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The GNU GPL and the American Way By Richard Stallman, founder of the 
GNU Project, Special to ZDNet February 28, 2001 9:46 AM PT URL:  

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 

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 program.  

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 

>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 

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


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 property".  

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.  

Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU Project, launched in 1984 
to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for "GNU's Not 
Unix"), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them 
have lost. Stallman graduated from Harvard in 1974 with a BA in 
physics. During his college years, he also worked as a staff hacker 
at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, learning operating system 
development by doing it. In 1998 Stallman received the Electronic 
Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award along with Linus Torvalds.  

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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