then I'm proud to say that I'm a Dirty GNU Hippy too.

I'm not sure, because I've never asked him, but I've long suspected that Stallman stands for what he does for much the same reason I do. You see, like me, Stallman's degree is not in Computer Science, but in Physics: he received his B.A. from Harvard in 1974.

My Physics degree is a Bachelor of Arts too, not a Bachelor of Science. I graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz, a hotbed of hippiedom and leftist politics, in 1993.

In one respect I agree with Raymond. Stallman has lost favor with many who might have otherwise supported him because of a zealous, single-minded inflexibility that is absolutely legendary. While I support Stallman's aim to build a community from Free Software, I recognize that not everyone wants to be a part of it: no amount of forcing them to grow their hair, avoid shaving or to wear tye-died T-shirts is going to transform the Men in Gray Wool Suits into Dirty GNU Hippies. But I think there's enough room in the sandbox for all of us to play.

That's why I support the Open Source Initiative's effort to promote software licenses that comply with the Open Source Definition. Many of those licenses are acceptable to business in a way that the GNU General Public License often is not. I feel it is important to allow everyone who creates - whether they create software, writing, music or art - a choice over the license terms they apply to their work. The Open Source Initiative-approved licenses offer such a choice to software developers.

Now, what does that mean to those of you who create content for your websites, should you choose to license your work as well?

The Creative Commons Licenses

Open Source licenses generally do not work well for creative media such as writing, music, art, photography or movies, because they explicitly discuss software concepts such as source and executable code that do not apply meaningfully to most creative works.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig founded Creative Commons so that all creative people could apply copyleft to their work. The Creative Commons licenses are drafted by the best legal experts in a way that can be expected to stand up in court.

Like Raymond, Lessig recognized that creators need a choice over the rights they grant to others. There are several Creative Commons Licenses that together cover the most common choices one might make when setting one's work Free. Therefore one does not say "My article has the Creative Commons License". Instead one says "My article has a Creative Commons license". One's license notice must say exactly which license is applied.

Many want to share their work freely while keeping to themselves any right to sell it. Musicians often offer their MP3s on their websites with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license: we are free to share their music on the Internet, but only the copyright holders may profit from it.

(If you offer your music for download, it's important to understand that you need to apply some kind of license to it, whatever form that might take. Otherwise those who download your music are not permitted to share it, even if you want them to. If you do, you need to say so. But you should use a license that has been written by legal experts, rather than making up your own. Writing your own license might cost you dearly in the event of a dispute.)

How Can Non-Free Be Free?

I have so far used only the CreativeCommons-Attribution-NoDerivs license for my persuasive writing. What is important to me in this case is my message - I allow copying so that as many people as possible will read it, but I want my writing copied verbatim and in its entirety so that any copy you might receive faithfully represents what I wrote. But you are free to publish such writing commercially: you could sell it in dead-tree form, or you can republish it on your website with AdSense on it. Had I chosen a NonCommercial license, you could not use my writing to make money through advertising.

Significantly, this is another way in which I agree with Stallman: he has been harshly criticized by many in the Free Software movement for using what they claim are "non-Free" licenses for his writing: he licenses most of his writing simply with "Verbatim copying permitted". Some claim such a license is non-Free because it does not permit modification, but I disagree.

Stallman created the GNU Free Documentation license for technical manuals. Debate raged for years over whether it is really Free as in Freedom, mainly because GFDL documents may have "Invariant Sections": that is, while one can modify or even delete parts of such a document, the Invariant Sections must remain, and be copied verbatim and in their entirety.

The problem with allowing Invariant Sections in technical documentation is that the information in them can become technically obsolete, but only the original author may revise them. There is also no limit to how many Invariant Sections may be added to a document as subsequent writers contribute to it.

Stallman has long argued that Invariant Sections are necessary because some of the text in Free Software documentation is not there for simply functional, technical purposes, but for social or political ones, often to argue why the software therein described should be Free, rather than to simply explain how it works or how to use it.

The GNU Manifesto itself is thus non-Free: only verbatim copying is permitted. Yet I assert it is among the most Free of all Free documents. That is because I feel, and I'm certain Stallman feels, that there is a greater Freedom than the Freedom to copy and alter information:

It is the Freedom to seek, and to spread the Truth. It is the Truth, and not mere Information, which sets us Free.

Stallman feels, and I agree, that to allow derivative works of his writing would allow others to dilute or even misrepresent his message. I agree completely with him, and that's why I chose the "NoDerivs" option for the license to this essay.

Had Stallman allowed derivative works to be created from the GNU Manifesto, Microsoft's marketing department could easily craft an improved GNU Manifesto 2.0 that eloquently argued why intellectual property rights should be rigorously enforced.

Those who disagree with Stallman and I usually respond by claiming that libel laws forbid such misrepresentation: if Microsoft were to actually write such a Manifesto, Stallman would have grounds to sue them for lying about what he said.

I pondered this for several years, as I watched the debate continue between Stallman and the developers of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. Ironically, the Debian developers finally chose to remove all of the material licensed under the GNU Free Documentation license from the portion of the Debian distribution which is reserved strictly for Free software.

The Debian developers claim that Stallman has compromised his message of Freedom, and that they work for Freedom in a way that he is unwilling to.

I feel they're wrong, not simply because I feel that the Truth represents a greater Freedom than does Information, but because I think the libel laws are of absolutely no use in protecting one's message from being misrepresented, whether through carelessness, innocent error or actual malice. Libel laws offer no protection against the sort of damage I worry most about, dilution or alteration of my message in such a way that no libel has been commited.

One has been libeled only when actual damage has occured as a result of intentional malice. That would be the case if Microsoft's writers were to revise this essay to explain "Why I'm Proud To Be a Man In a Gray Wool Suit", but that's not what I'm worried about. I allow only verbatim copying because a derivative work might not make my case as well as my original. That could easily happen, say, if someone who was not an expert translated it to a foreign language but did a poor job, even if he had the best of intentions.

More insiduously, it is easy for anyone to edit persuasive writing in subtle ways such that the argument becomes less effective, or distorted in less obvious ways than outright fabrication. Even if malice could be demonstrated, one might not be able to prove damage.

To Eat My Own Dog Food

I have considered whether to copyleft some of my other creative work for quite some time. As I write this, it has a very non-Free license: I compose music for the piano, but do not permit either copying over the filesharing networks nor the creation of derivative works. I am so protective of it because my music means so much to me.

Many people, possibly most people who hear my music don't like it. But some do, even some other musicians. I intend to publish the scores as soon as I can install and configure the software I need to write them down. But I realize that such a restrictive license forbids others from doing with my music what I love most about it: I compose by improvising. I just play what I feel and now and then something that sounds like music comes out. When musicians improvise together, they call it "jamming". I love to jam more than just about anything, but I do not yet allow anyone to jam to my music.

After a great deal of soul-searching I finally decided that because I love my music so, I must set it Free: I will soon release all my compositions under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license.

It is Creative Commons' equivalent to the GNU General Public License. It will allow anyone to write their own versions of my songs, and even sell them. The license only requires one to preserve my name as the original composer, and if one distributes a derivative work, it must have the same license as my original: one must share alike.

You see, when considering how I might change careers, I knew that I would do best to write. But that is not what I really want to do with my life. It will be several years before I can pass the audition, but I have been practicing piano two hours a day so that someday I can apply to music school to study composition.

When I graduate I intend to earn my keep either through writing or live performance. I don't plan to make money from my recordings, instead I will encourage anyone who likes my music not only to copy and share it but to draw upon it to inspire their own.

Because after so many years spent writing code only to have it taken from me so that it could be kept secret, and so much despair and torment as I struggled to find a way out, I have found finally found peace by coming to the following conclusion:

I have come to understand that I must set my children Free to live true to my beliefs.

Does that answer your question?

moneyraker wrote:

;) Just kidding...

You might be, but I'm not.

I bet you had no idea of the response your innocent joke would elicit.

but, well, can I?

Ask.

And maybe - quite likely - Ye Shall Recieve.

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