Two Gnus: The Gnu Project and the Gnu GPL

For the next Decoding Digital Humanities meeting, I’d like to propose reading two fundamental documents of the free software movement, Richard Stallman’s Gnu Project and the Gnu GPL (General Public License). These texts build on the last meeting’s reading of Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar, but are less about the process of coding, and more on the programmer in the world. The first is a brief history of sharing code and a plan for a completely free operating system, the second the most popular free software license, designed to protect both sharing and code.

They’re relevant to the Digital Humanities, and what we’ve been discussing, in numerous ways:

  • They show the human culture around the code, both implicitly (styles of writing, ways of thinking about a problem) and explicitly (Stallman’s description of sharing at MIT). The humanity around the digital, one can say.
  • We face very similar problems with sharing other things, like data and findings. That sharing is fundamental to learning; too much material is being locked up under dubious copyright claims and illiterate t&cs, never mind paywalls.
  • Talking of paywalls, both texts have a subtle attitude to commerce, seemingly unconcerned with money but overtly opposed to monopolisation.

And of course, we use the fruits of these works.

More than that, I think these texts can be read in very different ways: beyond being a license, the GPL can be seen as a ‘hack’, repurposing copyright into copyleft; a history of debate and struggle is found across its three revisions (and its offspring for web-deployed software, the Affero GPL); the Gnu Project is history, philosophy, polemic and an embodiment of sheer will. Reading differently is what the (digital) humanities does.

Further discussion is for the pub; this is just to suggest some suitable – and interesting! – reading around which to talk.

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2 Responses to Two Gnus: The Gnu Project and the Gnu GPL

  1. Hi, thanks for your suggestion for the next DDH event in London. I think we will again do the same here in Melbourne. It looks like good material and perhaps we could exchange comments; although our group is a lot smaller.

    Take care,


  2. Pingback: Anterotesis » Visualizing the Gnu GPL

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