Copyleft - History


An early example of copyleft was the Tiny BASIC project started in the newsletter of the People's Computer Company in 1975. Dennis Allison wrote a specification for a simple version of the BASIC programming language. This design did not support text strings and only used integer arithmetic. The goal was for the program to fit in 2 to 3 kilobytes of memory.

The Tiny BASIC contents of the newsletter soon became Dr. Dobb's Journal of Tiny BASIC with a subtitle of "Calisthenics & Orthodontia, Running Light Without Overbyte." Hobbyists began writing BASIC language interpreters for their microprocessor-based home computers and sending the source code to Dr. Dobb's Journal and other magazines to be published. By the middle of 1976, Tiny BASIC interpreters were available for the Intel 8080, the Motorola 6800 and MOS Technology 6502 processors. This was a free software project before the internet allowed easy transfer of files. Computer hobbyists would exchange paper tapes, cassettes or even retype the files from the printed listings.

Jim Warren, editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal, wrote in the July 1976 ACM Programming Language newsletter about the motivations and methods of this successful project. He started with this: "There is a viable alternative to the problems raised by Bill Gates in his irate letter to computer hobbyists concerning 'ripping off' software. When software is free, or so inexpensive that it's easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won't be 'stolen'." The method was to have an experienced professional do the overall design and then outline an implementation strategy. Knowledgeable amateurs would implement the design for a variety of computer systems. Warren predicted this strategy would be continued and expanded.

The May 1976 issue of Dr. Dobbs Journal had Li-Chen Wang's Palo Alto Tiny BASIC for the Intel 8080 microprocessor. The listing began with the usual title, author's name and date but it also had "@COPYLEFT ALL WRONGS RESERVED". A fellow Homebrew Computer Club member, Roger Rauskolb, modified and improved Li-Chen Wang's program and this was published in the December 1976 issue of Interface Age magazine. Roger added his name and preserved the COPYLEFT Notice.

A later instance of copyleft arose when Richard Stallman was working on a Lisp interpreter. Symbolics asked to use the Lisp interpreter, and Stallman agreed to supply them with a public domain version of his work. Symbolics extended and improved the Lisp interpreter, but when Stallman wanted access to the improvements that Symbolics had made to his interpreter, Symbolics refused. Stallman then, in 1984, proceeded to work towards eradicating this emerging behavior and culture of proprietary software, which he named software hoarding. This wasn't the first time Stallman had dealt with proprietary software but he deemed this interaction as a 'turning point.' He justified software sharing protesting that when sharing, the software online can be copied without the loss of the original piece of work. Everyone's a winner. The software can be used multiple times without ever being damaged or wearing out.

As Stallman deemed it impractical in the short term to eliminate current copyright law and the wrongs he perceived it perpetuated, he decided to work within the framework of existing law; In 1988, he created his own copyright license, the Emacs General Public License, the first copyleft license. This later evolved into the GNU General Public License, which is now one of the most popular Free Software licenses. For the first time a copyright holder had taken steps to ensure that the maximal number of rights be perpetually transferred to a program's users, no matter what subsequent revisions anyone made to the original program. This original GPL did not grant rights to the public at large, only those who had already received the program; but it was the best that could be done under existing law.

The new license was not at this time given the copyleft label. Richard Stallman stated that the use of "Copyleft" comes from Don Hopkins, who mailed him a letter in 1984 or 1985 on which was written: "Copyleft—all rights reversed." The term "kopyleft" with the notation "All Rites Reversed" was also in use in the early 1970s within the Principia Discordia, which may have inspired Hopkins or influenced other usage. And in the arts Ray Johnson had earlier coined the term independently as it pertained to his making of and distribution of his mixed media imagery in his mail art and ephemeral gifts, for which he encouraged the making of derivative works. (While the phrase itself appears briefly as (or on) one of his pieces in the 2002 documentary How to Draw a Bunny, Johnson himself is not referenced in the 2001 documentary Revolution OS.)

Some have suggested that copyleft became a divisive issue in the ideological strife between the Open Source Initiative and the free software movement. However, there is evidence that copyleft is both accepted and proposed by both parties:

  • Both the OSI and the FSF have copyleft and non-copyleft licenses in their respective lists of accepted licenses.
  • The OSI's original Legal Counsel Lawrence Rosen has written a copyleft license, the Open Software License.
  • The OSI's licensing how-to recognises the GPL as a "best practice" license.
  • Some of the software programs of the GNU Project are published under non-copyleft licenses.
  • Stallman himself has endorsed the use of non-copyleft licenses in certain circumstances, most recently in the case of the Ogg Vorbis license change.

Read more about this topic:  Copyleft

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