Building on Richard Stallman's Greatest Achievement

What was Richard Stallman's greatest achievement? Some might say it's Emacs, one of the most powerful and adaptable pieces of software ever written. Others might plump for gcc, an indispensable tool used by probably millions of hackers to write yet more free software. And then there is the entire GNU project, astonishing in its ambition to create a Unix-like operating system from scratch. But for me, his single most important hack was the creation of the GNU General Public Licence.

The GNU GPL did several things. First, it provided a kind of written constitution for free software, helping to define what exactly that meant, and providing a benchmark against which it could be measured. Secondly, it provided a legal framework for something quite new: an attempt to give users rights, rather than take them away. And thirdly, it did that in a totally radical way.

Here's how Eben Moglen, Stallman's right-hand man, and the person who guides the FSF on all legal issues, explained the situation to me a few years back:

The stuff that people do with GPL code – like they modify it, they copy it, they give it to other people – is stuff that under the copyright law you can't do unless you have permission. So if they've got permission, or think they have permission, then the permission they have is the GPL. If they don't have that permission, they have no permission.

In other words, the GPL uses copyright to give permissions that copyright does not provide – a wonderfully playful hack of the copyright system itself.

Intellectually, this is astonishing: nobody before ever had the genius – or the temerity – to turn copyright back on itself in this way. But so far, it has remained an isolated miracle, with little impact on domains beyond copyright.

Until now. For, recently, James Love, Director of Knowledge Ecology International, an NGO that works on issues relating to the creation and control of knowledge, as well as access to knowledge and knowledge embedded goods (such as medicines), has made an astonishing proposal: that we apply Stallman's great hack to nothing less than the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The similarities are clear. Both copyright and the WTO have both been instruments of control that seek to limit what people – and peoples – can do in their respective spheres of creation and trade. Both have steadily accreted powers over the years, until they have become hugely problematic for those who wish to see knowledge and products based on knowledge made as widely available as possible. So the idea that Stallman's hack might be applicable is certainly attractive – exciting even.

Here's Love's background to the idea:

The world is confronted with a vast under-supply of public goods. Part of the problem is that the current trade system lacks the sufficient incentives and structures to address the free riding problems associated with the supply of public goods. There are increasing calls for a larger supply of public goods and a variety of proposals that involve government commitments to increase the supply of global public goods in specific areas

Wikipedia defines a public good as “a good that is non-rivaled and non-excludable. This means, respectively, that consumption of the good by one individual does not reduce availability of the good for consumption by others; and that no one can be effectively excluded from using the good.” Free software is an example of a public good, as are all the other commons built around sharing knowledge – things like open content, open access, open data, etc. So we can see at once that Love is talking about the same things that Stallman was concerned with, but at a more general level.

Love explains his goals as the following:

to create a new option that will allow governments to make binding offers and commitments for the supply of heterogeneous global public goods, involving in particular knowledge goods.

One of the objectives is to shift from the current WTO focus on trade liberation for private goods and the private enclosure of knowledge through mandatory standards for intellectual property and its enforcement (an area some believe has been over emphasized), to a more balanced agenda that also includes public goods and attention to pressing social needs.

That is, he wants to find a way for government to commit themselves to create more public goods – for example, free software, or content released under a CC licence. In the process, he wants to subvert the entire WTO, just as Stallman subverted copyright. Here's how it's done:

One proposal is to model such an agreement in part on the WTO agreement on services – the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The GATS in the WTO is designed to privatize and liberalize trade in service, in part though a system of binding “offers.” These offers are not uniform among countries. Offers by one country depend upon their specific willingness to liberalize a specific sector, and the interest of other countries that they do so. Liberalization commitments are traded in a WTO environment where “asks” and “offers” cover a wide range to topics, including changes in tariffs or agricultural subsides, or requests for support of new intellectual property norms. What is key to the services agreement is its ability to accommodate a diverse set of offers, in a multilateral negotiation, where consensus on uniform norms is unlikely.

There is much criticism of the GATS itself, much of it we share. However, as a model for creating binding commitments for a diverse set of obligations, it is quite interesting. Hence, the earlier reference to the “hack” of the WTO. We are interested in borrowing from the GATS the structure of accepting binding heterogeneous offers to supply -- in this case, not liberation of services, but the supply of public goods.

This use of the “binding commitments” might seem trivial, but is actually quite profound, because in practice its effect are far reaching:

If such an agreement existed with the WTO, several countries could propose a collaboration to fund open source research on malaria. Countries could bind government agencies to require government funded research to be made available, for free, on the Internet, as was recently done by the U.S. NIH and in some other government research agencies. Like-minded countries could agree to make binding commitments to support the development of open source software, fund new databases, share the costs of hosting Wikipedia servers, pay for translations of scientific works into other languages, or for the creation of more accessible formats of books and articles for persons who are blind or have other reading disabilities. The lists of things that could be expanded and supported under such an agreement are endless.

In other words, the use of the WTO's binding agreements provides a handy pre-existing framework for the entire gamut of sharing activities. It has the virtue of being readily understood by government functionaries – just as copyright is readily understood by lawyers – which obviates the need to explain things when lobbying for such agreements to be set up. And, like Stallman's GPL, Love's idea has even more profound, indeed, revolutionary effect:

by introducing public goods into the WTO environment - the culture of the WTO would be profoundly changed. “Asks” and “offers” in the WTO negotiations would not longer be exclusively about the private goods market, or about the privatization and enclosure of knowledge itself. There would be an immediate shift to consider the competing benefits of greater openness, and a larger global commons. Knowledge that was produced to be “free” would have a new value, as a trading chip in the WTO environment.

Just as Stallman managed to turn the main way of enclosing creation – copyright – into a way of liberating it, so Love proposes turning the WTO from an organisation that focuses exclusively on trading private goods, bringing wealth to a few, into one that can also be used to create and share public goods, enriching us all.

Like Stallman's, it's a brilliant conceit; unfortunately, unlike Stallman's, it's an idea that's much harder to put into practice, since it requires governments around the world to co-operate with the scheme. Happily, the tangible benefits the GPL has brought in terms of free software and its knock-on effects provide compelling reasons why they really ought to do so.

You can follow Glyn Moody on Twitter at @glynmoody


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Last paragraph: "Like

Anonymous's picture

Last paragraph: "Like Stallman's, it's a brilliant conceit" conceit > concept

Software as a product for

Anonymous's picture

Software as a product for sale is overrated.
Note I make no comment on services.

Back in the 70's at Bell Labs Kernighan is alleged to have said there are fundamentally 2 problems:

1. Computers are too difficult to program.
2. Computers are too difficult to use.

Ideally every man should learn to tackle these problems on his own. And we should help each other in the process.

In my opinion, as a product for sale, software has not not improved much since the 70's. What has improved, exponentially, is hardware.

People should write their own programs. I recently read that Lifehacker became one of the most visited sites on the internet. I'm not surprised.

I used to think the GPL was laughable. Because I knew what good licenses were. (They are the result of negotiation. They represent a business relationship.)

I don't think that anymore. I now think software for sale is laughable. Because I know what good software is. (It is the result of open sharing of ideas and often collaboration.)
And it's free.

It's not good because it's free. It's good because it's well designed and tested.

Radicals like Stallman and Love will never make much progress with their emotionally unintelligent tactics, however the principles they are epousing are not silly. Nothing moves forward in the IP world without some sharing and collaboration. Often the level of such sharing and collaboration is only known at the level of the creators. The business and legal people are not privy to it, nor do they want to be.

A little thing called BSD? :)

xtifr's picture

> "In other words, the GPL uses copyright to give permissions that copyright does not provide"

That was hardly the innovation that you make it out to be. The much-older BSD license did the same, as did many others. RMS's real innovation was to recognize that there was a stable middle ground between the anarchy of an essentially unlimited license and the totalitarianism of unmodified copyright. A sort-of libertarian ideal of "your rights to do what you want with the code ends where the next guy's starts."

I'm also not convinced that the GPL would have become as prominent as it did if it weren't for things like emacs, gcc and the GNU project. It seems to me that Stallman's achievements were somewhat intertwined, making it hard for me to really say that any individual one is 'the greatest". But I suppose the GPL is a good choice if you must pick one.

You're right...

Glyn Moody's picture

...what I wrote was shorthand for using copyright *in a particularly clever way* - that is, to ensure that the software commons could be enjoyed but never be enclosed.

Don't care what a couple

Spock Ears's picture

Don't care what a couple stuffy geeks say, what a neat concept! Imagine...


paniq's picture

If the WTO agreement he proposes has no "viral" quality to it, it is always going to be dependent on good will - it has to be "liked" by everybody taking part.

These days, the GPL does not have to be "liked" to be used, because it has a viral quality: If you make changes to the software, or you derive a different software from substantial portions of the original, you will have to use the same or a similar license. This way, the license propagates from one project to another.

In my opinion, only a trade agreement that has expanding and propagating terms can be compared with the GPL, and will be as successful:

An example: let's say a country makes research on the ebola virus a state affair - it legislates that any patent related to this field is invalid. In order for another country to use the results of that research, it must agree to open the ebola research related sector in the same way. This will quickly open the entire ebola research sector in all collaborating countries and disallow any patenting.

For this example, it needs only one initial country with a lucrative resource to disable related patents worldwide.

GPL is about licensing, not copyright

Anonymous's picture

There's a reason that word, 'license', is in GPL. The GPL is not about changing or subverting copyright law. Rather, the GPL is about enabling copyright owners to reliably and freely license their creations to others to use as though they're their own creations, while ensuring that others cannot claim ownership of the creation, only that of their changes, and that the sources will continue to be passed along.

Copyright of OSS still belongs to the writer/creator, who is still free to do with the creation as she wishes. The GPL has not subverted that part of law.

Yes, this is a 'trivial' description of the GPL. My intent is to show the simple difference between licensing a copyrighted work and transferring ownership of the rights of a work to others. GPL does the former, not the latter.


Anonymous's picture

"Eben Moglen, Stallman's right-hand man, and the person who guides the FSF on all legal issues"

Moglen left the FSF two years ago. Otherwise good article.

Well, yes...

Glyn Moody's picture

...but I think you'll find he's still guiding the FSF informally in terms of giving advice. I emailed him recently about the TomTom case, for example, and it's clear he's very much involved with all the main parties in framing a response.

I've never been all that fond of the GPL

Jonathan Guthrie's picture

I always found the GPL to be insecure, not in the "people breaking in to your computer" sense, but in the "neurotic Woody Allen" sense. It's like rms has decided that he's got a better way of doing things and he's so convinced of his correctness that he's going to force you to be right, too.

Stallman is not a Christian

tuxy's picture

You have your wires crossed, how on earth did you manage to get mgr (Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson) mixed up with rms?

OTOH Stallman's background is the same as Woody Allen's

xoddam's picture

You're right, Richard Stallman is not Pat Robertson. But the OP didn't say he was: it said he was like Woody Allen.

Which I for one found to be a most apt comparison. They have a few mannerisms which are very alike indeed.

Their common background may have something to do with that, but artistic, nerdy and neurotic types a world away from Manhattan identify warmly with both, even as we cringe at some of the candid geeky things they say and do.

It only works in practice, not in theory

David Gerard's picture

Of course, there is the minor detail that the GPL is in fact vastly successful and popular and achieved what it set out to do. But we can ignore that and personally attack Richard Stallman.

I don't think he's forcing you

Glyn Moody's picture

The choice is yours; but if you accept software written under that licence, you accept the licence. It's the quid pro quo that he uses to propagate his ideas. Sounds fair to me.