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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 38 - July 2003   
 Europe's troubled seas
 Gutsy bacteria 
 The triumphs of a gene hunter
 Utopia on wheels

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Title  Hard questions about software

Is computer software patentable intellectual property or openly accessible public knowledge. In the digital world, controversy over this question – vital for the development of the information society – is raging as never before. What stance does Europe plan to take in the face of growing demands for free and open source code?

In the early days of micro and midi computers, free software was taken for granted. In the late seventies and early eighties, manufacturers such as IBM and Apple launched their first PCs complete with elementary software programmes – for word processing, tabulation, etc. – which could be copied and transferred freely.

Moreover, the question of software creativity was central to the development of the famous family of operating systems known as Unix. This was developed in the 1970s by a small group of computer scientists and mathematicians, most of them graduates of the University of California (USA) and working at the famous Bell Labs or Lucent Group (USA). Free of any immediate commercial pressures, these pioneers, particularly Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie,(1) laid the veritable foundations of the information society. 

The 'Unix War'
From the early 1980s, the remarkable functionality of successive Unix versions – the way they could be used on any hardware, interconnect with other machines and be continuously upgraded – resulted in this operating system quickly becoming the standard for all medium- and high-performance computer systems. In 1984, however, AT&T – a key player in the software market at the time – started to claim commercial rights. This marked the first shot in what came to be known as the Unix War.

The conflict pitted software companies seeking to develop products derived from the Unix system against computing research circles taking issue with what they saw as an obstacle to intellectual creativity. They began to campaign against these costly controls that companies were seeking to impose on their freedom. The free software movement was born on US university campuses.

The free commandments
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project.
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project.
Under the influence of the movement's first major figure, Richard Stallman, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a doctrine was soon formulated. Stallman launched the ambitious GNU(2) project with the which aimed to help create free software suites. Then, in 1985, he founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

The FSF proclaimed the four commandments or fundamental freedoms necessary for a genuinely 'free' software market: the right to run a computer program for any purpose desired by the user; the right to know how the program works (implying access to its 'source code', the actual commands and instructions that drive the software) so as to adapt it to individual needs; the right to redistribute copies; the right to improve the program and to release these improvements to the public so that the whole community can benefit.

The originality and dynamic of this initiative lay in the fact that it was the users who got together to exercise control over developments. Brian Fitzgerald, an economist at Limerick University (IE) and an expert studying this original approach to software development, believes it constitutes ‘a good working model for an economy and a society which is increasingly based on networks.'   

The 1991 watershed
Caricature of Linus Torvald with the Linux system logo on his shoulder.
Caricature of Linus Torvald with the Linux system logo on his shoulder.
Two decisive steps in gaining recognition for this libertarian manifesto were taken in the early nineties.  From 1991, the Computer Systems Research Group or CSRG – again a product of the ever-creative Berkeley campus – began to distribute Network Release. This was the first free ‘clone' of the Unix system, in which all the elements of the operating system had been rewritten to escape the copyright owned by AT&T. After several setbacks on the legal front, AT&T threw in the towel and the Unix War came to an end. The functionality of this major operating system had now entered “liberated” space.

That same year, a modest but inspired young man named Linus Torvald, who worked at Helsinki University (FI), announced the development of the first version of Linux. This new and entirely original operating system offered functions just as advanced as Unix   and, what is more, it could run on a PC. For the FSF, the launch of Linux was a genuine victory, as Torvald, committed to the principles of the free software movement, released his system under the GNU’s GPL (General Public Licence). Since then, Linux   has gone on to become an operating system recognised and used worldwide.  

The cathedral and the bazaar
Eric Ramond, founder of the Open Source Initiative.
Eric Ramond, founder of the Open Source Initiative.
Over the past decade or more, we have seen the emergence, in many fields, of communities of hundreds or even thousands of advanced users developing protocols and software free of charge. The most significant example is certainly the spectacular growth of the Internet. Originally designed for military and then scientific use, this formidable communications and networking tool expanded both spontaneously and remarkably effectively outside of any industrial logic, triggering a major social revolution.

Another major figure in the free software movement, Eric Raymond, founder of the Open Source Initiative, calls this model the 'bazaar' as opposed to the 'cathedral', which is a software firm's R&D department. But he stresses that this bazaar is, nevertheless, quite structured: the core developers who created the software coordinate operations. They are aided first by regular collaborators, then by users who provide a few tweaks, and finally the software goes out to the passive users. 

A growing movement
Although it originated on university campuses, free software has today spread far beyond the confines of the academic world. Other players have progressively made their presence felt as specialised user groups have developed common professional tools, such as in the health sector.

The movement has also begun to attract growing interest from industry, starting with the giants of the computing sector. In 1998, Netscape announced that its Communicator (formerly Navigator) browser would become free and it revealed the source code. The browser was renamed Mozillaand a special licence was created. Applealso decided to grant access to elements of its operating system's source code. Sun and other manufacturers have since followed suit.

The movement is also growing among users. Telephone operator France Telecom, computer manufacturer Bull and the French Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA) recently teamed up to create the ObjectWeb consortium. ObjectWeb is developing ‘open' software designed to manage various types of network.  OpenCascade – the computing branch of European aeronautics company EADS, now owned by Principia – has developed an open-source digital simulation program. Such examples are constantly appearing, even if software giant Microsoft is spending a lot of money and expending great energy combating a trend that could jeopardise its position.(3)

Is free software a passing fad, an academic hobby horse, or a radical revolution in the software industry? For it to truly be revolutionary, free software must overcome its principal handicap, namely a lingering distrust among corporate customers who, for essentially cultural or even ideological reasons, are reluctant to use these tools, doubting their quality and associated services. Just as importantly, this concept needs first to be legitimised by the regulations currently being discussed at major global forums. In this respect, Europe has yet to adopt a stance on its own market. 

(1) It was written that, if the Nobel Foundation had created a prize for computer science, it would certainly have been awarded to them.  

(2) The choice of the animal acronym GNU (a strange hoofed mammal found in South Africa, something between an antelope, a bull and a horse) says something about the rather strange character of Stallman, who has cultivated the image of an eccentric outsider. The meaning of the acronym was also somewhat esoteric as it was based on a recursive play on letters meaning GNU’s Not Unix…

(3) In 1998, the leaking of a confidential internal Microsoft report – known as the Halloween papers – revealed the crisis strategy which was being implemented within this global computer giant at the time as it sought to combat Linux and free software in general. 

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Features 1 2 3 4
  Hard questions about software
  Research at the forefront
  The Union considers its position
  Glossary of freedom

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