Names and identity

Interestingly, the Open Source community which swears by openness and sharing does hold on to one thing, its names. And they do so to such an extent that this community, which has turned ownership and copyright practices upside-down, sees trademarks - which equals legal protection of a name - as a relatively positive thing. Linux, for instance is a trademark registered to Linus Torvalds, which means you can't call just any old operating system or some other software Linux. Linus allows only operating systems built on the Linux kernel released by him, and later modifications thereof, to be called Linux.

Respect for the name of a person or project is also one of the defence mechanisms of openness. The term Open Source itself is protected, and you can only use the term "OSI certified Open Source' about programs that meet certain criteria of openness.

In the Open Source community, everybody is openly what they are - themselves. In releasing new versions of Linux, Linus Torvalds uses his own name. You can trust that a program called Linux is actually a program by Linus, and not something else. The name Linux guarantees the quality. The person who has worked to create a certain product personally guarantees its quality. And at the same time the work gives him or her credit. The programmer usually becomes famous as a result of their program. Even though people are happy to share the fruits of their labour, the kudos is not shared. And how could you, that wouldn't even be honest. Honour where honour is due: the person who did the job should get the credit. In a community, where everything is open and shared, this is something to hold on to. You've got to be able to trust some things.

But the Open Source community's relationship with names is a lot stronger than mere questions of trademarks or branding. Some words are closely connected to the identity of the community, and these people are willing to fight for them, even when the rest of the world may not quite understand what the fuss is about.

One of these identity-charged words is hacker. Most readers of this book will probably understand hacker as synonymous with computer criminal. To them, a hacker is a person who breaks into somebody else's computer system through the Internet, reads confidential files and perhaps also wreaks havoc in the invaded computer system. Even IT journalists erroneously use the word in this sense.

In the Open Source community, however, the word hacker has a very different meaning. In the early days of computers, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, programmers at MIT and other American universities called themselves hackers. As the Unix OS (operating system) evolved, the word spread to the community surrounding it. Unix programmers were known as hackers or Unix hackers and they were still mostly university people. The word had no criminal connotation, rather it purveyed the notion of a very talented programmer, a guru and member of the Unix community, of someone who was passionate about programming and technology.

The ideology of the early hacker culture was very similar to the present-day Open Source culture. Not that there was such a concept as Open Source; it was more that all computer programs were open. For a culture that had been born in university circles, this was perfectly natural. The transition to the closed software culture we came to accept as normal didn't come about until the eighties, and it also caused the hacker culture to get a bit side-tracked. The mean-spiritedness that led to the manufacture and sales of closed software was in no way part of hacker culture.

At some point the press started reporting on information break-ins and for some reason began to call the perpetrators hackers. To begin with, it may not have been such a bad name to use because, unlike now, in those days anyone able to break into a computer system had to possess a lot of skill and talent, so in that sense they may well have been a genuine hacker. But from then on, the word hacker came to denote a computer criminal.

I've often wondered why the members of the Open Source community are so stubborn about still calling themselves hackers? The original meaning of the word has been so completely overshadowed by the new definition that it seems downright odd for any law-abiding citizen to still want to be referred to by that name. Even people working in the computer business are often confused, because the original meaning of the word hacker is not well-known outside genuine hacker circles. One ill-informed journalist even managed to write a long article about the notorious computer criminals who had created a new operating system called Linux! Apparently, nobody had ever told him that the meaning of the word hacker had become corrupted. Reading his article, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

But I do understand the hackers. How could anyone give up the name that defines their identity? The name that carries such a long and honourable history, harking back to the first computers and artificial intelligence laboratories.1 The name that epitomizes the ideological foundations of the whole community, the foundations that Richard Stallman says so much about and that the philosopher Himanen so loftily proclaims in his book The Hacker Ethic. Despite all the confusion, hackers are proud to be hackers. And I have to admit I understand that with all my heart. It's not as if we Finns would change the name of our country just because the word finni or finne means a zit in a number of other languages!2

There is another story to do with words which engages hackers as strongly as does the word hacker. But this time it's about words that don't unite hackers but rather cause strife among them.

When commercial closed software took over more and more from the hacker culture within universities, one man decided to make it his life's work to fight the mean-spiritedness of the corporate approach. In 1984 Richard Stallman announced that he had founded the GNU project. The aim of the project was to produce free software - or rather, Free Software - and one day release a completely free operating system.3 Richard Stallman was not your average propeller-head. He really was 100 per cent committed to his project. He resigned from his job as a university researcher to ensure that the university could have no claim of ownership on the programs he made, which they could do if he had developed them while employed by them. Stallman's boss at MIT was himself something of a visionary. When he realized why Stallman was resigning, he ordered that Stallman's former office and other university services - particularly the computers - would remain available for him to use. Without such insight the project would probably not have amounted to much. In dire straits financially, Stallman even lived for a while at his MIT office.

And so began the history of Free Software. The project was obviously a success, because as early as 1991, when Linus Torvalds started working on his own project, nearly all the tool programs were ready and even the missing Hurd kernel was almost complete. When Linux came along at the right time to fill this gap, Stallman's dream was finally coming true.

Most of the nineties was spent on an Internet high, but people didn't know much about any free operating system. However, under the surface spread of the Internet also fomented the development and distribution of Free Software, because through the Internet more and more hackers could get involved in the worldwide effort of jointly barn-raising Open Source. And, although there was not much being written about Linux in the press at the time, in reality most of the Internet servers in Finland, for instance, were already running on Linux. By the end of the decade, both the press and the corporate world were seriously interested both in Linux and the open development models that had given rise to it.

At this point, a group of leading hackers got together to discuss the situation (not computer criminals, that is, but the leaders of the Free Software community). They realized that their time had finally come. The hacker culture that had almost passed into history was back and it was challenging commercial software companies. The corporate world was genuinely interested in Free Software. But how could they make the most of the situation? How could they get companies to invest in Linux systems? How could they get the software companies to switch to an open development model? And how should they prepare for the inevitable counter assault from Microsoft?
What the hacker fathers decided was that Free Software needed a new brand, a brand which would take a lot of PR work to establish. That's how in early 1998 the term, or brand, Open Source was coined.

How did they come to settle on the name Open Source? Richard Stallman's term, Free Software, had been taking some heat for being ambiguous. The word free, which used to refer to freedom, could be taken to mean free of charge. Talking about programs for free didn't sound like a good idea, considering these guys wanted to get the software companies involved. And merely having to discuss the semantics of a word is confusing in itself, as it is bound to lead discussion away from the thing that really needed to be talked about. A brand should be short and succinct, not confusing.

Of course, Richard Stallman had to sort out the same semantic problem a lot earlier, and he'd come up with the catchy mnemonic, free as in speech, not free as in beer. Free beer is great, but free speech is rather more important. And this was the freedom Stallman liked to speak about - and that was part of the problem. People might have been able to live with the ambiguity of the word free, but when it relates to computer programs and somebody starts spouting about freedom of speech, it starts to eat away at their credibility. And that wasn't all. Stallman was also happy to expound his opinion that the closed software model was actually unethical!

All this talk was the real reason the term Open Source was coined. The other hacker elders had decided to distance themselves from the ideological rhetoric of the otherwise honourable GNU project. That didn't really sit well in interviews with newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. A new identity was needed, one that would work both on Wall Street and in software companies. Tangle-haired Richard Stallman was out, and instead they offered the smiling poster boy Linus Torvalds.

But to create this new identity, they needed a new name. Open Source stated clearly what it was all about: the source code was open and available. Openness lead to quality, as Eric Raymond had explained in his essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar'. Open Source equals quality. If you want the best software, give up Windows and use Linux! If you want the cheapest alternative, use Linux! We know nothing of ethics, but we do know what works best when it comes to programming computers: Open Source!

The Open Source brand was a phenomenal success. Linus Torvalds was smiling and smiling and smiling on magazine cover after magazine cover. On its first day of trading, the Linux company Red Hat's stock quadrupled. Little by little, companies started using Linux more and more. Netscape become the first closed software to open up its code, becoming the Open-Source-based project called Mozilla. Others have followed, including an OpenOffice word processing program previously known as StarOffice, which is the one I used to write this book. But first and foremost, the press and the public got to know of the concept of Open Source.

But not everybody was happy. Richard Stallman didn't approve of the use of the term Open Source. He felt it was important to understand the ideology behind Free Software, not just settle for "using what works best'. And although the Open Source camp made its biggest advances outside the hacker community, many within it stayed true to Stallman and the original ideology of Free Software.
The bitterest fights between the supporters of Free Software and those who espouse the term Open Source are happily in the past, but you can still tell which party they belong to by listening for which term they use when speaking of Linux. It's not just any choice of words. It's all about identity and the ideology behind it. And the hackers hold on to those.

  • 1That's another funny name. Even though computers have developed amazingly since those days, true artificial intelligence has yet to be invented. To us today, computers of the sixties were nothing but electricity-hogging heat resistors whose calculating power couldn't compete with that of the simplest pocket calculator. Even so, the term artificial intelligence was bandied about at the time.
  • 2Next time you talk about computer criminals, it would please the hackers if you used the term they use: crackers. I, at least, would like to reserve the word hacker for those people of high principles about whom this book is written.
  • 3Which, ten years down the line, Linux became. To a large extent, it's the GNU project we have to thank for that.
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