3 free software stories you should know

Technology is part of our daily lives. We cannot conceive of the world and our work without understanding the repercussions that this sector has on society (in all areas). That’s why I bring you 3 inspiring stories and people that you should know to better understand our reality.

A couple of years ago I held a talk entitled: “Economy of abundance, free software and open source” for high school students, we wanted to make them see more clearly the whole issue of licenses on the Internet.

I always wanted to transfer that content to the blog, as it is an incredible story and one that is not always known outside of technological fields.

I am sure, many of the characters and stories we will talk about in this post, will have a greater international recognition in the future, for all that we owe them.

When we talk about free software, we always have to refer to the concept of “free”, which generates some confusion between two terms that do NOT mean the same thing: Free and Free.

Without going into whether the term was the most appropriate to define it, the concept of free software is linked to many projects, but the most outstanding one: GNU/Linux.

Society in general does know the term, but many people, at best, associate it with a “geeky” computergeek, but in reality, we use GNU/Linux every day without even knowing it.

  • On your mobile, in your bank
  • On airlines, on the Internet
  • In smart home automation equipment for your home
  • 92% of advanced computer systems that measure weather, make predictions or scientific research use GNU/Linux.
  • 85% of the computers dedicated to stocks and to move our economy, is thanks to GNU/Linux.
  • The big technology companies: Google, Amazon, Facebook, all have their heart in GNU/Linux.

But it is curious how the statistics of computer operating systems, for example for December 2019, are still overwhelmingly Windows and MAC OS.

Of course, at the server level, the story is different:

I understand that there are multiple reasons to understand why the common user has not been encouraged to use any GNU/Linux distribution.

From more complex learning curves, historical factors, personal comfort, a community that can become very inbred, to political decisions that have affected its use in educational systems.

Richard Stallman

Be that as it may, one of the absolute protagonists of the first story is undoubtedly Richard Stallman:

This controversial man with that hippie look has been a pillar in understanding where we are today.

Stallman was a programmer and software architect working on operating systems at MIT’ s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1971; he was developing Emacs, a text editor written in Lisp.

An era that must be analyzed in its historical and contentious context of the seventies in the United States.

Therefore, this context marked his ideas and principles.

During this period, software sharing is a very common practice. It is like a recipe. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

It is a very complex subject that is nourished by the work and collaboration of many people. Therefore, it does not respond to the same productive model that we have established in our society.

The recipe metaphor is very useful to understand how software development works.

People participating in the same code in a collaborative way, which allows to expand its possibilities. Each person reuses the same recipe as they like, but bringing new ideas and the result is shared on the same principle.

How is an idea born?

I have always found the concept of copyright to be incredibly limiting. Did you create something out of nothing?

Was it born in your head as if by magic and you are able to separate that idea from all your background, learning and journey?

It is also a path that has been nourished by millions of ideas from other people of the past or contemporaries.

Our ideas are based on the ideas of others. Punto pelota.

To continue Stallman’s story, which I’m getting tangled up in, in ’71 he was working with an open operating system, PDP-10, but a decade later, in 1981, the operating system code was restricted and he was made to sign a confidentiality agreement for the executable copy of the operating system.

For the hackers in that lab, Symbolics applied a commercial strategy, but this created a moral dilemma for them: they made software without worrying about licensing, copyright or privacy clauses.

So at that time Stallman decides to create an operating system (compatible with Unix). But it would be many years before this would come to fruition.

Stallman tells this story in a fantastic book that I always recommend: “Free Software, for a Free Society“.

Ironically, using the same legal protection of copyright, Stallman develops the concept of copyleft coupled with his GNU General Public License:

“It is a legal practice that consists of the exercise of copyright with the aim of promoting the free use and distribution of a work, requiring that the licensees preserve the same freedoms when distributing copies and derivatives.”


The concept is legally brilliant, because it allows you to make use of a software, but guaranteeing the continuity of the same license to its derivatives.

For Stallman:

Cooperation is more important than copyright (…) cooperation with others, constitutes the basis of society.”

Richard Stallman

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?

Without cooperation, without sharing the benefits of joint efforts, we cannot move forward. It’s something that always made a lot of noise to me when I was part of the academic world.

Scientific journals where all researchers fought to be, to have greater credentials that would allow them to climb the ladder of meritocracy.

Many of these publications were closed to scientific institutions that could pay for their access. It is senseless.

I believe that the technological world has a lot to teach society and many other fields, the importance of working on joint projects because that way we all grow.

“The purpose of science and technology is to create useful information for humanity, to help people live better lives (if we keep that information secret) we are betraying the purpose of our sector.”

Richard Stallman

For this controversial visionary, in software, either you control your computer, or the company that creates it controls you.

Thus the famous four freedoms are born:

  1. the freedom to use the program for any purpose (freedom of use)
  2. The freedom to study how the program works and modify it, adapting it to one’s own needs(study).
  3. The freedom to distribute copies of the program, thus helping other people(distribution).
  4. Freedom to improve the program and publicize those improvements to others, so that the entire community benefits(improvement).

For Stallman, proprietary software establishes an abusive power relationship, since it can control essential aspects of equipment and technology that is part of our lives.

They can control functionalities, force updates, report bugs for exploitation, etc.

But we are talking about the seventies, there was an effervescent world that was growing like foam. At what point did you go from sharing code openly to starting to talk about proprietary software? It all started with a young Bill Gates and an open letter.

Proprietary software

In the publication of a very influential technology club called: “Homebrew Computer Club” in Silicon Valley published an open letter entitled: “An open letter to hobbyists” in 1976.

In it Gates points out that stealing software makes good software unavailable. Therefore, he advocates a different model, where people pay for it.

The rest is history. We should not judge historical facts from our perspective. Gates is undoubtedly a brilliant person who is already part of human history.

The economic drift of the technological world, which has brought us to the present, made perfect sense.

But Stallman’s story doesn’t stop there, as you might imagine.

He left MIT in 1984 and the following year founded the Free Software Foundation, and in 1989, published the first version of the GPL license, so relevant today.

GNU/Linux and Linus Torvalds

The second story begins with an operating system: UNIX developed by AT&T Bell Labs in 1969, which I mentioned earlier.

Making a leap in time, in 1983 Stallman starts the GNU project, similar to UNIX, but called as a joke because of the pun: “GNU’s Not Unix”, leaving in principle that it would be similar, and compatible, but open source.

In the early 1990s, Stallman and his team had the compilers, the interpreters, the desktop environment, but they were missing a critical piece: the kernel that gives programs access to the hardware.

That missing piece is the result of one of the most brilliant minds in computing and one who has changed the course of history: Linus Torvalds. And as he says in his book, he did it justfor fun.

Linus, our protagonist in the second story, is a Finnish-American software engineer who is still behind the development and maintenance of the Linux kernel today.

Incidentally, he was also the creator of Git, the most famous version control software that drives software development today. A brilliant mind, without a doubt, who thanks to this contribution made it possible to further deepen international cooperation and decentralization.

NOTE: And as he showed us in a talk at the WP Galicia meetup, a good friend, Jesús Amieiro, created it in just 2 weeks 🤯

Be that as it may, the GNU/Linux union is the germ of what is known as Linux distributions. That is why it is more correct to call it that way.

This perfect union revolutionized computing, allowing servers, companies and individuals to use a free software operating system that history has not yet given the value it deserves.

Most GNU/Linux distributions are maintained thanks to the work of communities of developers and users. While it is true that there are companies that provide resources for its growth (Debian, Red Hat, Fedora, Suse, etc).

Red Hat is one of the largest open source companies today, and by the way, they have a spectacular podcast in Spanish because they tell you stories about free software, the birth of programming languages, in an entertaining and very well documented way. Highly recommended: Command Line Heroes.

NOTE: That podcast was the inspiration for this article. As well as a chapter on Free Software and the GPL license from episode 50 of Ana Cirujano and Pablo Moratinos‘ podcast, A Ticket to Chattanooga.

Another free software company that I admire a lot is the one that supports a very famous distro, which originates from Debian: Canonical Ltd, which created Ubuntu.

Ubuntu has undoubtedly brought the world of GNU/linux closer to the common user, becoming the most famous desktop distribution. It also has a beautiful story behind the name.

Canonical is a company funded and founded by entrepreneur: Mark Shuttleworth. Mark is another brilliant mind, a computer scientist, the first African to reach space, who founded this open source software company in 2004.

The name given to the distribution: Ubuntu, is a South African ethical rule focused on the loyalty of people and their relationships. It was a fundamental principle in the rebuilding of South Africa with Nelson Mandela at the helm and comes from the phrase:

“Umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu” which in Zulu means, “A person is a person, because of others.”

Ubuntu, South African ethical rule

Ubuntu is usually the gateway to GNU/linux distributions, although once you get the hang of it, trying out other distros becomes something of a hobby if you like to tinker.

The most amazing thing about free software is the incredible worldwide impact it has on everything around us, as I told you at the beginning of the article and as many times, its development and progress is the merit of people who do it in many cases in a totally disinterested way, to learn and grow together.

So this kind of memes from It’s Foss (an essential website to follow closely this ecosystem) is very cute, but reflects very well the reality:

Open source

The reality is that free software has always been closely linked to political ideas regarding the use and abuse of proprietary code.

The Free Software Foundation has always had a very clear criterion regarding the total exclusion of proprietary code. For that reason, from my perspective, part of the technology community, especially in the late nineties, began to prefer the term: open source.

I understand it was coined in 1998 by Christine Peterson, an American stateswoman.

I think there is always a lot of confusion between the two terms, and it took me a while to realize the differences.

In fact, its use had a clear intention: to avoid confusion between free and gratis.

“Open source is a development method, while free software is a social movement, to paraphrase Stallman.

It focuses more on practical benefits (access to source code) than on ethical or freedom issues that are so prominent in free software.

Open Source

Lawrence Lessig and Creative Commons

We already know the difference between free software and open source. But it gets more complicated. Or not, we will see.

We have to talk about the last character and the last story, which changes the rules of the game, and in this case it is about a lawyer, and academic specialized in computer law: Lawrence Lessig.

Lawrence is the founder of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University and creator of the Creative Commons initiative.

Lawrence was very critical of copyright and in his book: “Free Culture” he talks about:

“A model of copyright flexibilization, as a new paradigm for cultural and scientific development from the Internet, based on Richard Stallman’s free software movement.”

Lawrence Lessig

The author always advocated the copyleft concept explained above. In addition, he has always been a strong supporter of net neutrality.

Creative Commons licenses originate from a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting access to and sharing of knowledge, culture, education.

They solve many problems of content sharing on the Internet.

Inspired by the GPL license, they greatly simplify the way in which a work, in this case content and not software, can be shared.

This can be seen very clearly in the following diagram:

They are classified in “modules”, the green stripe:

  • CC0: The freest concept of public domain (CCO) where you don’t even have to mention the source.
  • Attribution (BY): Contents where only the reference to the original author is required.
  • Share Alike / Share Alike (SA): Same as above, with a subtlety: if you use the content, you must use the same or similar license. This is the one I choose for my blog and internet content, because it is the most similar to the GPL.

This first group is considered free to use and/or modify. For example, this article you are reading, you can modify it at will, remix it and produce something new, even for commercial purposes.

You must only take into account that you must cite me as the original author (attribution) and your work must be distributed with the same or later licenses. So it reminds me of the 4 freedoms of the GPL.

The next block (yellow) is a bit more restrictive in terms of content modification and commercial purposes:

  • No Derivative Works / No Derivative Works (ND): No longer allows you to modify the original work, and you must follow the above guidelines of attributing to the original author.
  • Non-Commercial / Non-Commercial (NC): In this case it limits you from using it for commercial purposes. Many magazines use this license.
  • The rest of the group uses different types of combinations: between commercial purposes or not; that it is shared with the same license, that it can be modified or not. But note that in this second block, authorship is always required to be cited.
  • We end the pyramid with the most restrictive of all, which is copyright.
Global Summit Creative Commons

I was introduced to this world thanks to Africa Rodriguez from Arroelo, a famous coworking in our city. We participate in the Creative Commons Global Summit in Lisbon (2019) to try to bring a CC Local Point to our city in Pontevedra.

A way to teach people how they can use these licenses for their content.

It was as a result of this project that I gave this talk and that I met a fantastic international community that has generated great friendships that continue to this day.

I leave you the video in case it is of your interest. It was simply a live broadcast at pandemic time, so the quality is not the best, but all these concepts discussed in the post are discussed with the group.

YouTube video

Economy of abundance?

It would be feasible for you to ask yourself: What’s the point? Why are you telling me these 3 stories? What is relevant to my job? What the hell do I want to use a GPL license for in my plugins? Why use Creative Commons licenses in my content?

To begin with, that you understand that what allows you to live today, comes from a very distant history, from thousands of people, although we only name the protagonists.

I believe that we have an ethical commitment to this great legacy that we must not only recognize, but also exalt.

The economic component is usually essential in this formula and people who are far removed from this environment do not usually understand these principles right off the bat.

You immediately think you’re giving away your work or something. You have to go a step further to understand it.

I love a quote from a journalist: Jeff Jarvis who in his book: “And Google How Would You Do It?” said:

“We have moved from an economy based on scarcity to one based on abundance. Having control of the products or their distribution no longer guarantees a profit.”

Jeff Jarvis

And it is a very relevant paradigm shift that our society is currently undergoing.

We went from a time when the most valuable brands in stock market terms were more traditional companies such as General Electric, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Citigroup, BP, Walmart, Royal Dutch Shell, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Bank of America in 2005.

And in 2021, most of them are already technological. Following this ranking: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), Tencent (China), Tesla, Alibaba Group, TSMC, Berkshire Hathaway.

There are many models of monetization through free software:

  • Charging for software
  • Offer related services
  • Support
  • To be an intermediary in “market places”, etc.

And it has many economic benefits such as:

  • Market breadth
  • Rapid expansion
  • High credibility (more transparency)
  • Communities that collaborate and extend your product to thousands of people, because they also benefit from it. Example: The WordPress community is a case in point.
  • And I always refer to the famous phrase: “The power of the hive”. To stop seeing each other as competition, to understand that we nurture and grow together.

Examples of open source / free software companies

Automattic WordPress

Let’s start for example with Automattic. The private company behind the development of WordPress.

What would millions of us do if Matt Mullenweg hadn’t GPL’d WordPress? I certainly could not be writing this story from this blog.

We already know some essential data, from Automattic’s side, as shared by Houston Chronicle:

  • Internet penetration of more than 40%.
  • More than 850 employees in 69 countries
  • They are responsible for the development of WooCommerce, Jetpack
  • In a 2014 funding round it had an estimated value of $1.16 billion.

According to Datamation, some examples of open source companies, such as: Canonical, NPM, Red Hat or Docker:

  • Offices: London
  • Employees: 550
  • Annual revenues: US$ 103.3 million
Red Hat
  • Offices: Raleigh, N.C.
  • Employees: 10,700
  • Annual revenues: 2.4 billion US $.

I understand that these are exceptional cases and not all open source projects are of this magnitude. In the case of Canonical, for example, despite its revenues, it remains dependent on the financial support of Mark Shuttleworth.

There are millions of small companies that develop plugins for example, within the WordPress ecosystem, which is so familiar and economically profitable, yielding as usual, their developments to a GPL license.

A teaching and a debate

As we have seen in sad cases, for example, the famous case of Jose Conti in Spain with his Redsys plugin(Live GPL or exploit GPL), and the abuse of the end user who takes advantage of this system ends up dilapidating our entire ecosystem.

But I am optimistic that it is not the majority. I tend to think that most of us are ethical and understand what we have on our hands to continue to grow together.

Even companies like Microsoft, which has always been antagonistic to the idea of free software, with its current CEO: Satya Nadella, who is very open source oriented, have made moves in this regard, such as releasing tools: .net development tools, Visual Studio Code, and providing many developers on GitHub.

In relation to open source and WordPress, I have a post on a person I admire a lot: John Maeda, to talk about technology and humanism.

But in this context, a quote from his book, “How to speak machine”, is very relevant, where he pointed out:

“I realized that PHP in the WordPress universe meant “People Helping People”, given the way each local community welcomes anyone who wants to learn computing, with no strings attached, no costs to get involved as a contributor. In open source, the software is the community and not just the code.”

John Maeda

I sincerely hope you enjoyed this long story.

I only reflect a small part of reality, but it serves to make us aware of the technological world in which we move, and although we are not developers, we owe a share of responsibility with our work.

You benefit every day from the work of many people.

If we are more aware of this, we will be able to contribute more and more and make this great hive grow.

“What doesn’t benefit the swarm, doesn’t benefit the bee either.”

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations

Initiatives such as Public Money, Public Code make all the sense in the world. At the end of the day what they are doing is defending that the code generated in public institutions should also be open source and that they should benefit the rest.

At the political and educational level: What is the point of paying for office software licenses, for example?

If we have initiatives like LibreOffice and operating systems like GNU/Linux for me the most sensible thing would be for the state itself to support these initiatives, donating people to make these projects grow.

Not to pay millionaire licenses, which only benefit one company. And by this I do not mean that proprietary software is bad. On that point I do not agree with part of the free software community that can be very radical in their positions.

In a post-meetup conversation with two good developer friends, linuxeros at heart: Jorge González and Carlos Sobrino, Jorge pointed out, quite rightly: “free software stops being free when you lose your freedom of choice”.

The existence of proprietary companies is not a bad thing; it enriches the sector.

But the public and educational sector could have a paradigm more oriented to the benefit of the hive.

We already have many precedents, such as the case of Munich, Germany. Although in that case, due to political issues, there has been a lot of backtracking; nevertheless, I believe that Germany is a good example in that sense.

We will see what the future holds. I’m definitely betting on it.

Here is the presentation I used in that talk. And as always it will be a pleasure to read your comments and opinions.

Long live and prosper free software!

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