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COPYLEFTISTS: The Free Software Movement and Anarchist Practice

News ArchiveSubmitted by wispy cockles:

COPYLEFTISTS: The Free Software Movement and Anarchist Practice

by wispy cockles

"Meanwhile new organizations, based on the same principle--to every man according to his needs-- spring up under a thousand different forms; for without a certain leaven of Communism the present societies could not exist. In spite of the narrowly egoistic turn given to men's minds by the commercial system, the tendency towards Communism is constantly appearing, and influences our activities in a variety of ways ....Museums, free libraries, free schools, free meals for children; parks and gardens open to all; streets paved and lighted, free to all; water supplied to every house without measure or stint--all such arrangements are founded on the principle: "Take what you need." Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

"Against the papacy of Microsoft, the digital revolutionary cries out, "Information wants to be free"". Tom Morton and Kevin Murray, A Video Pre-History of The Third Millenium,

The Search For Anarchists Without Black Flags

It was a dreary Tuesday night as I trudged to the bar for a cup of coffee and hopefully some old fashioned bar room debate. I've taken up this hobby recently of going to bars and looking for arguements. My thinking has become stagnant in surrounding myself with like-minded revolutionaries and organizers, and I've gone out in search of some serious difference in opinion. Some good criticism in my sentiments against the war in Afghanistan or for a directly democratic politics has been found in the company of drunks. I've listened to the critique, bantered back and forth with my fellow debaters, and had some preety heated exchanges about queer liberation, social equality, and the like. This Tuesday was different, however, debate was not on the agenda, but rather an engaging discussion. I sat down to a few cups of coffee, and met a 46 year old brick layer named Mark. He started off the conversation by commenting on a newspaper article on the military actions in Afghanistan, and explained to me why the war is just gonna fuck everything up ten fold. "We gotta clean up our own backyard and stop telling other people how to live," he said. I asked him what he meant, and he began to rant about the massive inequality in America, how there should be no homeless people in the richest country in the world, about how people have no power to make decisions on what happens in their communities, how "corporate and government have all the power" He didn't claim to know what could take the current system's place, but that didn't stop his criticism. When I asked his opinion about Cuba and the old Soviet Union, he responded with a quote from a Who song, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." He?s preety much an anarchist who would probably never self-identify as such. That is unless anarchist ideas were made relevant to his everyday life. Unfortunately he?s got no time to hang out with the Black Bloc kids he works 50 hours a week, and doesn?t have the money to take off work and travel to wherever the protest of the week happens to be. He prefers Kenny Rogers to anarchist punk bands. As well, I?m guessing he?d get preety bored with reading theory written by 19th Century Russian guys with beards, but I could be wrong. I left the bar that night inspired by his common sense commentary, and wondering just how many anarchists by any other name I walk by in the street everyday. How many like minds does our movement for radical social change overlook in our petty, insular bickering about what color would best match the black flag?

In recent correspondence Cindy Millstein, a social anarchist thinker from Chicago, summed up my sentiments exactly, "....people needn't all become anarchists, but anarchism's principles are a damned good framework for a better society by whatever name(s)" To try to convert people to "anarchism" or any other "ism" would exemplify the vangaurdist tendancies we supposedly abhor. The ideas of anarchism need to stand by themselves, and must be relevant to people?s everyday lives if they are to be widely adopted in society. Classic anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin had a great ability to see anarchist communism in the society of his day. As the quote at the begining of this article illustrates he was able to see a semblance of anarchist communist practice in such apolitical institutions such as musuems, libraries, and public gardens. Where do we draw examples in our current post-modern landscape?

My comrade here at Queer Paradise (aka The Richmond Queer Space Project), Em, informed me that we were going to switch our computers over to an operating system commonly known as Linux. I'm not a techie by any standard of measure, so I asked him what it was all about. He explained that it would solve a lot of the problems we've been having with our machines which currently use Microsoft Windows , and as well that it was consistent with our politics, since it was not privately owned, but rather common property. He told me about this concept called "free software" on which a movement had been built to make free alternatives to commercially owned software and to agitate against the the pattenting of software. That evening I started doing research and sent out a flurry of e-mails to sympathetic geeks. What was this "free software" movement all about? Is it a good example of anarchism by any other name?

Proprietary Software Is Theft

"The enemy is proprietary software," The GNU project website (www.gnu.org) boldly states. In the Autumn of 1984 a programer by the name of Richard M Stallman left his job at the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab to create a UNIX like operating system that would be free from commercial control, the name of the operating system was to be GNU (pronounced guh-new) which stands for GNU's Not Unix. The reason for the project was not simply of a technical nature, not exclusively an egoist attempt to show off his programming wizardry, but also had its roots in the principle to keep software free from commercial control. RMS had worked at the MIT Artificial Inteligence lab since 1971 and had been a part of what is commonly known as the first generation of hackers. Commonly confused simply with someone who breaks computer security measures many hackers take the term to mean "someone who programs and is clever about it." The first generation of hackers were the computer geeks in the 60s and 70s that hovered around university and company mainframes and did the groundbreaking programing work that laid the foundations for modern computer technology. In the early 80s private industry began to see benefits in comercializing software, and began forcing users to sign non-disclosure aggreements that forbid them from sharing or altering the souce code, the set of instructions that makes a program do what it does.

RMS laments on the GNU website about how things were before the first wave of privitization hit, "We did not call our software 'free software', because that term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program."

As the first wave of software commercialization took hold it began to destroy the original character of the hacker community which was largely based around the free sharing of information. Also it created a massive brain drain as hackers left their, mostly university positions, for jobs in the commercial sector.

RMS faced what he says was a stark moral choice, "With my community gone, to continue as before was impossible." He could have joined the proprietary software world and profited from the commercialization of software or he could have walked away from the computer field completely, his heart however pulled him in a different direction. "I asked myself, was there a program or programs that I could write, so as to make a community possible once again? The answer was clear: what was needed first was an operating system. That is the crucial piece of software that one must have to use a computer. With an operating system, you can do many things; without one, you cannot run the computer at all. With a free operating system, we could again have a community of cooperating hackers--and invite anyone to join. And anyone would be able to use a computer without starting out by conspiring to deprive his or her friends." Thus The GNU project and the free (as in freedom) software movement was born.

The GNU project ran itself then as it does today on a shoe string budget. Most of the equipment needed to get it going was donated, and the labor was voluntary and cooperative.

In 1991, a startling turn of events stole the spotlight from the GNU project. The GNU project had succeeded in writing the bulk of code for it's Unix-like operating system, but lacked what is known as a kernel. A kernel is the aspect of an OS, from what I understand, that kind of pulls everything together, kind of a hub in a sense. Without a kernel an OS is completely useless. Having developed a kernel, a bright young Sweedish programmer named Linus Torvalds combined it with the work that the GNU project had already done. Thus an operating system free from commercial control came into being. Now generally known as Linux, but more properly called GNU Linux operating system.

Since then many programs have been written that run on the GNU Linux operating system and a whole electronic culture has sprung up around it. The original thrust of the movement, based on the free software ideal, maintains a strong , no compromise presence to the idea that software must not be proprietary. However, segments of the movement have gone in different less idealistic directions. One current known as the Open Source Movement is very similar in practice to the Free Software movement, but downplays the original ideals that sought an end to proprietary software. Ideals as we shall see that are preety impresive.

Anarchy in the Free Software Movement

In this article I do not intend to paint the free software movement as an anti-capitalist movement per se To do so would be dishonest. Many companies have used Linux and other free software, citing technical and cost-saving measures, to a profitable end. In that sense the free software is creating a product which is, whether intentionally or not, beneficial to the capitalist market. As well by no means is the free software movement united in an explicit opposition to all exchange economies. Although you'll find a great deal of anti-market senitments amongst its adherents, and anti-authoritarian sentiments comprise much of the backbone of the philosophy of the movement. What is fascinating to me, however, is that many of the ideas and practices of the free software movement are anarchist in nature. They are explicitly for communal ownership of software, for the free sharing of information, against the concept of intellectual property, and encourage the cooperation of individuals to create something that will not just benefit themselves but all people who use computers. I'd be thrilled if there existed a broad based militant anti-capitalist sentiment in this movement. Although somehow theres something a bit more thrilling about the lack of rhetoric and ideology. Something that speaks volumes about the depth and relevance of anarchist ideas: you needn't be an ideologue or a politico to realize that anarchist ideas of mutual aid, communal property, and the freedom of information make sense. As well, you needn't be spouting off fiery rhetoric to put anarchist ideas into practice in a way that makes them relevant to large numbers of people.

One of the ideas and practices that I find most intriguing in the free software movement is known as 'copyleft.' It provides not only promise in resistance to increasing privitization, but a tongue in cheek pun that, in my opinion, points towards its political implications albeit in a liberitarian sense.

"Copyleft is a general method for making a program free software and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well.......Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom." states the definition according to the Free Software Foundation, "To copyleft a program, we first state that it is copyrighted; then we add distribution terms, which are a legal instrument that gives everyone the rights to use, modify, and redistribute the program's code or any program derived from it but only if the distribution terms are unchanged. Thus, the code and the freedoms become legally inseparable."

As the above quote illustrates the idea and practice of copyleft is a liberatory one, it's bottomline is not profit or power, but rather communal sharing and freedom. Its brilliance lies in the fact that it uses the institution of copyright as a means to not a private proprietary end, as it is intended to be used, but rather a communal proprietary end. It subverts the dominant paradigm.

To simply think of this practice as something applicable only to techie geeks and specialists in the IT (information technology) field underestimates its potential and intent. It's not just a concept to allow the IT specialist or producer more freedom with the code so that s/he can further innovation in the field, it's freedom for the consumer as well. In otherwords its a concept and practice that is relevant to anyone who owns or uses a computer. The concept is an example of the revolutionary notion, "From each according to their ability to each according to their need." As the Free Software Foundation explains, "Most of us are programmers, and we want freedom for ourselves as well as for you. But each of us uses software written by others, and we want freedom when using that software, not just when using our own code. We stand for freedom for all users, whether they program often, occasionally, or not at all."

Perhaps the most startling thing about these concepts of free software and copyleft is that I hear very little in anarchist or anti-authoritarian communist circles about them. In a society increasingly immersed in computers and the internet, the grassroots Free Software Movement seeks to liberate these technologies from the multi-national corporations that seek to control them. They have created multiple free operating systems as an alternative to Microsoft Windows and other corporate controlled OS. As well most major corporately owned programs have Free Software alternatives. Instead of Adobe Photoshop one can use The Gimp. For a word processor try K Word instead of Microsoft Word. Let this article be an advertisement, if you're using a PC get rid of windows and install the GNU Linux opertating system. Not only will you're computer probably develop fewer problems. Not only will you get tons of great software for free. But you'll be able to boot up your machine knowing that no corporate executive is making money off of the software that you use.

As our radical movement for social change moves forward, it?ll be imperative to find examples amongst the many different aspects of 21st century life that seem to contain a semblance of anarchism. If we believe that anarchist principles are so powerful that they could potentially take root amonst the the many and varied peoples of this world we, as an anarchist movement, must begin to look around for examples of their manifestation in contemporary society. The examples we may find might not be perfect, or 'pure' by some anarchist's standards, but they may contain a liberitarian seed that if nourished correctly will shed the toxicity of the hierarchy. As well when faced with the people who deride us as idealists and claim that our prinicples won't work out in practice, we need current examples of our principles in practice that we can point out.

Its my feeling that the Free Software Movement might be one good example of anarchist prinicples being relevant to people other than anarchists . Its notions of Copyleft (communal ownership) and Free Software (freedom of information from proprietary constraints) are fairly explicit in their intent and principle. As well The Free Software Movement offers no compromise in its struggle against corporate domination of software or its oposition to the notion that ideas and information can be privatized. Sound familiar?

Personally, I encourage folks active in the anarchist movement to look into this movement themselves and dialogue with folks active in it. Some interesting relations could be cultivated that might advance both.

For More Information:

The GNU and Free Software Foundation: www.gnu.org

Free Software Magazine: www.rons.net.cn/english/FSM/issue01

wispy cockles currently resides in Richmond VA where he organizes with the Better Days Collective, an newly formed anarchist organization, and spins records with the 804Noise crew (www.harmstryker.org/804noise). He can be contacted at wispy@defenestrator.org.

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COPYLEFTISTS: The Free Software Movement and Anarchist Practice | 16 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
comment by DarkAngel
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 26 2002 @ 12:45 PM CDT
Very good article. The only criticism I have is a small inaccuracy in the use of terminology when you say that proprietary software is \"forcing users to sign non-disclosure aggreements that forbid them from sharing or altering the souce code, the set of instructions that makes a program do what it does.\"

I think you mean an end-user agreement, that is the \'agreement\' you implicitly approve of as soon as you start using the software. It\'s a \'clever\' little way to restrict your rights once you own a piece of software. Most of these have provisions against copying (\'piracy\') or other artificial means to restrict your freedoms in using their software.

A non-disclosure agreement, OTOH, is what companies working with intellectual property (IP)makes you sign in order to work for them. The idea is basically that, as in your average factory, what you produce at the company is not yours but the property of the company. In a factory the bosses can just keep the widgets you produce. But in fields related to IP, you produce *ideas*, and they can\'t just erase the information from your brain (yet?) in order to be the sole proprietor of it. So if you apply for a job at any computer-related company you\'ll be forced to sign an NDA before you even start working, which basically means that they can prosecute you for using ideas developed on company time either for your own gains or for that of a competitor of your employer (say, if you get fired or find another better job in the same field). Since you \'freely agreed\' to sign the NDA, breaching it is a breach of your employee contract and prosecutable under the law.

Also, source code is simply the program expressed in a \'higher level\' language, that is something (relatively) close to human language, as opposed to executable code which is in binary (0 and 1). If you buy proprietary software, often you don\'t even have the source code to mess around with anyway, just the executable. And messing around with executable code is usually torture.
comment by afxgrin
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 26 2002 @ 12:58 PM CDT
First off, very well written article. I couldn\'t really put it better myself.
I find it interesting that one of the main IndyMedia servers is stallman.indymedia.org - is that a dedication to RMS for the GPL?
Aside from that, read THIS Slashdot thread. Just observe the amount of denial occuring to the idea that GPL\'d software seems to be completely revolving around the ideals of anarchism.

hehe, I was surprised I actually scored any karma for my postings. I was expected to be slammed as flamebait.
comment by Reverend Chuck0
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 26 2002 @ 01:34 PM CDT
O\'Reilly Publishing has a new book out on RMS and the Free Software Movement. It\'s called Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman\'s Crusade for Free Software
comment by undesirable
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 26 2002 @ 02:09 PM CDT
there\'s always warez (illegal copies of software), ISOs (not the marxist-leninist socialist organization, but files used to make CD copies of programs), CD burners + CD-r media, Kazaa (for music and movies, or any other files you need), mp3s, Divx-->for cheap video production, etc...

yeah linux is cool, but so is using pirated Microsoft software...for example, right now i\'m running windows XP but i got a burned CD copy from my friend. Sometimes Linux, BeoS, etc. are good, but they don\'t support a lot of hardware and the programs are many, but not as many as the ones you can use with other mainstream OSes.

comment by undesirable
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 26 2002 @ 02:13 PM CDT
...all my software and programs are pirated. Microsoft Office XP, Adobe Illustrator 10, Adobe Photoshop 6.0, Adobe Premiere 6.0, Acrobat 5.0, Nero Burning Rom, partition magic, etc...

Paying for software?! c\'mon! ...get help from your friends and ask around, or do searches in search engines, you\'ll find what you need...ya just have to be smart about it...

comment by afxgrin
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, April 26 2002 @ 02:24 PM CDT
Well - certain individuals are trying to make Linux support all the hardware and programs you want and make it easy to do so.

Hardware, linux maybe SLIGHTLY behind, but if you\'ve ever used Mandrake (especially 8.2), it supports almost all the hardware you can dream of. And it\'s not like you can\'t use file sharing programs under linux. and you can make mp3s and divx\'s in linux.

if you want games, i\'ve been playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein with great frame rates. Quake 3 is also natively running under linux.

I\'ve also managed to get half-life/counter-strike/day of defeat, running under linux using WINE (a windows compatibility layer for linux). Using pirated software is okay in one sense to me. But the idea is to build a community from the bottom up w/o the help of capitalist software OR hardware. unfortunately, right now we can\'t do much on the hardware side. but at least the software is availible. even if we\'re still ripping off a corporation, it still makes us dependent on them.

Linux is pretty much borderlining the concept of being a mainstream OS. Linux will never be \'mainstream\' if people keep using pirated \'mainstream\' OS\' though. Linux, and any other \'free software\' (that\'s free as in freedom, not price), is very dependent on the community. The more people that use it, the more development that usually gets done. (more bug reports, more people participating in the development, morepeople writing documentation)

By pirating software, you\'re just getting something for doing nothing. With free software, as long as everyone contributes a little bit, you\'ll give a lot back to the community, while having the freedom to do what you want with the software, AND making the software better.

I\'m sure almost anyone in the free software community will be willing to give you a hand to get you up and running. Ideally, look for someone local and talk to them. If you think you\'re slightly more technically inclined then most computer users, but are not a programmer, you can probably get linux running rather easily and enjoy the fact you can customize it any manner you can dream of. :-)

\"Pirating software is like stealing crack from a dealer. Just because you didn\'t pay for it, doesn\'t mean you\'re not addicted.\"

comment by Liberation Software
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, April 27 2002 @ 05:36 AM CDT
> Paying for software?

you must have missed the point of Free Softare, aka Software Libre, GPL software, Liberation Software etc. GPL isn\'t just free as in free beer, it\'s free as in freedom, as they say. GPL isn\'t about being free of charge, it\'s about liberation from authoritarian control via intellectual property. Pirating isn\'t even free as in free beer. It\'s more like a stealing a sip of someone else\'s beer. Without the source code, you are only stealing the licensing to use the binary.

Even if you don\'t choose to use Linux or GPL software, you gotta love how threatened Microsoft feels about it. Calling GPL \"unamerican\", an \"intellectual property destroying virus\" and so on.

I used to not understand the whole GPL vs. Open Source thing. I tended to prefer BSD, Apache style licenses. But not anymore. I encourage you to think about it some more, read some more of Stallman\'s comparisons. For me it\'s akin to \"the liberation of others is a requirement for my own liberation.\"

I am not trying to dictate to you that you have to use GPL only and never pirate software. I really think that GPL will do more to unravel capitalism in the U.S. than most anything else. Just think about what it is some more and how it works.

Let us use GPL as an example to create more \"property destroying viruses\".

comment by Circuit
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, April 27 2002 @ 06:03 AM CDT

I would rather use free software than pirated software.

Why? Well, like Richard Stallman says, free software is free as in freedom, not free as in beer.

The point is that it\'s not just free, monetarily. It\'s liberated software. If I\'m using Adobe Photoshop, and I find a bug, I can contact them, fill out a bug report, and maybe have it fixed in the next version, if they even bother listening to me.

If I find a bug in the Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP Is More than Photoshop), which is free software, I can either fix the problem myself, or I can contact the people who maintain GIMP, and ask them to fix it, or I can post on a newsgroup about, and anyone can then fix the problem.

A free copy of MS Windows XP may make you feel e133t, but it\'s not really free. Unless you get a hold of the source code, and unless there\'s a community built around the source being free, then the software you got only cost you nothing, but it wasn\'t free.

Free Software is how I got into anarchism. If you ever work as a computer programmer, and you see the wonderful community and freedom that\'s involved in the process of creating free software, it makes you really unhappy with having your boss dictate to you how you do your job.

I\'ve also noticed that I\'m meeting more and more free software nerds who are involved in anarchism, anti-globalization, and direct action politics. I think that\'s due to a combination of the success of Linux, the successes of anti-globalization protests, and the failure of the NASDAQ.

Interesting times, my friends... Interesting times...

comment by buermann
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, April 27 2002 @ 06:28 AM CDT

So far as politics are concerned this discussion is something I find

comment by foo
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, April 27 2002 @ 07:55 AM CDT

Eben Moglen\'s essay
, one of the links in the previous posting, is a much more coherent description of the links between Anarchist thought and Software Libre.
comment by undesirable
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, April 28 2002 @ 02:42 PM CDT
umm, i don\'t think i missed the point...i wasn\'t dissing free software, linux, beOS, etc. etc.,...I see all the good points that you mentioned... Maybe what I meant to say was that getting Pirated software (microsoft, adobe, etc. etc.,) can be great too...A lot of the times, the hardware compatability and the driver support on Linux makes it too difficult to use. The technical learning curve i\'ve found has been to great to really get into. I\'ve no background in linux, or unix, or computer programming code, like i\'m sure a lot of people, so all i\'m saying is that up till now i\'ve found that using pirated software has worked for me...
comment by foo
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, April 28 2002 @ 06:21 PM CDT
undesirable: even if setting everything up yourself seems like too big of a project, that doesn\'t mean you can\'t use free software. A friend who knows about this stuff can get you going pretty quickly, if you have a 486 or better (at least a P1 is preferable) floating around somewhere. Don\'t hand control of your information over to the capitalists! They don\'t have your best interests in mind.
comment by chris
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, April 29 2002 @ 03:35 AM CDT
A quick comment about Linux becoming a \'mainstream\' OS - I\'m highly skeptical. It\'s a cool thing for programming nerds to fool around with, but it\'s still simply too difficult to use. Even my parents can figure out Winblows, but can I picture them installing and running Linux? Nope. Hell, some people have trouble using an ATM.

comment by GE
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, April 29 2002 @ 04:33 AM CDT
I can`t picture them either installing Windows.

Installing Linux isn`t more difficult than installing Windows, it`s just that Windows usually comes with the computer you buy, preconfigured an`all:-) If somebody came to your parents house with a computer with Linux installed, preconfigured and setup with KDE, would your parents be able to use it? Easily.

By the way, if you really want to be politically correct in using Linux, go for the Debian distro, its made and distributed by volunteers all over the world,no company, no nothing.


comment by Circuit
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, April 29 2002 @ 04:37 AM CDT

Check out the new version of KDE, version 3.0.

That\'s fuckin\' slick, dude. It may not be there yet, but it\'s definitely on the way.

comment by ala
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, August 28 2002 @ 11:18 AM CDT
please help me immedietly!!!!!
I like write a program or robot - it need artificial inteligence knowledge and i don\'t know about it well . i look for a univercity for
e-learning course . please help me . help !!