In 1985, Richard Stallman published the GNU Emacs License in conjunction with his software package of the same name. Though it received little attention beyond the tight-knit community of computer hackers, Stallman laid the foundation for a revolution that is only now being realized by mainstream society. The GNU Emacs License was based on two principles.
In 1989, Stallman released the General Public License (GPL), which was similar in nature to the GNU Emacs License but eliminated any reference to Emacs. The Free Software Movement, more commonly known as Open Source, was born. In 1991, Linus Torvalds began working on a Unix based operating system that would later fuse with Stallman’s GNU project to create what is now known as GNU/Linux. Torvalds and Stallman had produced a community of hackers working in concert to develop the best computer software in the world.
In comparison with Microsoft (the poster child of a closed system), a fair-minded assessment of the arguments on both sides gives the edge to GNU/Linux. In reality, free open software is of a higher quality than closed software. This is because, as Eric Steven Raymond notes in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Where Microsoft places perhaps 2,000 programmers and engineers on the debugging of their software, the Linux community has access to hundreds of thousands of users and programmers debugging, rewriting, and submitting code. As Raymond explains:
the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles
What came as a shock to Raymond was how quickly and effectively the community could produce, debug, and distribute new releases of software. After several decades of experimentation, Open Source has come of age. And the biggest news of all? It’s more efficient and adaptable than closed, hierarchical systems.
The contributions of Richard Stallman as a programmer have been substantial. It is possible, however, that his greatest legacy will be the GPL. Torvalds too will always be remembered for his role in the creation of the Linux kernel. However, Torvalds most significant contribution may turn out to be the creation of a community-based method for developing, debugging, and deploying ideas. Now that Open Source has come of age, the question is not: Is it better than closed software? But rather: To what other systems, outside of software, can we apply the concepts of Open Source and public ownership?