The Free Software movement is rooted to origins in the 1980s. As part of a talk I gave with my colleague and friend Mike Nolan at FOSDEM 2020, we analyzed how the Free Software movement emerged as a response to a changing digital world in three different phases. This blog post is an exploration and framing of that history to understand how the social movement we call “Free Software” was constructed.

Why does this matter?

This exploration and thought experiment is important to understand when revisiting social movements in technology in the current day. In the FOSDEM 2020 talk Mike and I gave, we presented three possible digital “freedoms” for artificial intelligence. The rights-based approach we presented at FOSDEM 2020 was inspired by the origin of the Free Software movement.

But to understand how we got to today with thousands of contributors to the Linux project, billions of dollars in open source company buyouts, and the words “open source” used on mainstream cable news channels, we have to start from the beginning, in 1983.

27 Sept. 1983: GNU Project announced

On 27 September 1983, the GNU Project was announced by Richard Stallman. The GNU Project was a collection of Free Software tools for building a free operating system. But it was also more than that. The GNU Project came with a vision to give computer users freedom and control of their use of computers. To do this, the GNU Project advocated for four fundamental freedoms:

  • Run software in any way desired
  • Copy and distribute the software
  • Study it (i.e. reading the source code)
  • Modify it and make changes

Today, we call these the Four Freedoms.

So, the GNU Project was founded with these fundamental freedoms as the motivation for why they did what they did. It was more than shipping code for code’s sake, but to lead by example in how software could be developed without sacrificing the rights of users.

4 Oct. 1985: Free Software Foundation founded

Next, skip ahead to 4 October 1985. Two years after the launch of GNU, the Free Software Foundation (F.S.F.) is founded to support and sustain GNU and the Free Software movement. The values of the GNU Project were important and valuable, but it wasn’t enough to leave them out in the world on their own.

At first, the F.S.F. focused on employing software developers to work on Free Software and the GNU Project. Later, the F.S.F. transitioned to legal and structural issues to support the Free Software community.

So, it is one thing to have your values and ethics out there, but they need to be protected and respected by the rest of the world too. The F.S.F. represented the sustainability of protecting these rights and beliefs, originally put forth by GNU.

While the F.S.F. does help sustain those rights, how does a nonprofit foundation actually enforce these rights in practice?

25 Feb. 1989: GNU General Public License created

Finally, we skip ahead four more years to 25 February 1989: the first version of the GNU Public License (G.P.L.) is created. This is the license that gave “copyleft” a name. It was written and released for the GNU Project, but the license itself was stewarded by the F.S.F.

The G.P.L. put power in the hands of individual people and activists to shape how others used their software. Thus, copyleft is put into a practical legal policy. In a sense, the G.P.L. allowed software developers to place the Four Freedoms at the core of their code.

Although enforcement of copyleft licenses has a blemished history, it was still the “teeth” in translating these values and values to the rest of the world. It took inspiration from how copyright was not something often considered when distributing software until the early 1980s.

And thus, copyleft becomes a radical invention in software with the proliferation of the G.P.L., especially in its adoption in prominent projects like the Linux kernel.

Is the past relevant to social movements today?

So this was a lot of history. Is the past relevant to where we are today? First, consider how the early Free Software movement responded to these emerging societal issues in the 1980s.

Free Software was a response to the changing ecosystem of software distribution. Software became more valued because of a standardization on hardware that didn’t exist previously. There were simply fewer architectures to compile for!

Suddenly, the value of software increased. It became a commodity.

Before this commodification of software, the Four Freedoms were, in a sense, the default way of distributing and sharing software. After commodification, this was no longer true. The Four Freedoms were rooted in a belief that there are essential rights that belong to all users of computers and computer systems. Stallman observed this change directly at the MIT Media Lab in the 1970s and early 1980s. This motivated him and many others to stand up for Software Freedom by asserting these freedoms.

To respond to commodification of software, Free Software took a freedom-based approach to established their values, as the Four Freedoms. So, looking back 40 years ago, is it possible to extend and make the past relevant again in today’s changing world?

Before we can answer that, we have to first ask. How has the world changed?

Your future is the new commodity.

The history of Free Software overlaps with what is happening now.

Today the world is about predictions: predictions about human futures. This is accomplished by the combination of software and data. Human futures are a simple formula: Data + Software. Or, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

But how are human futures becoming a commodity? In the 1980s, software became the thing we “sold”. It had inherent value. Today, the ability to predict what you are doing to do next is valuable. This makes both your and my future the new commodity. Where will we go next? What will we buy next? Who have we contacted recently?

But data is only one piece of this big puzzle. It is the enabling force for determining our futures. Third-party organizations collect the world’s data on a massive, centralized scale. Your data is what allows companies to sell your future.

To add a metaphor, data is like oil, not gold. You consume the input (data) to sell the output (human futures).

Where are we today?

So, how have we responded to our changing world?

There have been some successful resistance to the new value of user data and human futures. The privacy movement and legislation like G.D.P.R. are representative of this.

However, data privacy is only one part of the big picture. Focusing on individual empowerment does not protect us from societal effects. Consider predictive policing and court rulings as two examples.

Ultimately, the data privacy movement has been a key factor in combating the effects of surveillance capitalism, but there are still gaps. Mike and I noticed we need to approach topics like artificial intelligence not in pieces, but as a whole.

And some organizations have recognized this challenge and are working to address it. “Working groups” and reports with non-mandatory recommendations are on the rise. However, these groups are not effective on moving forward ways of ensuring people are effectively protected from the unforeseen harms of AI systems. “Light self-regulation” works on an opt-in model, and it is against the interest of some actors to opt in.

So, if we are in the middle of this societal shift from software as a commodity to human futures as a commodity, where do we go from here? Do we choose chaos or community?


At time of publication, I am still wrestling with these questions. As are a lot of people! To get a wider picture of what is on my mind in 2020, read my event reports from my pre-coronavirus 2020 travels.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.