The GNU GPL and the American Dream
by Bradley M. Kuhn
When I was in grade school, right here in the United States of
America, I was taught that our country was the “land of
opportunity”. My teachers told me that my country was special,
because anyone with a good idea and a drive to do good work could make
a living, and be successful too. They called it the “American
What was the cornerstone to the “American Dream”? It was
equality—everyone had the same chance in our society to choose
their own way. I could have any career I wanted, and if I worked
hard, I would be successful.
It turned out that I had some talent for working with
computers—in particular, computer software. Indoctrinated with
the “American Dream”, I learned as much as I could about
computer software. I wanted my chance at success.
I quickly discovered though, that in many cases, not all the players in the
field of computer software were equal. By the time I entered the field,
large companies like Microsoft tended to control much of the technology.
And, that technology was available to me under licensing agreements that
forbid me to study and learn from it. I was completely prohibited from
viewing the program source code of the software.
I found out, too, that those with lots of money could negotiate different
licenses. If they paid enough, they could get permission to study and learn
from the source code. Typically, such licenses cost many thousands of
dollars, and being young and relatively poor, I was out of luck.
After spending my early years in the software business a bit downtrodden by
my inability to learn more, I eventually discovered another body of software
that did allow me to study and learn. This software was released under a
license called the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL). Instead of
restricting my freedom to study and learn from it, this license was
specifically designed to allow me to learn. The license ensured that no
matter what happened to the public versions of the software, I'd always be
able to study its source code.
I quickly built my career around this software. I got lots of work
configuring, installing, administering, and teaching about that software.
Thanks to the GNU GPL, I always knew that I could stay competitive in my
business, because I would always be able to learn easily about new
innovations as soon as they were made. This gave me a unique ability to
innovate myself. I could innovate quickly, and impress my employers. I was
even able to start my own consulting business. My own business! The
pinnacle of the American Dream!
Thus, I was quite surprised last week when a vice president at Microsoft
hinted that the GNU GPL contradicted the American Way.
The GNU GPL is specifically designed to make sure that all technological
innovators, programmers, and software users are given equal footing. Each
high school student, independent contractor, small business, and large
corporation are given an equal chance to innovate. We all start the race
from the same point. Those people with deep understanding of the software
and an ability to make it work well for others are most likely to succeed,
and they do succeed.
That is exactly what the American Way is about, at least the way I learned
it in grade school. I hope that we won't let Microsoft and others change