The GNU Left

In the Information Technology world, the Free Software Foundation is the organization that struggles against the drive to convert knowledge itself into a capitalist commodity known as Intellectual Property. The emergence of Linux, the fastest growing computer operating system (OS), has done much to validate the FSF work. Today, the FSF and the Linux movement have given rise to an increasing number of politically active programmers, including the Progressive Programmers League, based in the United States.

How It All Began...

Computer programmer Richard M. Stallman left MIT and launched the GNU Project in 1984. His goal was to develop a complete UNIX style operating system free of the restrictions associated with commercial software. UNIX is the industrial strength operating system (OS) that dominates servers on the Internet and in the corporate sector.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), a non-profit charity that distributes the GNU Project’s software and accepts donations to keep the Project alive, was founded in 1985.

The word GNU is a recursive acronym, meaning 'GNU’s Not UNIX,' a play on words that is common among hackers (a term of honor that has been misappropriated by the press).

UNIX Systems are proprietary products of software vendors and are generally quite expensive (there is a charge per user). They are considered to be Intellectual Property – they cannot be modified or redistributed without permission (and substantial payment).

GNU software, now called Free Software, is freely available, freely modifiable and freely redistributable. Variants of the GNU operating system, which use the now famous Linux 'kernel' (the basic software that starts the computer), are often simply called Linux but this a misnomer. Systems based on GNU Software and the Linux kernel are more accurately called GNU/Linux systems.

The Linux kernel was written by Finnish graduate student Linus Torvalds and published on the Internet in 1991. This pivotal component of an operating system arrived at just the right moment for the GNU Project which had lacked this essential ingredient. The combination of the two projects caused a sensation in the computer world.

In the next decade GNU/Linux moved from being a hobbyist’s tool to an enterprise quality operating system – it is still the fastest growing system on the Internet to this day.

Free/Open Source Software

Open Source is a popular synonym for Free Software which was coined in 1998. This was primarily a marketing decision as programmers trying to enter the corporate sector had difficulty convincing CEOs that Free Software wasn’t inferior to commercial, proprietary software.

According to the Open Source Initiative: The basic idea behind Open Source is that when programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, adapt it and fix bugs, thus creating a better product than the traditional closed (proprietary) model.

The FSF opposes use of the term Open Source and does not wish to be 'lumped in' with the Open Source Movement: The fundamental difference between the two movements is in their values, their ways of looking at the world. For the Open Source movement, the issue of whether software should be open source is a practical question, not an ethical one. As one person put it, 'Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.' For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution.

Not surprisingly, FSF leader Richard M. Stallman is an outspoken opponent of George W. Bush and a peace activist. His personal views are online at and he has written a book: Free Software, Free Society.

Stallman is well known for publicly stating his opposition to the 'Open Source' monicker, however, the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement do work together against a common foe: ...the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement... disagree on the basic principles, but agree more or less on the practical recommendations. So we can and do work together on many specific projects. We don’t think of the Open Source movement as an enemy. The enemy is proprietary software.…The main argument for the term 'open source software' is that 'free software' makes some people uneasy. That’s true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might rather ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject the idea for that. It does not follow that society would be better off if we stop talking about these things.

Free Software operating systems (GNU/Linux), productivity applications, databases and other types of software, are all now freely available. Most of these products are released under the GNU General Public License (or 'CopyLeft') which contains provisions that block any attempt to make derivative works proprietary. Products are licensed under the GNU GPL to make certain they, and any derivative works, remain free.

From Toy to Cancer

The popularity of GNU/Linux amongst younger programmers produced something many would have regarded as an oxymoron a decade earlier: the programmer activist.

GNU/Linux activists in the late 1990s began appearing at software stores to protest new releases of Microsoft Windows - and to hand out free GNU/Linux CDs to shoppers. In 1999, GNU/Linux activists protested a University of Michigan decision to sell Microsoft products at the Student Union.

In 2003 independent film producer J.T.S. Moore released Revolution OS: Hackers, Programmers and Rebels Unite!, which chronicles the rise of GNU/Linux from a 'toy' that Microsoft refused to comment on to a phenomenon that CEO Steve Ballmer called 'a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.'

Today, despite minor disagreements over terminology, licenses and a rivalry between Linus Torvalds and Richard M. Stallman (known simply as RMS), Free Software developers and users agree that there many compelling reasons to choose Free Software.

For free speech advocates the pernicious business practices of Microsoft (periodically investigated by the Department of Justice and a convicted monopolist) and the anti-democratic Intellectual Property constructs are foremost.

For developers of software the issue of having access to the uncompiled computer source code (instructions in non-binary human readable form, i.e. the trade secrets) and the ability to modify this code are paramount.

For discriminating users, weary of the fragile Windows, a stable, reliable operating system is critical.

For most, these issues meld together into a common belief that Microsoft is not only ethically challenged but unable to produce viable software.

The Development Model

According to Eric S. Raymond, author of the influential essay, 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar,' the reason Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) is simultaneously faster to produce and more reliable than proprietary software is the model of development used by FOSS developers.

The sheer volume of the talent pool that produces GNU/Linux and its productivity applications could never be equaled by Microsoft. The wide open 24 hour a day international 'Team GNU/Linux' works in a bazaar where progress is the only constant. The closed, proprietary shop of Microsoft is likened to a cathedral staffed by monks, an environment that stifles creativity and offers only incremental progress.

The Corporate Sector

Today, many young programmers, weaned on GNU/Linux, are moving into IT jobs. They influence or may even be the decision makers. This is changing the industry and many proprietary vendors, like the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), are feeling the pinch.

In fact, SCO is now engaged in what many view as a frivolous lawsuit against IBM. IBM has embraced GNU/Linux and the Open Source development model (but NOT Free software) and has published its own AIX (IBM’s UNIX) source code in order to donate it to the movement.

SCO claims its has partial ownership of this code and has filed suit. It appears even a lawsuit has helped the GNU/Linux movement – shortly after the lawsuit was announced, the Novell corporation bought SuSE, a German brand of Linux. RedHat, the US Linux vendor allied with IBM, has countersued SCO.

With IBM saturating valuable commercial air time during Fall football games and the IT giants suing one another it seems clear Linux is at home in the corporate arena. But it has also moved into the non-profit sector in a big way.

Free Geek

One of the problems that emerged from the technological revolution is the waste issue.

What to do with old computers? The pace of technological change has resulted in a vicious cycle. Intel produces faster hardware and Microsoft produces feature rich (slower) 'improved' versions of Windows, which in turn demands faster hardware from Intel.

Critics call this the Win-Tel monopoly as users are always chasing new features, usually in the form of a software upgrade which, after user frustration with poor performance, results in a hardware upgrade... followed by a new software upgrade. The old machines are often to be found in landfills.

A Portland, Oregon non-profit founded by Oso Martin has devised a way to address this problem. Owners of old hardware donate it to 'Free Geek' ( in return for a tax writeoff. The computer’s hardware is tested and repaired if necessary.

The Microsoft software is removed and Linux installed. Much of this work is done by volunteers who are trained by Free Geek staff. They, in turn, receive free computers as compensation. Leftover machines are provided to underprivileged children and non-profits. Some equipment is also sold to computer hobbyists in the Free Geek Thrift Store.

At the same time the Free Geek recycling project was gathering steam in Portland, a group of programmers, known as the Regina Project (originally based in Regina, Saskatchewan), were writing software for healthcare providers.

Eventually several software packages appeared from this group, one of which, SQL Clinic, came to the attention of Free Geek. It arrived in time to help local Oregon social service agencies confronted with a crisis.

Measure 30 was a tax increase intended, in part, to provide relief to non-profits in Oregon. It was defeated in a public referendum forced by hard right Republican Dick Armey and his DC-based group 'Citizens for a Sound Economy' which simply spent tons of money to propagandize against taxes. This exacerbated economic crisis resulted in a need to drastically reduce costs for agencies operating in Portland and the rest of Oregon.

A regional foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, approved a grant to a local healthcare provider looking to move from proprietary software to F/OSS. SQL Clinic ( was selected for this project. The 2.3 version of the application, however, did not meet every need. Thus, Free Geek programmers rewrote major portions of it.

Today, SQL Clinic 3.0 is an electronic medical record (EMR) for providers of outpatient psychiatric services. This program is available for free to any other organization needing this capability.

The SQL portion of the name refers to the 'Structured Query Language', which is the interface language for relational databases. Technical details and support contracts are available from or .

Support is geared towards fostering independence as each 'customer' in turn may become a vendor, if they are so inclined. In this manner, SQL Clinic’s development model is complimented by a progressive business model: revenue that funds development is generated not by charging for software but by charging for technical support – support designed to promote freedom.

Free Geek’s new programming arm, Collaborative Technologies, wrote the current version of the software, in consultation with the original author, adding the features needed by the Portland provider.

This experience brought together two teams of programmers from the East and West Coasts of North America. During this collaboration discussions moved from software to social justice issues.

From these discussion a new group was created: the Progressive Programmers League. Linux activists in both groups who are committed communists, socialists, wobblies and greens came together. These progressives united to form a collective that does free or low cost software development for non-profits and has stated goal of: expanding geek awareness from single issue to a multi-faceted (e.g., class) consciousness that fosters activism. The PPL writes CopyLefted software for non-profits which then goes into the pool of publicly available software, most of which is housed at the Open Source Developers Network.

--PPL also has an online magazine called the Electronic Worker now under development. Submissions are welcome. To learn more about the Free Software Movement, to get involved with the Progressive Programmers League, or to get help building a website or database application for the web, contact or

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