Would you trust something you had to pay for?

Article for "Further Reading"

This article is by Tibs. If you copy it, please keep this statement. If you change it, please indicate the changes. If you update a URL, please show the old URL and explain what you have done. Have a nice day.

2050 words, between the horizonal lines below.

Here's one way it started.

Back in the early 1980s, Richard Stallman realised that software was rapidly becoming entangled with commercial values, that his beloved free sharing of hard crafted code was being strangled by big businesses, for whom paid programmers wrote software that was a business asset like any other. Stallman railed at the loss of the ability to fix or improve code when he found it inadequate, he found it stifling to have to pay for what had previously been available to all who could appreciate it. And thus he wrote Emacs, and other software, whose source code would always be available to those who used it, and whose development would be in the hands of those who cared. And thus was the Free Software Foundation born.

Stallman himself gives a reasonable history of the "free" software movement in The GNU Project. This article also appears in the book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution (O'Reilly, January 1999, ISBN 1 56592 582 3), which is also available online.

Whilst always from their own philosophical/political angle, there are many interesting articles at the GNU site - and, of course, some excellent software.

Here's part way to an end of it.

The FSF continued to produce "free" software (charging for distribution only), with the twofold aim of providing political encouragement towards Stallman's ideals, and ultimately producing a "free" operating system (GNU, or "Gnu's Not Unix"). Unfortunately, this proved to be rather more work than anyone had anticipated, and often enough the politics of the whole thing managed to slow things down as well. Then, suddenly, almost out of the blue, came Linus Torvalds, who led the production of a free Unix-style operating system called "Linux". With the addition of the tools already written by the FSF and other fellow-travellers, a "free" alternative to Windows and other proprietary operating systems was finally a reality.

For information on Linus Torvalds, try The rampantly unofficial Linus Torvalds FAQ. Of course, the FSF inevitably has its own view on Linux...

Of course, it's never that simple.

Back in the 1960s, a computer scientist named Donald E. Knuth began work on a monumental tome on the art of computer programming. This was a challenging work, with a lot of mathematical text explaining the reasoning behind his ideas. Knuth found that he was increasingly frustrated by the inability of typesetters to transcribe his theorems in the manner he wanted - at worst they were wrong, and at best they were often ugly. So he got sidetracked into writing a tool which would enable him to do computer typography, allowing him to lay his equations out, automatically, as he wished, and, by-the-way, also handling the text around the mathematics honourably as well. His aim was to produce computer generated typesetting that would not disgrace a human typesetter of considerable skill. He also decided to allow others to use his software (TeX and Metafont) free of charge (although, again, possibly charging distribution costs).

Knuth's bioliography and other information can be found on his own pages.

One of the articles which turned me on to TeX, which I still like, is "Breaking Paragraphs into Lines", now reprinted in Digital Typography (Donald E. Knuth, Stanford CSLI Lecture Notes no. 78, 1999, ISBN 1 57586 010 4).

Knuth also invented "literate programming", but's that another article...

Over the next decades, TeX and its accompanying programs came to dominate the world of scientific publishing, with many journals accepting articles in TeX (sometimes only in TeX). The afficonados of the software continued the tradition of making software and resources freely available, and so it continues to this day.

CTAN is the Comprehensive TeX Archive Network. See also the UK TeX Users' Group's web site

We're still telling lies, of course, but perhaps you can see where we're going.

Suddenly the world was a simpler place. On one hand we had machines running Unix, all very nice and technical, and wonderful for geeks. On the other, we had Windows, ever so simple to use, and only falling over, oh, well, once a day or so. In the Unix world, most people had access to the software and knowledge needed to build programs from source, and in the Windows world most people didn't (nor would they want to). And in the Unix world, "free" contrasted with "sorry, you can't have the source code", whilst in the Windows world "free" contrasted with "shareware", "demo" and stuff you had to pay full price for.

Fold the world differently and look again.

Meanwhile, even programmers didn't get it all their own way. Company managers knew what "free" meant - it meant "not worth the paper it's printed on" (otherwise why would it be free?). And if they did learn about software which came with source code and was maintained by the community "out there", they would worry about who to get to fix a bug (somehow "oh, it just works out" wasn't reassuring), and who to sue if it went wrong (like anyone could usefully sue Microsoft and win). Pointing out that many of the systems they relied on for their computers to work and interoperate were such "free" products was somehow not convincing either...

And then it was Eric Raymond's turn.

SF fan, libertarian (in the USA sense), programmer and gun-lover Raymond realised that once again this was a political matter. If Microsoft were to be prevented from taking over the world, then a better term than "free" needed to be invented, and an organisation that would seem less radical than the FSF needed to be created. Thus he produced the "Open Source" initiative, with a more relaxed license than the idealogically driven FSF's General Public License. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the insistence that the license can not "contaminate" software associated with other open source software - something that the FSF have always accepted only reluctantly.

Eric S. Raymond is also the author of the very influential paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which discusses some of the fundamentals of the development process used for much open source or "free" software.

A good introduction to the different categories of anarchist is Bryan Caplan's Anarchist Theory FAQ - this will explain why I qualify "libertarian".

The Open Source Page is the obvious starting point for matters open source. The FSF view is (naturally) available as Why "Free Software" is better than "Open Source". They also provide a neat summary of the various terms used in Categories of Free and Non-Free Software.

An example of a company choosing to go open source for economic reasons is described in Zope - The Path to Open Source Venture Capitalism.

But we have still only nipped at one corner of the story.

Back in the 1930s, science fiction fans invented the fanzine. Often crudely produced, these were freely distributed to those who were deemed to deserve it. Getting on the mailing list for a fanzine was traditionally quite easy - ask the editor, and if doing so by post, send some postage stamps. Further issues would continue on some schedule, and payment would generally be in the form of contributions (generally LoCs, letters of comment). Whole communities arose of people who might never expect to actually meet, and in many ways one can say that the whole phenomenon of modern SF fandom sprang from this one invention.

In SF fandom, egoboo or "ego boost" is the traditional (slightly tacky) reward for fannish activity. See Egoboo For Algernon by Terry Carr, at the UK SF Fandom Archive

The tradition of not charging for fanzines has continued, and the "mainstream" of fanzine producers still hold hard-and-fast to this tradition. Productions like "Further Reading" which trade higher production values (and often more pages) for charging something towards the cost of printing are perhaps uncomfortably placed into the gap between fanzine and semi-prozine.

This is perhaps best defined in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, 1993 (in the UK, Granada Publishing, ISBN 0 246 11020 1). It's also available on CD-ROM. "Normal" dictionaries are sometimes of dubious accuracy on the term.

Aha - maybe there's a tangential link there...

Printed works have traditionally been hard to produce. The printing press helped a lot, but in general publishing is a Business, at least in the sense of taking people's written words, paying for them (either in money, or in peer-review and distribution), and then selling them on. As such, it makes sense to protect the right to publish those words, and that, put over-simply, gives us copyright. Whilst nowadays you automatically get copyright of your work simply by producing it, the business of getting those words published normally means deeding the rights to someone else, and if (for instance) your book goes out of print, you will need to negotiate with the publisher to get the right to reprint.

However, computers have now given us the wonderful world of DTP (desktop publishing). Almost anyone with a computer can now produce short documents with the greatest of ease (acquiring talent and design skills is another matter, of course). Production of little magazines is suddenly much easier, and it's even just about feasible to use the technology to produce your own books (although realistically you still need to use a printer to get any volume of production).

For an example of how to self-publish with previewing on the web, and also the on-paper publishing of various open source manuals, see iUniverse.com

That brought us back to computers again. Does that lead anywhere?

Back in 1945, Vannevar Bush published an article which is generally regarded as inventing the concept of hypertext. Then, in the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee designed the addressing mechanisms that would eventually lead to the circus we now call the Internet, or World Wide Web, or whatever other term is in vogue. And suddenly, anyone (subject to their having money, computer access, and all that other stuff) can "publish" information on the web. But this is a different sort of publishing. It's potentially transient (many web pages disappear within a few years of going up), it's essentially unregulated (both in the "you can't look at that!" sense, but also in that no-one polices truth and accuracy on the web), and it's very big. And copyright is a concept in difficulty.

As We May Think by Vannevar Bush was published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945.

Useful copyright references include the (UK related) AHDS Copyright FAQ, Terry Carroll's (mainly USA oriented) Copyright FAQ and Resource Page, and 10 Big Myths about copyright explained (mainly Internet related).

It is fairly trivial to copy a document from the web, and printing just requires the touch of a button. And if the page is in HTML (the normal format for web pages) then it is essentially plain text with frosting added. So it's also trivial to edit. And, hey, it's easy to put things up on the web again. So there's little to stop plagiarism. And with the infrastructure spread worldwide, legalities don't seem like much help.

Of course the FSF has a reference: The Death and Rebirth of Plagiarism.

Meanwhile, if the idea of actively encouraging people to edit each other's web contributions appeals, you could start with the Wiki Starting Points.

Perhaps things converge. Perhaps what we need is Open Source publishing. Is that enough?

Perhaps the obvious proponents of open source publishing are the Linux Documentation Project (programmers are not notoriously known for documentation, so this is an Important Thing).

Meanwhile, our almost truths haven't touched more than a snippet of the world.

Janice actually wanted an article on how "free" or Open Source licensing might apply to other things than software, particularly to topics like patenting biotechnology. I can talk about written works for a long time (you might wish I wouldn't), and with a bit of time I can trawl the net with the best of them (well, OK, maybe not with the best), but although I live with a geneticist and read science fiction I don't know anything beyond what's been in the mass media about the patenting of biotechnology. So having nibbled off the bit of the world I can chew, the rest is up to you - it just needs further reading...

Author: Tibs (tibs@tibsnjoan.co.uk)

Last modified: Tue Nov 30 08:47:25 GMT Standard Time 1999