Re: What is "free software"?

From: Tim Vanderhoek <>
Date: Tue, 3 Jun 1997 03:52:51 -0400 (EDT)

On Tue, 3 Jun 1997, Eric S. Raymond wrote:

> The simplest solution to RMS's problem would be to hand ncurses to the
> FSF and GPL it. At some future time, the present copyright holders
> may be willing to do that. Right now I have reservations about
> the LGPL which are not relevant to any of the ncurses issues but
> which are fairly strong; these foreclose the simple solution for
> the present.

Let's try not to forget the immediate problem, either...

> RMS's position, the one the FSF is founded on and the GPL promotes, is
> that software is "free" only if its license grants unlimited rights
> (a) to reuse, (b) to redistribute, (c) to modify for personal use, and
> (d) to modify and then redistribute.

As a member of said community free software community, I must
disagree with you by saying that "free" includes d) permission to
modify and redistribute.

By permitting modification and redistribution the software can be
used in more ways. Parts can be ripped-out by enterprising young
hackers to use in their own projects (with proper credits, of
course), and projects can be forked.

Once again, let me point out that forked projects are not
necessarily bad. Consider gcc and pgcc. By forking from
standard gcc, the pgcc group was able to develop the
pentium-optimized gcc. The original gcc then benefits as patches
from pgcc improve it.

By analagy, to go from point A to points B and C, everyone must
initially start at the same place on the same road (point A) but
in time, they must split-up, since they have different final

> >The freedom to distribute modified versions, including changes that
> >the author does not like, is a crucial aspect of free software.
> I disagree. I say this requirement does not reflect common usage of
> the term "free software". Nor is it necessarily correct (these being

I disagree.

> In general, if community aims are advanced by software that doesn't
> happen to be GPLed but is under a sufficiently liberal license, the
> Linux/BSD crowd will be happy to call it "free software" and keep
> right on hacking. And the ncurses license is sufficiently liberal.

The heart of the *BSD crowd very rarily considers GPL software to
be "free software". A license that is more restrictive yet is
even more unlikely to be considered free.

> In fact, the only significant group that will be unable to use ncurses
> is the FSF itself. Kind of ironic if you think about it.

Hehe. As primary maintainer, this would be your loss of

> The FSF regards the "freeness" of software as an end in itself -- in
> the FSF view, *all* software should be free and "unfree" software is
> morally tainted. Their efforts tend to assume the grim, high-minded air
> of a religious or political crusade, all clenched fists and barricades.

This is a slightly simplistic analysis. Why do the want (their
specific brand) of "free" to exist? Are the reasons really that
different from those of Linus (for example)? Is it just maybe
that they take a more hardline stance, but are fundamentaly
similar if not the same?

> The Linux/BSD community's stance is more instrumental. In this view,
> the purpose of free software is to make sure hackers and other people
> will always have enough tools and toys to play with. And the purpose
> of the free-software culture is to have lots of fun, push the
> technical envelope, and play a non-zero-sum reputation game that
> everyone can win.

You argue in favour of forced anti-fork licenses, yet you admit
that the purpose of the free-software culture is to have lots of

What if I want to take ncurses in a different direction
philosophically (technically, not politically)? The only way to
do that is to a) split, or b) convince you to follow that
technical philosophy. What if, further, this is a little-tested
philosophy that you don't trust, but which does have potential.
The only way for me to have my "fun" is going to be to fork the
ncurses distribution, but your license will prevent me from doing
that. I will no longer have fun, and I will not contribute.
Everyone loses (even you, since patches brought over from my
yancurses could have improved ncurses).

You would probably argue that this forked distribution is
unacceptable, because you will lose credit for your work on
ncurses. I disagree. 1) By empirical evidance, the work done by
the NetBSD group is not diminished in the eyes of the world
simply because an OpenBSD group exists. 2) your ncurses still
exists. 3) Your license on ncurses (which you've presumably
changed to allow forks by this time :) says that I must give
credit for your work, but not put you in a position where you are
seen as being at fault for bugs in my yancurses.

Finally, I think it's time to properly distinguish between
"hijacking" and "forking". Following your lead, those who hijack
software projects are taking credit (or reputation) for
themselves that they have not earned or have not been allowed to

Forking can be done because a group has grown to large to
properly co-operate (or, as a prominant FreeBSD user would argue,
doesn't have the organizational infrastructure to accomodate all
those who wish to contribute), because of different technical
philosophies, or for other reasons altogether. I will note that,
regardless of the specific goal of a fork, the other benefits
will also be incidental.

Of the most popular licenses, widely regarded in the hacker
community as "free", the BSD-style license, and the GPL, both are
careful to prohibit software hijacking. Both, however, permit
forked distributions.

> But anybody can play that game. RMS is no more privileged at it
> than I am. He can argue for his restrictions, I can argue for mine,
> and whether you buy my definition of "free software" or his depends
> on what *you* want to accomplish by promoting "free software".

And, for the record, what are you trying to accomplish?
Linux-like goals of "fun"? Just reputation? There are a myriad
of possible goals, and 99% of them do overlap between FSF, Linux,
and *BSD.

> The problem is that if "free software" includes a right to
> redistribute modified copies, the optimal strategy is hijacking and
> parasitism, not being original and productive. And the culture
> doesn't want that.

The culture doesn't want it, hence it is no longer the optimal
strategy. Don't forget, either, that the license you choose can
discourage (if not prohibit) hijackings.

[restated again in response to the next quote]

> Even then it's frowned upon, and for the norms to be satisfied it has
> to be accompanied by extensive public self-justification (this
> explains apparent exceptions like XEmacs and the BSD splitoffs that
> actually prove the rule).

But, by prohibiting forks with hijacks, you are throwing the baby
out with the bathwater. Extensive public self-justification is
used to show that a given group is "forking" and not "hijacking".
For reasons you outline, any perceived hijacking on their part
will hurt them. The goal, as far as the copyright holder is
considered, is to choose a license which will prohibit or at
least discourage hijacking. This license, in addition to the
attitute of the hacker community can I believe do a good job of
prevent hijackings.

Outnumbered?  Maybe.  Outspoken?  Never!
Received on Tue Jun 03 1997 - 09:09:11 EDT

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