The politics of the command line

Free software has lead to communities of diverse individuals forming to fight for a common cause.

Open source advocates tended to see the ideology of the free software movement as a barrier to the uptake of free software in industry.

Free software has an ideology, a philosophy and a license that were developed in response to the problems encountered in furthering the idea that software should be free. Open source, on the other hand, has no connotations beyond the visibility of the source code, and is said, for this reason, to be more friendly to business than "free software".

However, there is plenty of confusion as to what differentiates open source from free software... or public domain software or attribution software or BSD licensed software...

A consequence of the popularity of "open source" is that there has been a proliferation of licenses that describe themselves as "open source", some of which aren't necessarily compatible with each other, and many of which contain proprietorial clauses that don't always work to the advantage of the licensors or the licensees.

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The term "open source" has at times been misused by companies who want to gain the benefits of a wider developer community. More often than not this has arisen from a misunderstanding of the full implications of free software, and how the licensing can work to the developers' advantage.

The lesson to be learned from the success of GNU/Linux is that the GPL is more than just a license. The so-called "viral" nature of the license serves to bind community and code and together, and like any political movement, the community has tended to rise to challenge, whenever a threat is perceived.

A regiment of hackers

As soon as it gained popularity, free software became the subject of attacks that serve to question the originality, authenticity, authorship, identity and parentage of the software. The loose communities (if such they are) of hackers, users, developers and proponents of GNU, Linux and free software were always quick to respond, as Stallman observed in his history of the GNU project.

"I have done most of my work while anxious about whether I could do the job, and unsure that it would be enough to achieve the goal if I did. But I tried anyway, because there was no one but me between the enemy and my city. Surprising myself, I have sometimes succeeded."

"Sometimes I failed; some of my cities have fallen. Then I found another threatened city, and got ready for another battle. Over time, I've learned to look for threats and put myself between them and my city, calling on other hackers to come and join me."

"Nowadays, often I'm not the only one. It is a relief and a joy when I see a regiment of hackers digging in to hold the line, and I realize, this city may survive - for now."

As early as 15 August, 1994, William R Della Croce Jr from Boston, Massachusetts, saw a business opportunity in the nascent rise of Linux and the GNU/Linux distributions, and filed for the US rights to the Linux trademark, resulting in a long legal battle.

Led by Linux International under the auspices of Jon 'maddog' Hall, with the assistance of a friendly lawyer, Gerry Davis, and financial help from Red Hat, DEC and others, which was finally resolved in August 1997. The Linux trademark was assigned to Linus Torvalds as part of the settlement.

This was the first of many claims on the ownership of the rights to the code, or portions of the code, that constitute a GNU/Linux distribution, many of which were designed to disrupt the way Linux and other free software is developed, and to interrupt the success that GNU/Linux has achieved.

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