The best,and perhaps most surprising,part of the whole bloom of e-
mail came when a fellow I had never met,D.Jason Penney,converted
the program from the fading Pascal into the more popular C.He did
this on his own and sent the new,converted software back to me.When
I asked him whether I could distribute his version,he said that it was
my program.He was just helping out.
I never thought much more about that project until I started to write
this book.While two or three people a month would write asking for
copies of the software,it never turned into more than a bit of research
into the foundations of secret codes and a bit of a mathematical parlor
trick.It was more an academic exercise than a prototype of something
that could rival Microsoft and make me rich.
In the past,I thought the project never developed into more than a
cute toy because there was no market for it.The product wasn’t readily
useful for businesses,and no one starts a company without the hope
that millions of folks desperately need a product.Projects needed pro-
grammers and programmers cost money.I just assumed that other free
software projects would fall into the same chasm of lack of funding.
Now,after investigating the free software world,I am convinced that
my project was a small success.Penney’s contribution was not just a
strange aberration but a relatively common event on the Internet.
People are quite willing to take a piece of software that interests them,
modify it to suit their needs,and then contribute it back to the world.
Sure,most people only have a few hours a week to work on such pro-
jects,but they add up.Penney’s work made my software easier to use for
many C programmers,thus spreading it further.
In fact,I may have been subconsciously belittling the project.It took
only three or four days of my time and a bit more of Penney’s,but it was
a complete version of a powerful encryption system that worked well.
Yes,there was no money flowing,but that may have made it more of a
success.Penney probably wouldn’t have given me his C version if he
knew I was going to sell it.He probably would have demanded a share.
Lawyers would have gotten involved.The whole project would have
been gummed up with contracts,release dates,distribution licenses,and
other hassles that just weren’t worth it for a neat way to hide messages.
Sure,money is good,but money also brings hassles.
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 32
In the 1980s and 1990s,programmers in universities still shared heavily
with the world.The notion of sharing source code with the world owes
a great deal to the academic tradition of publishing results so others can
read them, , think about them, , critique them, , and ultimately extend
them. Many of the government granting agencies like the National
Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency fostered this sharing by explicitly requiring that people with
grants release the source code to the world with no restrictions.Much
of the Internet was created by people who gave out these kinds of con-
tracts and insisted upon shared standards that weren’t proprietary.This
tradition has fallen on harder times as universities became more
obsessed with the profits associated with patents and contract research,
but the idea is so powerful that it’s hard to displace.
The free software movement in particular owes a great deal to the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Richard Stallman,the man who
is credited with starting the movement,began working in MIT’s com-
puter labs in the 1970s. . He gets credit for sparking the revolution
because he wrote the GNU Manif
in 1984.The document spelled
out why it’s essential to share the source code to a program with others.
Stallman took the matter to heart because he also practiced what he
wrote about and contributed several great programs,including a text
editor with thousands of features.
Of course,Stallman doesn’t take credit for coming up with the idea of
sharing source code.He remembers his early years at MIT quite fondly
and speaks of how people would share their source code and software
without restrictions.The computers were new,complicated,and tempera-
mental.Cooperation was the only way that anyone could accomplish any-
thing.That’s why IBM shared the source code to the operating systems on
their mainframes though the early part of the 1960s.
This tradition started to fade by the early 1980s as the microcom-
puter revolution began. . Companies realized that most people just
wanted software that worked.They didn’t need the source code and all
the instructions that only programmers could read. . So companies
quickly learned that they could keep the source code to themselves and
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keep their customers relatively happy while locking out competitors.
They were kings who built a wall to keep out the intruders.
The GNU Manif
emerged as the most radical reaction to the
trend toward locking up the source code.While many people looked at
the GNU Manif
with confusion, , others became partial converts.
They began donating code that they had written.Some tossed random
utility programs into the soup,some offered games,and some sent in
sophisticated packages that ran printers,networks,or even networks of
printers. A few even became complete disciples and started writing
code full-time for the GNU project.This growth was largely ignored by
the world, , which became entranced with the growth of Microsoft.
More and more programmers,however,were spending more time min-
gling with the GNU project,and it was taking hold.
In the early 1980s,an operating system known as UNIX had grown to
be very popular in universities and laboratories.AT&T designed and built
it at Bell Labs throughout the 1970s.In the beginning,the company
shared the source code with researchers and computer scientists in univer-
sities,in part because the company was a monopoly that was only allowed
to sell telephone service.UNIX was just an experiment that the company
started to help run the next generation of telephone switches,which were
already turning into specialized computers.
In the beginning,the project was just an academic exercise,but all of
the research and sharing helped create a nice operating system with a
wide audience.UNIX turned out to be pretty good.When the phone
company started splitting up in 1984, the folks at AT&T wondered
how they could turn a profit from what was a substantial investment in
time and money.They started by asking people who used UNIX at the
universities to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Stallman looked at this as mind control and the death of a great tra-
dition.Many others at the universities were more pragmatic.AT&T
had given plenty of money and resources to the university.Wasn’t it fair
for the university to give something back?
Stallman looked at this a bit differently.Yes,AT&T was being nice
when they gave grants to the university,but weren’t masters always kind
when they gave bowls of gruel to their slaves? The binary version AT&T
started distributing to the world was just gruel for Stallman.The high
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 34
priests and lucky few got to read the source code.They got to eat the steak
and lobster spread.Stallman saw this central,controlling,corporate force as
the enemy,and he began naming his work GNU,which was a recursive
acronym that stood for “GNU’s Not UNIX.”The GNU project aimed to
produce a complete working operating system that was going to do every-
thing that UNIX did for none of the moral,emotional,or ethical cost.Users
would be able to read the source code to Stallman’s OS and modify it with-
out signing a tough nondisclosure agreement drafted by teams of lawyers.
They would be able to play with their software in complete freedom.
Stallman notes that he never aimed to produce an operating system that
didn’t cost anything.The world may be entranced with the notion of a price
tag of zero,but for Stallman,that was just a side effect of the unrestricted
Creating a stand-alone system that would do everything with free
software was his dream, , but it was a long way from fruition, , and
Stallman was smart enough to start off with a manageable project.He
began by producing a text editor known as GNU Emacs.The program
was a big hit because it was highly customizable.Some people just used
the program to edit papers,but others programmed it to accomplish
fancier tasks such as reading their e-mail and generating automatic
responses.One programmer was told by management that he had to
include plenty of comments in his source code, , so he programmed
GNU Emacs to insert them automatically.One professor created a ver-
sion of GNU Emacs that would automatically insert random praise into
requests to his secretary.
Practically everything in Emacs could be
changed or customized.If you didn’t like hitting the delete key to fix a
mistyped character,then you could arrange for the 6 key to do the same
thing.This might make it hard to type numbers,but the user was free to
mess up his life as much as he wanted.
It took Microsoft years to catch up with Stallman’s solution,and even
then they implemented it in a dangerous way.They let people create lit-
tle custom programs for modifying documents,but they forgot to pre-
“Where are those reports I asked you to copy? You’re doing a great job.Thanks for all
the help,”on one day.“Are you ever going to copy those reports? You’re doing a great
job.Thanks for all the help,”on the next.
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 35
vent malicious code from crying havoc.Today,Microsoft Word allows
little programs named macro viruses to roam around the planet.Open
up a Word document,and a virus might be lurking.
In the 1980s,the free software world devoted itself to projects like
this.GNU Emacs became a big hit in the academic world where system
administrators could install it for free and not worry about counting
students or negotiating licenses.Also,smart minds were better able to
appreciate the cool flexibility Stallman had engineered into the system.
Clever folks wasted time by adding filters to the text editor that would
scan their text and translate it into,like,Valley Girl talk or more urban
The GNU project grew by accepting contributions from many folks
across the country.Some were fairly sophisticated,eye-catching pro-
grams like GNU Chess,a program that was quite competitive and as
good as all but the best packages.Most were simple tools for handling
many of the day-to-day chores for running a computer system.System
administrators, students,and programmers from around the country
would often take on small jobs because they felt compelled to fix some-
thing.When they were done,a few would kick the source code over to
the GNU project.
Stallman’s biggest programming project for GNU during the 1980s
was writing the GNU C compiler (GCC).This program was an impor-
tant tool that converted the C source code written by humans into the
machine code understood by computers.The GCC package was an
important cornerstone for the GNU project in several ways.First,it was
one of the best compilers around.Second,it could easily move from
machine to machine.Stallman personally ported it to several different
big platforms like Intel’s x86 line of processors.Third,the package was
free,which in the case of GNU software meant that anyone was free to
use and modify the software.
The GCC provided an important harmonizing effect to the GNU
project. Someone could write his program on a machine built by
Digital,compile it with GCC,and be fairly certain that it would run on
all other machines with GCC.That allowed the GNU software to
migrate freely throughout the world,from machine to machine,from
Sun to Apollo to DEC to Intel.
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 36
The GCC’s license also attracted many developers and curious engi-
neers.Anyone could use the source code for their projects,and many
did.Over time,the compiler moved from machine to machine as users
converted it. Sometimes a chip company engineer would rework the
compiler to make it work on a new chip.Sometimes a user would do it
for a project.Sometimes a student would do it when insomnia struck.
Somehow,it moved from machine to machine,and it carried all of the
other GNU software with it.
The next great leap forward came in the early 1990s as people began
to realize that a completely free operating system was a serious possibil-
ity.Stallman had always dreamed of replacing UNIX with something
that was just as good and accompanied by the source code,but it was a
large task.It was the reason he started the GNU project.Slowly but
surely, the GNU project was assembling the parts to make it work.
There were hundreds of small utilities and bigger tools donated to the
GNU project,and those little bits were starting to add up.
The free software movement also owes a great deal to Berkeley,or
more precisely to a small group in the Department of Computer
Science at the University of California at Berkeley.The group of hard-
core hackers,which included professors,research associates, graduate
students,and a few undergraduates,had developed a version of UNIX
known as BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution).AT&T shared their
version of UNIX with Berkeley,and the programmers at Berkeley fixed,
extended,and enhanced the software.These extensions formed the core
of BSD.Their work was part experimental and part practical,but the
results were widely embraced.Sun Microsystems,one of Silicon Valley’s
UNIX workstation companies,used a version on its machines through
the early 1990s when they created a new version known as Solaris by
folding in some of AT&T’s System V.Many feel that BSD and its
approach remain the foundation of the OS.
The big problem was that the team built their version on top of
source code from AT&T.The folks at Berkeley and their hundreds,if
not thousands,of friends,colleagues,and students who contributed to
the project gave their source code away,but AT&T did not.This gave
AT&T control over anyone who wanted to use BSD,and the company
was far from ready to join the free software movement.Millions of dol-
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 37
lars were spent on the research developing UNIX. . The company
wanted to make some money back.
The team at Berkeley fought back,and Keith Bostic,one of the core
team,began organizing people together to write the source code that
could replace these bits.By the beginning of the 1990s,he had cajoled
enough of his friends to accomplish it.In June 1991,the group pro-
duced “Networking Release 2,”a version that included almost all of a
complete working version of UNIX.All you needed to do was add six
files to have a complete operating system.
AT&T was not happy.It had created a separate division known as
the UNIX X Systems Laboratory and wanted to make a profit. . Free
source code from Berkeley was tough competition. . So the UNIX
Systems Laboratory sued.
This lawsuit marked the end of universities’preeminent role in the
development of free software.Suddenly,the lawsuit focused everyone’s
attention and made them realize that taking money from corporations
came into conflict with sharing software source code.Richard Stallman
left MIT in 1984 when he understood that a university’s need for
money would eventually trump his belief in total sharing of source
code.Stallman was just a staff member who kept the computers run-
ning.He wasn’t a tenured professor who could officially do anything.
So he started the Free Software Foundation and never looked back.
MIT helped him at the beginning by loaning him space,but it was clear
that the relationship was near the end.Universities needed money to
function. Professors at many institutions had quotas specifying how
much grant money they needed to raise.Stallman wasn’t bringing in
cash by giving away his software.
Meanwhile,on the other coast,the lawsuit tied up Berkeley and the
BSD project for several years,and the project lost valuable energy and
time by devoting them to the legal fight.In the meantime,several
other completely free software projects started springing up around
the globe.These began in basements and depended on machines that
the programmer owned.One of these projects was started by Linus
Torvalds and would eventually grow to become Linux,the unstop-
pable engine of hype and glory. . He didn’t have the money of the
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 38
Berkeley computer science department,and he didn’t have the latest
machines that corporations gave them.But he had freedom and the
pile of source code that came from unaffiliated, , free projects like
GNU that refused to compromise and cut intellectual corners.
Although Torvalds might not have realized it at the time,freedom
turned out to be most valuable of all.
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