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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 Dream”.

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 the definition.

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