The Story of the GPL


Article from Issue 200/2017

The GNU General Public License was born of the simple idea that freedom matters. Yet this simple tool for protecting freedom has another important feature that makes it even more powerful, and that is the ability to build communities.

The scene is 1983, and the high tech world is changing. Computers have been around in some form for a generation, but they are rapidly evolving from the room-sized behemoths of the past into smaller, more versatile systems. Competition is increasing and prices are dropping. And as prices drop, hardware vendors look for other sources of revenue. Corporations start to think of software as a product – independent of the hardware platform. Whole companies, like Microsoft, rise to prominence selling software alone and don't even bother with hardware.

Through this era, the companies that sold software started to become very particular about the rules for using that software, and source code started to become something like a trade secret. When you bought software, you didn't really own anything. You bought a license to use an executable binary, and you didn't even have a good way of knowing what was on that binary.

This new reality was not appealing to the community of programmers who were accustomed to tinkering with computers – in fact, the ability to shape, direct, and modify programs was the main thing they liked about computers. Many were paid handsomely for becoming part of the corporate computer industry, but a few held fast.


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