The History of the GPL

Posted 5 Jul 2001 at 04:35 UTC by atai Share This

The GNU GPL is the fundamental document for Free Software. Because of its importance, it is useful to document its history and evolution, for reference purposes. As an attempt I have created such a web page at

The GNU GPL is the fundamental document for Free Software. Because of its importance, it is useful to document its historical evolution for reference purposes. As a first attempt I have created a web page documenting the history of the GPL at

I have incorporated material I can find from the web, usenet posts, mailing lists, etc. I think there may still be missing details or possible inaccuracies. I welcome any corrections, additional inputs or suggestions. Thanks,

Andy Tai,

sorry the article appears twice, posted 5 Jul 2001 at 04:45 UTC by atai » (Journeyer)

I don't know what I did but the article appears twice. Can the editor delete one instance of the article? Thanks

GPL is not a constitution for many of us, posted 5 Jul 2001 at 14:57 UTC by nik » (Master)

The GPL is most definitely not "the de facto constitution for the Free Software/Open Source movement". The GPL exists to further the aims of the GNU manifesto, pure and simple.

Speaking for myself, I have no need of a constitution. I contribute code and documentation because I enjoy doing it. I have no wish to further any particular agenda, and my only real goal is to improve the quality of code and documentation out there -- by raising the bar, everyone benefits.

As a programmer, I have no wish to be associated with a manifesto that has as its main aim the destruction of the market in which I make a living.

please, posted 5 Jul 2001 at 16:19 UTC by Zooko » (Master)

nik, you appear to think that atai was speaking for you, and you object to that. But he wasn't speaking for you, he was speaking for the Free Software Movement, which is a specific and semi-organized movement, not synonymous with "everyone who contributes libre or gratis software", and apparently not including you.

As for "a manifesto that has as its main aim the destruction of the market", I really think you must have gotten the wrong idea. As far as I know, the people of the Free Software Movement are happy to have a commercial market for software and to profit from it themselves. You may argue that their movement might have as an accidental consequence the destruction of the market, but this is entirely different from claiming that the movement has as its aim the destruction of the market.

If you have some evidence that the Free Software Movement has as its aim the destruction of the market, I would very much appreciate it if you would share it with me, as that would be very important for me to know.



important history (and question about majority claim), posted 5 Jul 2001 at 17:14 UTC by sej » (Master)

Thanks for pointing out this important history. It is a much more dramatic and relevant than the alternate genesis story of free software used by RMS of late, the one about the guy at CMU who wouldn't hand over a copy of Xerox printer software.

I don't know if the "majority" of free software is GPL'ed (using the FSF's definition of free software). It probably is the single largest collection of software under one license, but I'm not sure those lines of code exceed 50% of all lines of free software.

Stallman's personal ego trip, posted 5 Jul 2001 at 18:29 UTC by Bram » (Master)

Free software would exist without the GPL.

The GPL has been a big marketing success, helping promote the concept of free software, but free software is due primarily to the many people who write it and give it away for free, not the license writer.

The seemingly widely-held view that free software could not exist without it, and by implication without Stallman, is simply bullshit.

should have used "copyleft", posted 5 Jul 2001 at 19:13 UTC by sej » (Master)

oops, I should have said "the alternate genesis story of copyleft software" in my previous post. I agree that free software pre-dates, and is bigger than RMS. But like Torvalds, you have to give him his due for making available useful variants of existing BSD Unix capability (gcc instead of cc, gdb instead of dbx) with adequate quality and a license that catalyzed their subsequent evolution.

But just as it was good to have alternates to BSD when AT&T was choking it in the early 90's, it is good to have free software alternates to GPL software and copyleft licensing.

Software Tools, posted 5 Jul 2001 at 19:27 UTC by argent » (Master)

That's where my involvement with the free software movement comes from. Software Tools, by Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike. Wonderful book that not only serves as a great introduction to practical programming, but also included the source to a number of really useful programs in a portable format (FORTRAN and RATFOR). It was published in 1976. I discovered it in 1979. I still recommend it, as a tutorial and textbook. I need to buy another copy... mine's vanished again.

As for gcc, it's a shame that it won out. The open source tcc had a lot of potential. It compiled C to an efficient p-code, with back-ends for each platform. You could distribute software in that p-code and then run it on any platform that supported tcc. I don't think anyone's touched tcc for half a decade, though. There's Java, I guess, but Java falls on the "so compolex there are no obvious flaws" side of the equation. :->

Zooko. . ., posted 6 Jul 2001 at 08:52 UTC by nik » (Master)

atai claims to be speaking for me. Not in the introduction to this article, but in the document that he links to, which says (in the first para) that the GPL "serves as the de facto constitution for the Free Software (and the related Open Source) movement.". While he's bang on about it's relationship with the Free Software group, that's just a part of the wider open source community -- Stallman agrees, getting annoyed when the FSF is lumped in with open source.

As to "destruction of the market", it's my reading of the GNU manifesto that it aims to massively reduce in importance the production of software (and therefore, how much people are prepared to pay for it), while raising the importance of software distribution (and how much people are prepared to pay for that). Since my commercial business produces software rather than distributes it, you can understand my opposition to this :-)

Just take a look at the answer to the last question in the manifesto, and decide whether or not the suggestions there are sufficient -- in particular, the idea of a software tax scares the hell out of me.

Nik, posted 6 Jul 2001 at 11:53 UTC by kwayne » (Journeyer)

If by 'destruction of the software market' you mean that companies executives no longer make millions out of buggy, proprietary software, then I am happily looking forward to that day.

I'd much rather keep using Free Software, pay nothing, and have a hugely shrunken software industry.

Not only would the software be gratis, but because of copyleft freedoms, it would be much more reliable software than our current money hungry industry pumps out.

I'll keep on supporting the GPL.

GNU Manifesto, posted 6 Jul 2001 at 12:57 UTC by Zooko » (Master)


Thanks for the pointer to the GNU Manifesto. I read it, and I agree that it has some bad ideas in there (as well as some good ones).

I still don't get the impression that the Free Software Movement aims to destroy the market. Now if by "the market" you meant the market of selling non-free software, then obviously the Free Software Movement aims to destroy that market (by outcompeting it), but since you are posting to advogato and since according to your advogato profile you are a BSD hacker, I presume that you mean the larger market of making money by working on software. The GNU Manifesto clearly does not advocate destruction of that market, and in fact suggests several ideas of how to sustain that market.

So from my perspective, the disagreement between you and the Free Software Movement is simply one of strategy rather than one of fundamental aims or values.

By the way, I see your point about atai claiming that the GPL is the de facto constitution for the Open Source movement on his page. Perhaps he will take the hint and clarify that part so it doesn't look like he is speaking for people and saying things they don't like.



Zooko..., posted 6 Jul 2001 at 15:35 UTC by nik » (Master)

I contribute to free (little 'f') software and run a company that produces commercial software, ports existing software to new platforms, and provides consulting services. I'm not working on free software out of an ideological requirement to make all software free, or destroy Microsoft (or whatever company comes after them), I'm simply doing it because I enjoy it.

I'm pretty certain that most of the BSD people I know feel roughly the same way.

In this context, having a "manifesto", or "constitution" is ridiculous. The closest I could get would be "Hack code, write docs, and enjoy it". And you can say that in a lot less time than it takes ESR to dig out his pseudo-social-anthropology dictionary in preparation for churning out a new paper.

GPL as the Constitution, posted 6 Jul 2001 at 20:40 UTC by atai » (Journeyer)

Nik: the page it was meant mainly for documenting the history of the GPL. As to whether GPL is the "constitution" or not, I respect your opinion, and I guess we just have to agree to disagree. Nevertheless, I will remove "Open Source" and just say "Free Software."



Markets and Technology, posted 6 Jul 2001 at 21:19 UTC by mslicker » (Journeyer)

I think there is a very strong contradiction between a market that seeks to sustain it self and technology which seeks to free people of labor.

That is why we use software in the first place, it is to reduce the amount of labor used in production. What free software does is it breaks down the artificial walls we build up around technology. It sets technology free to do what it was meant to do.

People who wish to constrain technology for preservation of jobs or markets have a very limited outlook. They either don't understand the objective technology or are acting out of very narrow self interest.

Where's my GPL web browser?, posted 7 Jul 2001 at 18:37 UTC by argent » (Master)

Hell, there isn't even a GPL *palm pilot* yet.

One software development and distribution model doesn't cover every base.

GPL web browser, posted 17 Jul 2001 at 17:41 UTC by jbuck » (Master)

argent, your GPL web browser is named Konqueror and is available from the KDE project.

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