The Counsel for the Defence

Join us now and share the software;

You’ll be free, hackers, you’ll be free.

Hoarders may get piles of money,

That is true, hackers, that is true.

But they cannot help their neighbors;

That’s not good, hackers, that’s not good.


When we have enough free software

At our call, hackers, at our call,

We’ll throw out those dirty licenses

Ever more, hackers, ever more.


Join us now and share the software;

You’ll be free, hackers, you’ll be free.

–       Richard Stallman

The Free Software Song


Often portrayed as the Karl Marx of the software revolution, Richard Stallman is the founding father of  “Free Software”. His General Public License has not only motivated the Open Source Movement, but has posed as the single greatest challenge to corporate controlled proprietary information technology.

The philosophy behind Free Software is called sharing – an age-old human virtue that was invented neither by Marx nor by Stallman. Unfortunately owing to ruling class monopolies over human conducts, the law and order establishments across the world work overtime to punish people who share. Just as the ruling structures impose stricter laws against the masses united for their collective interests in expressing dissenting voices – as an extension of it – in the world of information technology, the sharing communities are often derided as hackers and pirates – subjected to arbitrary punishments, whereas the hoarders and monopolists are celebrated for their assumed ethics.

Any human knowledge is a byproduct of collective consciousness. No incidence of discovery or invention can ever be justly credited to an individual uniqueness. From the early childhood socialization processes, to benefiting from institutions of education, knowledge is always shaped amidst societal influences, as a result of countless invisible collaborations.


“The Cathedral and the Bazaar”:

However, in our days of market supremacism, it is gradually becoming unthinkable to accept social responsibility as a viable mode of functioning. As a result, corporate greed, individual controls, and an overall jubilation of private wealth have together helped generate what a pioneering proponent of Open Source, Eric Raymond calls “the Cathedral” – characterized by hierarchical authoritarianism and tight control over property ownership/distribution process. The Cathedral has almost replaced the traditional “Bazaar” which was known to have a culture of sharing, and constant solicitation through peer reviews.

Whereas on the one hand, the hobbyists were trying to break passwords at MIT to prevent the administrators from controlling users, on the other hand, the ones with profit motives were working towards locking up the codes. Not much has changed in the sphere of struggles, although owing to legal protections at their disposal, the profit-hungry have been winning with their monopolizations. Bombarded with constant propaganda about the virtues of privacy, individualism and private properties, most people in the world have been hoodwinked into believing that it is a good thing to be selfish and it is a bad thing to share.

The victory of the Cathedral over the Bazaar was a logical extension of capitalism. The possibilities of allowing for a fair share of Bazaar was curtailed with “An Open letter to Hobbyists” addressed to the hackers who had formed Homebrew Computer Club. In its January 31, 1976 edition, Bill Gates, General Partner of then newly formed Micro-Soft made an elaborate argument in favor of proprietary software: “The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however. 1) Most of these ‘users’ never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent of Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour. Why is it? As majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software….”


Stealing, Sharing, CopyLeft:

Sharing with others obviously is laced with limitations. For one, not all sharing can ever be legitimate. Within the prescripts of legal frameworks, in order to even share something, a person needs to own it. And the world is devoid of many who actually can claim ownership over means of productions. This reality most abjectly affects the world of information technology. With very few governmental institutions and corporations owning virtually everything with precise controls, the only way for sharing among communities would then become possible by going beyond what is prescribed as legitimate.

The foremost among those that attacked the status quo comprised the hackers. The first organized effort to abuse the proprietary standards culminated in the Free Unix Project. In January 1984, “Gnu’s Not Unix” or GNU was developed as an alternative to controlled environment and its General Public License (GPL) authored by Stallman became the harshest manifesto against intellectual property rights.

GNU was different from Unix, but it was like Unix. Not only replication or rewriting of codes would involve stealing, but it would by default embed the sharing component within. Thousands of hackers joined Stallman in developing alternative kernel, compiler, debugger, text editor, text formatter, etc., in an attempt to create the world’s first series of free software.

The philosophy was profound: Operating systems and software applications were to be developed by authors who shall own the copyrights, but their licensing procedure will be radically different. The original authors would in fact encourage the users to share their codes, amend them as they please, or hire others to make changes to the codes and redistribute copies to share with others, make continuous improvements and publish them indefinitely. The only reason copyrights would remain with the authors would be to prevent someone from converting those works into proprietary software down the sharing chain. The free in free software was not to reflect the cost factor so much as it was about the freedom factor – freedom to recreate and share. People could make a living from providing support for their free software, amidst a climate of cooperative business, rich in diversity and healthy competition. Nothing was going to be controlled by a handful of corporations in the name of Copyright. In a remarkable fashion, not only did GNU become a hack for Unix, its license also emerged as a hack – giving birth to, what we known now as CopyLeft.

Stallman declared, “Copyleft is the copyright flipped over. We say that this software is copyrighted and we the author give you permission to redistribute copies; we give you permission to change it; we give you permission to add to it. But when you redistribute it, it has to be under these terms. No more or no less. So that whoever gets it from you also gets the freedom to cooperate with others if he/she wants to. In this way everywhere the software goes, the freedom goes too. In this way it becomes an inalienable right to cooperate.”


Do not Share, Or You are a Pirate:

Even as subversive cooperation has its place in history, there is a gross misunderstanding when it comes to imagine its consequences. For the most part, media project subversion as necessarily a wrong act. Adults get conditioned to believe in merits of the status quo. Any amount of unsettling of it causes widespread rejection. The majority of population for whose benefits, the acts of subversions are aimed at, never endorse those. The Robin Hoods, then, are ostracized as the Pirates.

Pirates robbing the ships are constantly denounced as deplorable for their acts of intruding upon perceived peace and tranquility, but rarely do the media portray the abominable conditions under which the “natives” live in the coastal lines where the rich indulge in luxurious cruises. In the good-word/bad-word dichotomy, pirates are treated with utter disrespect. Their intents are deliberately misunderstood. The consequences of their acts of subversions are brazenly exaggerated.

In mainstream societies, educated children imagine combating the pirates, while they are raised within comfortable lifestyles that zealously hoard their privileges, refusing to have them shared. They are brought up with strong “ethical” values which prevent them from sharing their mid-day lunch packets, sources of academic advantages, and when they grow up, their software and music and ebooks.

Within all creative industries, distribution processes have been favorable to the traditionally privileged. And to justify such an unequal world, phrases such as “intellectual property rights” have been devised, whereby corporate monopolists own most of collective human knowledge, without even having an iota of curiosity about its further development. It has become normative to assume that in order to enjoy a piece of music or art, one needs to actually own it.

What the market economy does not tell us is that there is a difference in buying of a product, and of owning it. The reality is, buyers are essential elements within capitalism, without whom the owners may not survive. Even the creators of works – the laborers that toil hard to erect a skyscraper, or the authors who submit a work for publication- do not own their works to the full extent of letting them be shared with whosoever they please to share with. Construction workers are arrested for trespassing after completion of the project, while publishers forbid mass access of creative works through price and distribution controls at their disposal. What is more, to reduce antagonism, the owning class fosters a sense of false consciousness within which people would be led to believe they own their work, while they are creating those or purchasing those.

Before any of us declares something as “my book” or “my music” or “my software” it is important to introspect over the level of ownership we truly have over what we merely create or consume. Once the stark differences between ownership and consumptions are understood, it makes little sense to make ethical claims that favor the monopolists. And it will make perfect sense to share our expertise with the world, without profit as principal motive, and to encourage others in doing so.

The pirates have understood this much. It’s time for the rest of us.

Saswat Pattanayak is a New York-based journalist, photographer, atheist, third-wave feminist, LGBT ally, black power comrade and academic non-elite who refuses to give up his association with Kindle. A true comrade.

Be first to comment