All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source Revolution

The Open-Source Movement Is a Powerful Force for Liberty on the Internet

Perseus Publishing • 2001 • 334 pages • $27.50

Reviewed by Andrew Morriss

During the Microsoft antitrust trial a great deal of ink was spilled in the press over Microsoft’s alleged monopolization of various markets and its practices in marketing both its browser (Internet Explorer) and its operating systems (such as Windows 2000). Although Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s findings against Microsoft have not survived on appeal, perhaps the most interesting thing Judge Jackson got wrong was that he completely missed the most significant development in the software business since the personal computer—the rise of open-source software.

Open-source software is software that is made freely available, including its source code (the programming instructions), to anyone who wants it, subject only to the requirement that the user make any enhancements he adds equally freely available. The open-source movement grew out of the work of Richard Stallings and his Free Software Foundation, and Linus Torvalds and the operating system he created, Linux.

GNU and Linux are the results of individual efforts, but both are also the product of an amazing spontaneous order. In these and other cases an initial piece of code was created by one person. That code was then made available to others, with the promise that updates would also be freely available. Thousands of programmers from all around the world became involved in solving problems and extending the programs. The originators then incorporated the suggestions into the programs and reissued new versions. Stallings, a brilliant programmer, created GNU, a freely available set of software for Unix systems. Even more important, Stallings created the GNU “copyleft” license that ensures that any software created using GNU would itself be freely available.

Open-source software has evolved into a potent threat to closed-source software, like Microsoft’s. As the book documents, companies—including Sun, Netscape, and IBM—have embraced the open-source model for a variety of programs. Strikingly, for example, Torvalds built a barely functional Unix-like operating system from scratch as a hobby project. Through releasing the code, he evolved it into a major operating system in use around the world today—and one that remains freely available to all. Other companies have built businesses out of providing support for open-source programs—most notably Red Hat Software, one of the major suppliers of Linux.

In Rebel Code, Glyn Moody (a contributor to Wired and similar publications) has written a compelling account of the rise of the open software movement. Moody interviewed many of the most important participants, including Torvalds, Stallings, and Eric Raymond. (Raymond’s essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” available in book form or on numerous websites, is the best introduction to open-source ideas.) Moody explains the technical stuff clearly and frequently enough for a nonhacker to follow. Although at times he drifts into excessive detail on participants’ personal lives and uncritical appraisal of individuals, he successfully presents all sides of the major disputes within the open-source movement.

This is an important book for libertarians to read for three reasons. First, intellectual property (IP) presents tough issues for libertarians. Some libertarians support treating IP like other forms of property; others do not. The success of open-source programs poses an important question for those who attempt to justify IP on utilitarian and economic grounds. If GNU/Linux can succeed, then the “we must protect IP or no one will produce it” argument is significantly weakened.

Second, the programmers involved in open-source projects are a group to which we need to present our ideas. Many of the ideas behind the open-source movement are similar to ideas critical to libertarian thought—spontaneous order and freedom. As the open-source movement grows, persuading its adherents like Eric Raymond to pay attention to the works of F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and others may bring us important allies.

Finally, there is a struggle over the future of the Internet happening now. The open-source movement is a powerful force for liberty on the Internet—Eric Raymond’s website has a link to decryption code that the motion picture industry is attempting to stifle through lawsuits. Open-source programmers occupy positions of authority at many corporations and institutions and are in a position to resist attempts by governments to seize control of the basic functions of the Internet to allow censorship and worse. We need to understand this movement so that we can call for help when we perceive a threat to liberty.

This book (together with Raymond’s essay and Neal Stephenson’s fine novel Snow Crash) provides an excellent vehicle for us to educate ourselves.

Contributing editor Andrew Morriss is Galen J. Roush Professor of Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and a senior associate at PERC—the Center for Free Market Environmentalism.