The Free Software Movement – Anarchism in Action

I wrote this essay back in 2003 and it was originally published on Indymedia UK back in December 2003 (see that link for some discussion of the piece). It was also published in Freedom newspaper sometime in 2004.

For some reason, I did not get around to posting here on my site till April 6, 2007. I edited it’s time stamp so it appears on my site in correct chronological order.

I wrote a follow a second article that is the logical sequel called, “The Limits of Free Software.”

by Asa Winstanley

What are the implications of the free software (called ‘open source’ by business leaders) movement for anarchists and activists in general? Could things be learned from it? Just how anarchist is GNU/Linux and other such projects? Little analysis or debate has been had on this. My article intends to stir some.


The free software movement has been around in at least since 1984, but there is little awareness or debate about it in anarchist or general activist circles, beyond a vague awareness of “Linux”. A theoretical anarchist analysis of the movement and the lessons we can learn from it seems to be conspicuous only by its absence. Yet this is a movement which is currently affecting a revolution in the way individuals, groups and companies use and create computer systems. I intend this piece to stimulate further debate, as there is currently little. Also, I am no expert in anarchist history or theory, so would be happy to receive criticism of the inevitable shortcomings in my comparisons.


Definition and implications of free software

Free software refers to “freedom” not price. It is defined by the Free Software Foundation to consist of four main freedoms – software that everyone has the right to: use, distribute, examine and modify for any purpose, either gratis or for a fee. In practical terms, to be free to examine or modify software requires free access to the ‘source code’ of the software. Most software is made by ‘compiling’ the source code that programmers write and understand into ‘executables’ – the machine language that computer processors understand. Software companies who make most or all of their software non-free like Microsoft or Apple keep the source code a tightly guarded “trade secret”. This secrecy has negative implications for the quality and security (1) of the software as well as the level of freedom in its use, modification and creation. Free software is all about increasing freedom, something anarchists appreciate. Thus the free software concept is libertarian. It is also socialist in that everyone has an equal right to these four main freedoms. Also, the right to charge a fee (even make a profit) does not give one the right to stop others giving it away. In practice, this means that published free software is almost without exception available for no monetary charge over the Internet. In practical terms free software means that not only can you give your friends free CD copies of GNU/Linux, which you have downloaded from the Internet (2) without breaking the law, but you could also get your programmer friends to modify, say, one of the Indymedia code bases to add extra features, or to make it more suitable for your group’s website. Non-programming users often contribute to the community by submitting bug-reports (fixed much faster than in proprietary software projects) and writing documentation.

Copyleft – a revolutionary concept

Freedom, however, requires protection. The most revolutionary idea in free software is “copyleft”. Copyleft is a subversion of the copyright system, using the law against itself. Under copyleft based free software licenses such as the GNU General Public License (or GPL), all copies and modifications of the software must be relicensed under the same terms. This guarantee the same freedoms for all. So, to carry on our two examples from the previous paragraph: the people you gave the free CDs of GNU/Linux to would be obliged to pass on the same rights to anyone they choose to make copies of the CDs to; and your friend’s modifications to the Indymedia code base would have to released under the same license. This creates a virtuous cycle, a software commons that everyone can contribute to, but no one can take away from. Unlike non-free software, copyleft code ensures an increasing knowledge base from which individuals can draw from and, equally as important, contribute to. In this way everyone benefits as code can be improved by everyone. Because of this, Microsoft has referred to the GPL as a “cancer” and “un-American” (3) – a definite sign that they are worried. Non-copylefted free software is unfortunately prone to being poached by selfish parties. Apple’s usage of the BSD internals for OS X is one case of this, which we will look at in more depth later.

Some confusing terms to avoid: “freeware”, “shareware” and “Open Source”

To clear up some confusion, there are several terms we should avoid if we are interested in promoting freedom in software. The terms “freeware” and “shareware” do not refer to free software. Freeware has no set definition, but usually means just a free download, with no right to modify or examine. Shareware is “try before you buy” type proprietary software which gives no right of full use (it is often crippled with enforced trail periods or an incomplete feature set), let alone the rights of examination or modification. The FSF has a diagram (4) which explains the differences in the various terms. The “open source” movement largely overlaps with the free software movement, but has ultimately different goals. In practice the vast majority of so called open source projects are also free software projects, and in fact most are copyleft too. Thankfully, the GPL is by far the most popular free software license, covering many projects including the mighty GNU/Linux (popularly shortened to “Linux”) operating system itself. However, while the main aim of the FSF in particular and the free software movement in general is to promote freedom in software use and creation, the aim of the open source movement (including the OSI – Open Source Initiative) is to improve efficiency of production. Basically, it is free software rebranded to make it more appealing to CEOs, scared by the “un-American” implications of “freedom”. This newer movement (5) has lead to something of a schism in the free software community. In practice, the difference is often just a matter of emphasis. However, the focus on asking business leaders to behave better in terms of how they produce their software has in the past led to unhealthy compromises. My opinion is that, as people who believe in freedom before efficiency, we should refer to “free software” and not “open source”.

“Software Should Not Have Owners”

Uber-hacker Richard Stallman is a sort of hippie, programming world equivalent of Noam Chomsky. He is the head of the FSF, the GNU project founder and the originator of the GPL. He is seen as the main founder and spiritual guardian of the concepts of free software and copyleft. Although his primary work is nowadays as a a sort of international propagandist, defender of and zealot for the free software cause, he was once a prolific programmer. He programmed the original versions of the Emacs editor, the GCC software complier and worked on other vital parts of the GNU operating system. In fact he worked so hard on them, it is rumored that one of the reasons that he now rarely programs is that he has developed repetitive strain injury in his wrists from all that typing. He once described himself as “a sort of combination between a liberal and a leftist anarchist. I like to see people working together, voluntarily, to solve the world’s problems. But, if we can’t do that, I think we should get the government involved to solve them. ” (6).

Free Software Triumphant

What is GNU/Linux?

GNU/Linux is a free operating system that is considered the imminent successor in the IT world to all commercial operating systems. It has an estimated installed base of some 18 million users (7). It dates back to January 1984 when Stallman started the GNU project. Its design broadly follows that of the proprietary UNIX system. It was partially as a reaction to the closing-up of the software culture at the AI labs in MIT where Stallman had worked, that he started the project (8). The ambitious aim was to create an operating system from scratch that was completely free and unpolluted by inclusion of code from any existing proprietary system. By the early nineties, this goal was largely achieved. Only one vital component was missing – the kernel. A kernel is the central hub of any operating system; it communicates between programs, and between the software and the hardware. In 1991 in Finland a computer student called Linus Torvalds started a new hobby. He started writing his own kernel (licensing it under the GPL) and added the GNU system tools to make up a UNIX-like operating system. At first he jokingly named it after himself: ‘Linux’, but by the time many other programmers started to get involved the name had stuck. When the system matured and started seriously taking off in the mid nineties, Stallman and the FSF were unhappy about the name of the system as it was popularly called: Linux. He argued that the GNU project should be credited in the name, seeing as they had done the majority of the work. There is one opinion that says that ‘GNU/Linux’ is too unwieldy to use in everyday speech, plus Torvalds and the other kernel hackers had called the whole system ‘Linux’ from day one. However, the fact remains that Linux is really only the kernel, and the vast majority of the system is GNU code. While GNU could not have worked as an OS without Linux (9), Linux could not work at all without GNU. Hence the preferred term: GNU/Linux.

Because of the nature of how GNU/Linux came to be, it has is no single provider. Various vendors create ‘distributions’. These range from professionally polished distros by ‘Linux companies’ like Red Hat, Mandrake and SuSE; smaller scale projects for personal or more specialised uses, like Gentoo or SmoothWall (a Firewall distro); and then there is Debian. Debian, to my knowledge, is unique in the world of operating systems. It is an operating system put together and maintained by a large community of voluntary programmers. It has a Constitution, a Social Contract which (unlike the ‘Linux companies’) guarantees that only 100% free software will be used in Debian, a huge community of support and many high demand users. All this runs in a democratic fashion with no managers or bosses. Design decisions are decided over mailing lists and in committees; a ‘project leader’ elected once a year handles higher level co-ordination. Debian reflects the most pure form of the free software ideal. Arguably, it is also technically the best GNU/Linux distro, and is widely regarded as the second most popular GNU/Linux distribution after Red Hat (10).

Not Just Operating Systems

There is now a free software equivalent to almost any Windows or Mac software you can name. In terms of network oriented software, free software far outstrips the number of native Windows and Mac offerings. For example, the Apache web server is by far and away the most popular web server software in existence (11) and is often acknowledged to be the best there is. Large corporations including HP, Apple and the BBC use it for high-demand web sites. Also, free software effectively runs the Internet. Several of the software packages used for the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet are free software: BIND makes domain names (like or work and sendmail is responsible for delivering a large proportion of the world’s email traffic. From the beginning, GNU/Linux has been most popularly used for Internet servers of various kinds. It has traditionally been weaker on the desktop, giving Microsoft free reign. Since the late nineties, this has no longer been the case. GNU/Linux is rapidly maturing into a very user-friendly desktop environment with a whole host of free software applications for the normal user. Email clients, several web browsers, CD burning software, office suites, graphics and audio software: it’s all there. There are even powerful free software database packages, such as MySQL. The only major packages currently lacking are mature desktop publishing and video editing software. Give it three years and it will all be in place. Many IT world pundits are currently predicting the imminent conquest of GNU/Linux on the desktop. This being Microsoft’s main revenue source, it is unsurprising that they attack GNU/Linux. The only serious factor holding up GNU/Linux on the desktop is Microsoft’s monopoly practices. Most normal computer users will just use what they find already installed on their computer, and at the moment, Microsoft has ways of making sure that that will remain Windows. Another factor here is hardware support. But this has improved greatly over the last few years with hardware manufacturers opening up their interfaces so that the community can write free software drivers for them, or even releasing their own drivers under the GPL.

In addition, GNU/Linux is not the only free (as in freedom) operating system. There are also the various BSD based systems, some of which pre-date GNU/Linux. They include FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD. These are free software but are not protected by copyleft. Free software has gone way beyond a computer geek’s play thing. It is a force to be reckoned with.

The implications of free software for anarchists

The Copyleft concept beyond software

In his lectures about copyright, trademarks and patents, Stallman himself notes that the copyleft concept used in the software world may not be appropriate for all spheres of life. Indeed, he notes that it is the conventional conception of copyright that enforces one model for all kinds of works, technical or artistic. Stallman goes beyond rejecting the capitalist conception of “intellectual property” and rejects the term entirely (“I have no opinion about ‘intellectual property’, and neither should you” (12) ). His reasoning is that it is simply a “propaganda term” that capitalists use to conflate several entirely separate concepts: copyrights, trademarks and patents. The free software and particularly the copyleft concepts represent a frontal assault to the right of large corporations and unaccountable bodies like the WTO and WIPO to comodify ideas, information and even genes and living organisms.

What would result if the spirit of these concepts were adapted to other spheres? There have been several movements in this direction. As well as the GPL the FSF developed the Free Documentation license, because “free software ought to have free documentation”. This has helped spread the copyleft principle to written works of several genres. O’Reilly, a computer books publisher popular with the free software community publishes some of its works under the FDL and make them available for no charge on its web site. The excellent, voluminous Anarchist FAQ is licensed under the FDL (13). There is also an FDL licensed on line encyclopedia called Wikipedia. The name comes from the fact that the site runs on “Wiki” software. A Wiki is another libertarian concept. Quite simply it enables anyone to modify any page of the website, with all versions of each page retained. This means that vandals usually don’t bother. Skeptics may think that this would result in chaos, but in fact it has resulted in an encyclopedia of excellent quality, with over 168,000 articles and counting. Wikipedia is also generally more free in its ideological range, giving space for various points of view. It has some good anarchism related articles (however, many of the country articles are in serious need of (our) help, as the starting point for many of them was the CIA World “Fact”-book…). There is also a copyleft law project. Wendy Selzer who runs Openlaw says, “We deliberately used free software as a model. The gains are much the same as for software. Hundreds of people scrutinise the ‘code’ for bugs, and make suggestions how to fix it. And people will take underdeveloped parts of the argument, work on them, then patch them in.” Those involved with Openlaw strongly believe that the open strategy is a particularly effective way to help citizens rights and community groups (14).

Organising Methods of the Free Software community

GNU and copyleft have captured the world wide hacker community’s imagination, for both practical and political reasons. The copyleft agreement has became a symbol of idealistic and technical achievement as well as of personal and political integrity. Here anarchists can see a vindication of their ideas working out in the real world. But what about their organising methods? Most smaller free software projects are written by small groups of hackers working over the Internet. This is done in spare time or during a day job if they can get away with making it (officially or unofficially) a part of their job description. Many are students and academics. The small scale and voluntary nature of these projects make them effectively libertarian. The small size of the groups also makes them very affective, while still being able to draw on the power of the wider community via peer review, testing, patches and bug reports. A lesson for us in that perhaps? However, some of the larger free software projects are often meritocratic or even authoritarian in their organising structure. The organisation around the Linux kernel itself is perhaps best described as a ‘meritocratic dictatorship’. It is collaborative in the sense that hundreds of patches and bug reports are submitted by large groups of people every week, but ultimately it is ‘Linux’, and Linus has the final say on what goes in and what does not. There is also a small scale meritocratic hierarchy of people appointed by Linus; those considered the best people for the jobs at hand based on the skills and knowledge they have demonstrated in previous contributions. It would be instructive to see how a kernel created in a more democratic fashion would pan out.


There are currently some points of contact between the free software movement and the anarchist movement, as well as the wider anti-capitalist movement. One example is the ActiviX group, who arrange training days to help activists learn how to use GNU/Linux. There are also an emerging culture of ‘HackLabs’ in several European countries, open computer access in political spaces. One is currently being set up in Freedom Press book shop in London. Such work should continue and increase and the connections need to be drawn more. Anarchist theorists would do well to seriously consider the implications of the movement for anarchism as a social and industrial theory. For too long anarchist theorists have had to point to past examples of more libertarian ways of creating and maintaining complex systems. With the advent of GNU/Linux, we no longer need to rely on the past alone. Caution should be used in such analysis. As noted above, the free software movement is not totally anarchist, nor even fully libertarian. The facts and their implications should be studied with humility, seeking for learn more than we seek to teach. Also, we should not be overly concerned with interest shown in the “open source” movement by Troyskyist and other left groups. Small groups of free software programming groups jealously guard their independence by instinct.

Our favorite web sites use free software

It is also worth remembering that anarchists and activists in general use plenty of free software already (though we could stand to use it on the desktop more). If you are reading this article on you are using free software as you browse, even if you used a Windows or Apple machine to access the site. You are using GNU/Linux and other free software every time you use the following web sites (only a few among thousands): Indymedia UK and international, Infoshop,, AK Press UK. Many of the community based online software systems, forums and open content packages for web sites are free software, including the Indymedia code bases.

Engels’ “steering a ship” argument

In his campaign against anti-authoritarian ideas within the First International, Engels asked in a letter written in January 1872 “how do these people [the anarchists] propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort one deciding will, without a single management?” (15) Anarchists know full well that the way in which co-ordinated work takes place -authoritarian hierarchy or by freely co-operating groups electing recallable delegates where needed- makes all the difference. Now we have in GNU/Linux and the rest of free software movement many compelling examples of complex systems that have no leader, no central government or management (Linus may be the ‘dictator’ of the Linux kernel, but attempts no domination of other projects, even if that were feasible, which it is not).

The contradictory role of big business

Big businesses with a vested interest in GNU/Linux like Sun, HP and IBM often employ their programmers to adapt it to add a new feature which will make it more usable with one of their hardware products. The nature of the GPL, however, means that these modifications and additions must be shared with the community. Why would large corporations give stuff away for free? It should be remembered that these are generally companies who make their money from hardware, not software. Software is regarded as an expense. Being able to draw on the resources of the community is a big plus for them, and this is something that the Open Source movement has often argued to get them on board. This accounts for the corporate embrace of GNU/Linux and “open source” in recent years. Apple’s OS X uses as its core the BSD UNIX operating system. However, because BSD uses a more permissive non-copyleft free software license, the freeness of BSD did not ‘infect’ OS X and it remains non-free. The core of the OS (without the nice graphical Mac interface) is maintained separately as the free ‘Darwin’. This is a good example of why copyleft should be used to protect common property.

The Future

So anarchists should realise that although free software pushes the boundaries of freedom, ultimately, it works within capitalism and could never ‘infect’ the whole system. It does nothing about more general wealth-sharing, decision making in other industries (or even many in its own), or wider social relations. Although the concept of copyleft (expressed in the software world mainly by the GNU GPL) is revolutionary, we should not be fooled into thinking such concepts alone will lead to a free society.

At one point or another, the free software movement is going to meet its limits. Either limits in its own vision, limits imposed by the system of capital itself, or even limits aggressively imposed by threatened businesses. In fact, we can see the beginnings of this in current threats to free software: things like the Microsoft anti-GPL propaganda, SCO’s law suit against the Linux kernel and the advance of software patents in the US and threat of them in the EU. The limits are very real ones, especially when you consider that the Internet itself is, in the words of Chomsky “an elite institution”, with the majority of the world’s population not even having used a telephone. Free software would certainly be one part of a future free society. Although it can not fully thrive under capitalist conditions, like independent media, it should be encouraged to go as far as it can – pushing back the walls of our current prison.


1 Software whose source code can not be openly peer reviewed is more liable to compromise – either by third party attackers (so called “crackers”) or by the bosses of the institution that controls the software itself. A case in point is the software controlling the recently introduced touch screen voting booths in the US. PGP encryption is also an example of the importance of peer review in security software.

2 Or in the case of the Wombles last Xmas, not just to your mates, but to random people on Oxford street! GNU/Linux CDs were a part of the WOMBLES free shop in solidarity with the Argentinian social movements on Oxford street 22nd December 2002. See

3 John Lettice, “GPL Pacman will eat your business, warns Gates” –

4 The Free Software Foundation, “Categories of Free and Non-Free Software” –

5 The OSI group originated around about 1998, and started pushing the term “open source”. Ostensibly, this renaming of free software was to clarify the substantial differences between free software and other terms such as “freeware”. It is no secret that a closely related goal was to make it more appealing to corporate America. In this it has achieved no insignificant success.


7 The Linux Counter, “Estimating the number of Linux users” –

8 Richard Stallman, “The GNU Project” –

9 The past tense is used here because the GNU project’s kernel (called the HURD) is now finally operational, though not yet mature.

10 Netcraft, “Debian Linux distribution 10 years old today” –

11 Netcraft, “October 2003 Web Server Survey” –

12 The Free Software Foundation, “Some Confusing Words Worth Avoiding” –

13 “An Anarchist FAQ”; Introduction –

14 Graham Lawton, New Scientist. Cited in “SchNews of The World: Copyleft Hackers” –

15 The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 729, cited in “An Anarchist FAQ”, section H 1.11

Recommended web sites

The Linux Emporium
A good place to buy cheap (sometimes even gratis) GNU/Linux CDs if you do not have access to broadband.

Project to train activists to use GNU/Linux

Community/Linux Training Centre Project
Another group of GNU/Linux trainers

Freedom Pres Media HackLab
When the Freedom Press web site is up it will no doubt contain details of the new Media HackLab

Debian GNU/Linux
One of the best technically and certainly the most libertarian distribution of GNU/Linux

Red Hat Linux
A corporate, but user-friendly distribution of GNU/Linux

Provides good reviews on the different distributions

One central point for development of free software. Should give you an idea of the amount of stuff out there.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Covered by the GNU FDL

The OpenLaw project

Further reading

Glyn Moody, “Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution”, Penguin Press, 2001

The GNU Project and FSF website.
The philosophy section of the FSF site is vital reading on the reasons for free software.

Richard Stallman, UNESCO and Free Software
A brief introduction to Free Software and GNU/Linux.

Introduction to Linux
A good primer to GNU/Linux for complete newbies. No experience required!

Richard Stallman, “Why Software Should Not Have Owners”
Seminal essay on the importance of freedom in software use and creation.

Copyright © 2003 Asa Winstanley. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. See the GNU Free Documentation License for more details:

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