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In 1984, Richard Stallman, a researcher at the MIT AI Lab, started the GNU project. The GNU project's goal was, simply put, to make it so that no one would ever have to pay for software. Stallman launched the GNU project because essentially he feels that the knowledge that constitutes a running program -- what the computer industry calls the source code -- should be free. If it were not, Stallman reasons, a very few, very powerful people would dominate computing.
Where proprietary commercial software vendors saw an industry guarding trade secrets that must be tightly protected, Stallman saw scientific knowledge that must be shared and distributed. The basic tenet of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation (the umbrella organization for the GNU project) is that source code is fundamental to the furthering of computer science and freely available source code is truly necessary for innovation to continue.
Stallman worried how the world would react to free software. Scientific knowledge is often in the public domain; it is one function of academic publishing to put it there. With software, however, it was clear that just letting the source code go into the public domain would tempt businesses to co-opt the code for their own profitability. Stallman's answer to this threat was the GNU General Public License, known as the GPL (see Appendix B).
The GPL basically says that you may copy and distribute the software licensed under the GPL at will, provided you do not inhibit others from doing the same, either by charging them for the software itself or by restricting them through further licensing. The GPL also requires works derived from work licensed under the GPL to be licensed under the GPL as well.
When Stallman and others in this book talk about free software, they are really talking about free speech. English handles the distinction here poorly, but it is the distinction between gratis and liberty, as in ``Free as in speech, not as in beer.'' This radical message (the freedom part, not the beer part) led many software companies to reject free software outright. After all, they are in the business of making money, not adding to our body of knowledge. For Stallman, this rift between the computer industry and computer science was acceptable, maybe even desirable.