As you may have noticed, there's a bit of a virtual shindig going on in celebration of GNU's 25th birthday (including Stephen Fry's wonderfully British salute, which really, er, takes the cake....).
Most of these encomiums have dutifully noted how all the free and open source software we take for granted today – GNU/Linux, Firefox, OpenOffice.org and the rest – would simply not exist had Richard Stallman not drawn his line in the digital sand. But I think all of these paeans rather miss the point, which is that GNU represents the start of not just free software, but also many, many other movements, all based around the idea of sharing and collaboration.
In founding his GNU project, Stallman was trying to recreate the lost paradise of MIT as he had experienced it as a young hacker, where everybody had shared their code. He was hoping to achieve this, by transposing an even older tradition of collaboration - that of science – to the world of computers. In the process he wanted to give back coding freedoms that had been lost as commerce had reared its head in academia.
One of Stallman's many insights was that science flourished because it was based on sharing discoveries so that others could build on them, without needing to re-invent the wheel.
The closing of software meant that it was impossible to do this, since the last thing that corporate owners of that code wanted to do was to make it freely available. Stallman's idea was to create a movement that would contribute code to the computing community just as scientists contribute knowledge.
One of the first and most obvious applications of this approach outside software was to content, specifically Wikipedia. It is no accident that Wikipedia uses the GNU Free Documentation Licence, since there was a conscious borrowing of many of free software's ideas to the collaborative creation of freely-available content:
The license Wikipedia uses grants free access to our content in the same sense that free software is licensed freely. This principle is known as copyleft. Wikipedia content can be copied, modified, and redistributed so long as the new version grants the same freedoms to others and acknowledges the authors of the Wikipedia article used (a direct link back to the article is generally thought to satisfy the attribution requirement). Wikipedia articles therefore will remain free under the GFDL and can be used by anybody subject to certain restrictions, most of which aim to ensure that freedom.
Ironically, science itself has moved away from these ideas of sharing in one particular regard. Until recently, the vast majority of scientific (and academic) papers were published in for-profit journals. To read the latest research – and hence build on it – scientists (or generally their institutions) had to take out often costly subscriptions.
In fact, the situation was even worse. Scientists would typically write a paper for free, submit it to a journal where other scientists would review it (for free) before the paper was eventually published, but only to those who paid. Even the copyright of the paper would belong to the publishing house. Most ridiculously of all, perhaps, was the fact that the bulk of this research was paid for the public, through tax-funded grants, and yet any member of the public who wished to see that work had to pay again – and often extraordinarily high sums.
This unfair and cumbrous system was hardly conducive to rapid exchange of ideas, and some began to wonder whether there weren't better ways – something along the lines of the free software approach, for example. One of those wondering was Paul Ginsparg.
At the beginning of the 1990s, he was looking for a solution to the problem of putting high-energy physics preprints (early versions of papers) online. As a result, he set up what became the arXiv.org preprint repository on 16 August, 1991 – nine days before Linus made his famous “I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones” posting.