A Guardian (UK newspaper) review of a new book about open source
code/copyleft and Linux. The reviewer mentions its possible relevance to
music & other art forms, but dismisses this with some dubious reasoning.
At the website, there is some sort of comments page, which might be an
opportunity for rumori types to preach to the non-converted...
For those who can't be bothered to click, i enclose the text below. Also,
the first chapter of the book itself is available on the penguin website (i
got it at penguin.co.uk, by searching for the author, Glyn Moody). The
first chapter is interesting enough, but covers only the history of
Linux/GNU and doesn't talk much about copyright/left issues.
Give it away
Steven Poole assesses the new e-paradigm of getting stuff for free in Glyn
Moody's Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution
Saturday January 27, 2001
Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution
Information wants to be free, runs the old hackers' slogan. But just how
free can it get? The success of Linux, a sophisticated computer operating
system that is available at zero cost, raises many questions about
intellectual property in the electronic era. But does the so-called Linux
"revolution" extend beyond the twilight world of caffeine-guzzling,
VDU-tanned geeks? Could other "content creators" - writers, painters,
musicians - ever prosper by giving their stuff away gratis? Glyn Moody's
diligently researched book doesn't offer answers, but it does a useful job
of providing the background to the arguments.
In the early months of 1991, Finnish student Linus Torvalds bought a PC to
tinker with, and decided he wanted to program a "kernel" - the heart of any
operating system. He christened the project Linux. Soon Torvalds was joined
by eager helpers on the internet, to whom he delegated specific tasks of
debugging and coding, and within a few years there was a community of
thousands working on the project in their spare time. By the end of the
1990s, Linux was so popular - owing to its adoption by behemoths such as
IBM - that it was perceived in some quarters as a threat to Microsoft.
Linux initiated the "open source" movement. When you buy a Microsoft
program, for example, you effectively get a very large binary number. Your
computer understands this number, but it is impossible to look at the 0s and
1s and infer just how the program was written. You don't have the source
code - the language in which it was programmed - and that is what protects
Microsoft's rights in the software. But Linux is distributed as open
source - meaning that anyone with programming knowledge can peek under the
bonnet and change it. That is how the Linux system got built, without vast
corporate resources and hundreds of engineers on the payroll.
The process, then, is new and interesting. But in spite of the passion
evinced by the hacker priesthood, and in spite of its corporate and
internet-server success, Linux is never going to be a mass-market consumer
operating system like Windows or Mac OS. Torvalds's first internet posting
said that Linux was going to be "a program for hackers by a hacker", and
this remains true. If you are excited by the idea of typing obscure commands
into a black window to dick around with your computer's guts, you'll love
it. But if you just want to use your computer for word-processing,
web-surfing, or whatever, you'd better avoid it like the plague.
So are the politics of this "revolution" applicable outside the computing
sphere? Although its proselytisers think of free, open-source software as a
potent, radically democratic ideal, this was never a democracy. As one
programmer explains to Moody: "It's sort of the opposite of design by
committee. You get all the benefits of this huge pool of ideas, but it's not
a democratic system. There's typically one person who is the god or the tsar
who has final authority." So it is clearly not the end of hierarchy.
And what of the wider applications of the open-source paradigm? An earlier
free software package, known as GNU, was distributed with a freedom-granting
licence wittily known as "copyleft". One programmer that Moody talks to
earnestly refers to this licence as "one of the most revolutionary documents
of our century". Leaving aside such alarming blinkeredness, it is hard to
see just how the Linux example might apply in other fields.
If you go to Tate Britain, you can look through a glass case at William
Blake's notebooks, and navigate a palimpsest of several drafts of a few of
his most famous poems. In a way, Blake's poetry is thus offered as open
source, because you can spy on the process that led to the finished verse -
the wrong turns, the deleted lines, the sudden illumination of a key image.
But this information won't help you write a better poem than Blake did.
There is no code for the process of creative inspiration that went on in the
And open source software has certainly not had a generally virtuous effect
on attitudes to other media. If you lurk at internet hacker hangouts, you'll
see plenty of people saying, "If I can get Linux for free, why should I ever
pay for any software ever again?" The suspicion is that many of Linux's
supporters are not romantic ideologues for an open, sharing process; they're
just spotty kids, drunk on the power they enjoy over an inanimate bunch of
transistors, who want something for nothing. (Of course, that doesn't stop
them selling their Star Wars memorabilia on eBay.)
Stephen King ran into this attitude with his doomed experiment in writing a
serialised internet novel: not enough people paid their dollar, so he gave
up. (Of course, it's possible that their unwillingness to pay was influenced
by their knowledge of King's already fabulous wealth, and their distrust of
his self-righteous e-crusade against "big publishing", without which he
would never have been a multi-millionaire in the first place.) Meanwhile,
why should young people go near a record store when all the nu-metal and
Britney they could ever listen to can be downloaded from Napster?
Here's the problem: now that computers have made content duplication and
distribution free, people don't see what else there is to pay for. Effort
and time are intangibles whose stock has dropped through the floor. Even so,
and quite rightly, Glyn Moody and Penguin want 13 quid for the amount of
time, effort and money that went into producing the book I have on my desk.
They're making the first two chapters available for free on the Penguin
website - "in the spirit of the open source movement," claims the press
release. But that's not open source; that's marketing.
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