Saturday, February 26, 2000
J. Harmon Grahn, Editor
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[15 March 2000: At the end of this essay is mentioned the anticipation that it may be subject to minor revision as the Free Library concept develops. Such turns out to be the case. At the request of Richard Stallman I am hereby changing the name from the Free Universal Encyclopedic Library (FUEL) to the Free Digital Library (FDL). The reason is that Richard wishes to develop the Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource along the lines of a high-standard and clearly defined encyclopedia whose contributors agree to adhere in particular to the exclusionary rule outlined in his original article, and is concerned that our two approaches to Free Information may become confused if their names are quite similar. I agree; so please substitute in your mind, as you read what follows, the term, Free Digital Library (FDL), every time you encounter it's now obsolete predecessor, Free Universal Encyclopedic Library (FUEL). I have effected these substitutions [in brackets] in the following text, and substituted appropriate graphics for the originals which first appeared with this essay, and will refer in all future discussion of the concept to the Free Digital Library (FDL). The original essay dated 2/26/00 here commences. H.]
With a little further fermentation, Richard Stallman's concept of a "Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource" emerges in my mind as something rather broader in scope, but aligned in purpose and intent with his, and with the idea of freedom in general. The [Free Digital Library (FDL)] expands Richard's original concept to its fullest potential extent, i.e. to a Universal Library subject to no limitation whatsoever, with the exception of a single stipulation: everything in it is free, as defined by the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation. That is all.
Free in this context does not refer to cost, but to liberty. Anyone may add any content to the [FDL] at any time, simply by designating such content part of the [Free Digital Library] under the terms of the GNU GPL, and posting it anywhere on the Internet. Conversely, a free creative work under the GPL may be copied, shared, modified, incorporated into derivatave works, redistributed, with or without cost, in all cases with clear author attribution, and with the stipulation that all such copies and derivative works are similarly covered by the GPL. The GPL has withstood the test of time, and although originally intended for Free Software, is in practice applicable to creative work of any description.
The [FDL] is not under centralized control or editorial oversight whatsoever, and is not in direct opposition to any effort to control the flow of information by any means. It is simply an exercise of the freedom of its contributors to voluntarily share the information that is theirs to share, in such a way that it can never again be suppressed or controlled. It is a way of "letting the cat out of the bag," once and for all; so that, as long as there is a network around the Planet for storage, retrieval and transmission of digital information, the content of the [Free Digital Library] will not share the fate of so many libraries in the past that have been deliberately destroyed by those who would take it upon themselves to suppress other peoples' information.
Contributors may at their discretion visually identify [FDL] content by means of one or the other or both of the associated graphics [fdl1.jpg (34 kB)], [fdl2.jpg (6 kB)], which are also hereby designated free under the terms of the GPL. Contributors may link their contributions together in any way they deem appropriate, including linking to information not included within the corpus of the FUEL [FDL]; but are encouraged to exercise discretion and restraint in linking to conventionally copyrighted proprietary information not consistent with the GPL. Richard Stallman laid appropriate stress upon this point in his original article.
The overarching rule of the [FDL] is simply that there are no formal rules (other than the consensus rules of etiquette), and the [FDL] will in consequence become whatever its contributors make of it. It could become a collection of trash, a repository for valueless information that people don't care enough about to more than "throw it away." Or it could in time become the most profound and enduring library collection ever assembled on the Planet. The evolution of the GNU Project and the Free Software / Open Source movement since 1983 gives me confidence and hope that the latter alternative is more nearly descriptive of the destiny of the [Free Digital Library].
The key to the ultimate success of the [FDL] is as rapid as possible an influx of quality content, of as wide a variety as possible. Until now, nobody has even heard of the FUEL [FDL]; it has no content, no prestige, but like Tim Berners-Lee's freshly-hatched WWW at CERN in 1991, limitless potential. It's the chicken / egg problem all over again. Who on Earth would want to contribute their creativity to such a venture, and why would they want to reserve for it their very best effort? I would like to take some space here to address these issues.
Imagine if you will, just for the sake of a little fantasy, that there had existed on the Earth during the third and subsequent centuries BCE something resembling the Internet. And imagine further that the largest collection of information in those distant days, instead of being localized in the fabled Library at Alexandria, had resided in digital form, scattered about the Planet in a network of interlinked information resembling the [Free Digital Library] in a more mature evolution. In the time of Ptolemy (II) Philadelphus, who died in the year 247 BCE, the Alexandrian Library was said to contain close to 500,000 volumes of ancient papyri and linen scrolls, and the adjoining Temple of Serapes contained an additional 43,000 volumes. During Julius Caesar's war with Pompey (47 BCE) Caesar withstood a siege in Alexandria, during which some 40,000 volumes were destroyed. More recently, in 272, the Library was deliberately burned at the behest of Roman emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelian; then again in 391 by Theodosius I; and finally, decisively, in 640 by the Muslim conquerors of North Africa at the command of caliph Omar I; who is said to have remarked, "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed." [Quoted by Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Heritage Press, New York, 1946, p. 1821.] Gibbon goes on to describe how the Baths of Alexandria were heated for months, the Library supplying the fuel to heat them.
One cannot help wondering how subsequent history might have played out had the priceless ancient contents of the Alexandrian Library existed instead as a different kind of FUEL [FDL], distributed in such form that it could never have been put to the torch. For the matter of that, how might contemporary history have been altered if the [Free Digital Library] had been available, say, to Nikola Tesla, and he had elected to make a substantial fraction of his designs, notes and plans freely available to Humanity, as was quite possibly his intention? Tesla died, some say "mysteriously," in New York in 1943, and within hours federal agents had swept up the vast bulk of his papers, notes and effects, only a small fraction of which ever again saw the light of day. Had such a thing existed at the time, what if he had included them in the [FDL]? What if anyone, anywhere, today had free access to the notes of Nikola Tesla? Who knows what contemporary life might be like under such circumstances? And how many other priceless inventions have vanished from sight, because some powerful interest found it to their advantage to buy up the patent, not to develop it, but to suppress it, to prevent it from competing with their obsolete technology?
Clearly, information of any kind that exists in one place only, and is not freely available to any and all who may have an interest in it, is vulnerable to destruction and/or suppression; and the impulse that drives some to destroy information and obstruct its free exchange among Human minds is with us today no less than it was hundreds and thousands of years ago. Only today it isn't generally done with the torch, but with cleaver legal mechanisms which have the effect of dividing us against ourselves and one another.
The thought has long been nurtured in our culture that if "somebody else" turns to profitable use "my idea," "my 'intellectual property'," "I" have somehow been robbed of something. And so we have "copyright laws" and "patent laws" which are supposed to "protect 'my' interests" against "others" who would otherwise profit at "my expense." This idea taken to its logical apogee would apply to every word spoken in public or private conversation: nobody could quote anyone without permission, and potentially, without paying a royalty for the use of shim's "intellectual property." Now give this a little thought: does that notion really make a whole lot of sense to you?
If it does, fine; I won't argue with you. Go ahead and protect your "intellectual property" by whatever means seems to you appropriate. That is an option, and I have nothing further to say against it. The objective of the [FDL] is not to oppose the partisans of intellectual property, copyrights, patents, trade secrets, etc., but to open a way for those who can appreciate the advantages of freely shared information. I have no inclination to "convert the heathen," so to speak, and every inclination to "preach to the choir;" to encourage those who already feel an impulse which whispers that greater advantages are to be had by freely sharing our creative genius with one another than are offered by the practice of jealously guarding and defending our "intellectual property." Both sides of the argument offer options; my bias is decisively in favor of shared information, and I am hoping to connect with many who are similarly biased.
The rewards of freely shared information are more substantial than mere empty imaginings or idealistic wishful thinking. The history of the Free Software movement provides a rich tapestry of examples in actual practice, in which the concept has been played out with extraordinarily positive results "in the real world." On Tue, 27-Sep-83 12:35:59 EST Richard Stallman announced "a new UNIX implementation" called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), in which he wrote,
It took him a bit longer than at first anticipated to get the project under way, but by 1990 the GNU system was virtually complete, with the critical exception of the kernel. The GNU kernel, still under development, was eventually designated the GNU Hurd; but it was not, and is not, yet ready for prime time. Fortunately Linus Torvalds had developed in 1991 a Free UNIX kernel clone named Linux; and a marriage between GNU and Linux produced the Free and complete operating system known today as GNU/Linux. Richard details the history of these and other developments in an informative essay titled "The GNU Project," which he rounds out with a discussion of future challenges to the Free Software community.
Some of these challenges, such as aggressive, possibly hostile competition from established industry giants, reflect the phenomenal success and formidable achievements of the Free Software development community. A case in point are "The Halloween Documents," a series of internal memos within Microsoft, confirmed by MS to be genuine, addressing the perceived threat to MS hegemony of Free Software (also called Open Source Software). The seed Richard Stallman planted in 1983, nurtured and husbanded by thousands of hackers [*] scattered around the world, including but not limited to Linus Torvalds, is beginning now to bear a lavish harvest of such high quality and wide scope that the biggest players following the proprietary business model are prompted to sit up and take notice. A magazine article I encountered by accident recently had this to say:
A chronology of Open Source developments between January 1998 and July 1999 may be found here, and gives some indication of the rapidly mounting tempo of events in the Free Software community in recent months. The dynamic of freely shared source code that has been in operation within the Free Software community has evidently produced results far beyond the expectations of those whose strategies are founded upon "old paradigm" premises.
For one thing, Free Software hackers are decidedly not "in it only for the money." (There is a lesson here, I feel, with potential for far wider applicability.) Free Software / Open Source hackers have learned to tap the power inherent to raw Human creativity, which yields rewards entirely transcendent of the purely remunerative rewards of "earning one's pay." I hope I needn't dwell more than a moment here upon the clarification that there is nothing "wrong" with fair compensation; but if that is the sum total of one's motivation for action... from where does the joi de vivre enter into one's life?
Hackers don't seem to have a problem with that question; they are motivated (if I may hazard a blanket speculation that may not be universally applicable) by the sheer joy of pouring one's best work into building something of incalculable value to freedom-loving people anywhere and everywhere: superior software "with no strings attached." I'm just projecting my own feelings here, but I imagine it must be a source of profound satisfaction to every hacker with any part in it to see the soaring success of the GNU/Linux Operating System and the expanding library of associated high quality applications that run on Linux. They have built a distributed development environment, with no organizational structure whatsoever, that is able literally to run rings around its highly organized proprietary counterparts in the conventional commercial software milieu. This is not "pie in the sky idealism," but an accomplished "nuts & bolts" reality. I can only stand aside, doff my hat respectfully and stammer a heartfelt "Well done!" and "Carry on, by all means!"
The hackers do all right for themselves too. Their code is open and eloquent demonstration of their innovative skill and technical competence. The Public may be able to acquire Free / Open Source Software without cost; but guess who the Public turns to when they need assistance, support, modification or the development of new software? And within the hacker community resides such a vast volume of Open Source code that few hackers have to start entirely from scratch when confronted by any programming challenge. Solutions come swiftly in the distributed hacker environment, in part because very little effort is expended "reinventing the wheel." The "system" works, primarily because there is no "system" to it. Think about that for awhile.
Further description and analysis of the Open Source / Free Software development process may be found in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and its sequels, by Eric Raymond, and I recommend it most highly. At this point, however, I would like to return to the theme of the [Free Digital Library] with the suggestion that the joy and satisfaction that the hackers have found can be anybody's; for creativity is a bottomless fount that may spring forth spontaneously from any Human heart / mind. You don't have to be a hacker to add to the [FDL]. If you are able to leave a trace of mist on a cold mirror placed near your nose you have at least the potential to make a valuable contribution to the [Free Digital Library]; for you bear within you a boundless creative genius. What is your passion? Turn it loose! Share the very best within you, freely with your fellow Humans. Not something calculated, necessarily, to please the taste or preference of "somebody else;" nor calculated necessarily to "make a sale;" but that within you which you recognize as your very best - no matter what anyone else may think. It may be music, art, literature, poetry, science, invention, ...anything at all that may be stored, retrieved and transmitted in digital form.
For you see, the [Free Digital Library] has no Editor but you; no Librarian but you; no administrative oversight, no "hoops" to jump through, nobody to answer to but you. Go for it. Strut your stuff. Express what you really have wanted to express, or teach, or create, all your life, in the creative medium of your choice, but may never have had the opportunity - the freedom - to do so. I'll bet it'll be good; and I'll bet a lot of other People will be glad you shared your genius, and will be thereby encouraged to share theirs. And I'll bet the [FDL] will gather strength, and quality, and depth, and breadth, and evolve into the most incredible and useful learning resource ever seen on this Planet; and one that some arrogant "authority" backed by an army, or a police unit, or a Holy Inquisition, may never again put to the torch because shim finds it "pernicious." How would you like to have a part in that?
To close the circle on this discussion, perhaps it would be good to lay out in detail just how one might go about the steps of making a contribution explicitly to the [Free Digital Library]. If you happen to be an artist, or a writer, or a musician, for examples, and you look over the GPL, you may be somewhat nonplused by its obvious orientation to the programming art in particular; because of course it was written by a hacker for hackers - but not exclusively for hackers. Note that the language of the opening article of "TERMS AND CONDITIONS FOR COPYING, DISTRIBUTION AND MODIFICATION" reads in part:
So it should be understood that for the word "Program" throughout the GPL may be substituted a more appropriate alternative, in the event your "work" does not happen to be software. It may seem a bit clunky for an artist, or a musician, or an inventor, to use a software license to protect a non-software created work; but it'll do the job, if the job you want done is to insure that your work remains freely available to anyone for any use, here or hereafter.
The next step of the process is described in the "How to Apply These Terms to Your New Programs" section of the GPL; which again, is slanted toward hackers, but may be easily adapted to any "work." One adaptation of the text recommended in the GPL might appear as follows:
Then as mentioned in the GPL instructions, include your appropriate contact information; and take what additional measures mentioned are appropriate to you and your work. Also, as mentioned above, you may if you wish use the graphics associated with this essay to identify your work with the [FDL].
And lastly, post your [FDL] contribution to the Internet in the form which seems to you most appropriate. There is no administration to notify, no editorial board to sanction or spike your work, no copy desk to proof or rewrite your copy; it's just "out there," as it is, what it is. Notify your friends and associates. Shout it from the housetop! Write me about it, I'm certainly interested.
Mainly, if this idea resonates with you, let's get the ball rolling, any and every way we can. The [Free Digital Library] won't amount to much until it starts attracting quality content, and people start using it and linking it together. This is the seed of what may grow into a mighty tree; and not only a tree, but a forest that could blanket the Earth with the powerful stimulus of boundless Human creativity, invention and resourcefulness. If you would like to see that happen, bring this essay to the attention of the creative, inventive people within your sphere who may share your zeal for an information resource without limits. If you have a creative work in hand you would like to contribute to the [Free Digital Library], but would like some editorial assistance in rendering it into HTML format, well, you might employ me, or somebody else, to put it in shape for you. If you have some suggestions to make, ways to improve and refine the concept, let me know what they are. We have a seed here; let's nurture it, husband it, nourish it, and watch it grow!
This document may be subject to minor revision as the [FDL] concept grows and matures. Watch this space!
* "The use of 'hacker'," writes Richard Stallman, "to mean 'security breaker' is a confusion on the part of the mass media. We hackers refuse to recognize that meaning, and continue using the word to mean, 'Someone who loves to program and enjoys being clever about it.'" ["The GNU Project"]
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