The Drive to Write Free Software. Part 2

History: The Origins of the Free Software Movement

Sometimes difficult questions can be answered by looking at history. In discovering the roots of a movement, we can often learn something about its causes. So let’s try following the historical record for a bit, and see where that leads us.

During the late sixties, and through the early eighties, many of the greatest contributions to software emerged from the universities and corporate think tanks. One way or another, this software was available free of charge to the computer community. Just as academics shared software, so did the workers at big corporate think tanks. They lived, in effect, in a free, open source, software community. And they liked living there, and they didn’t want the open sharing of knowledge to end. Computers also came with complete suites of software, and usually shipped with source. Especially from a management position, this was not the same things as free, open source software. Yet to the developers who worked on these machines, it felt as if the software and its source came for free. If you want to read more about this part of computer history, you can start with Steven Levy’s famous book called Hackers.

But as smaller, more portable computers developed in the eighties, this situation changed. Suddenly software was being written by corporations for sale to people who had money. Companies like Microsoft, Novell, Lotus and others emerged, and began selling software, but not the source to the software. Knowledge was no longer freely available. Instead, it was something that had to be purchased. In universities, and at corporate think tanks, source was usually available. But ironically, when cheaper computers made software more widely available, that was precisely when corporations stepped in and tried to claim the intellectual rights to knowledge that had previously been freely available, at least to those in the corporate think tanks or in academia.

Both the academics at major universities, and some of the personnel from the great corporate think tanks such as Bell Labs, felt that this was a betrayal of the values they had cultivated during the previous two decades. Previously knowledge flowed freely among the small group of people who had access to computers. Now many more people could own computers, but the source to the software was locked up. As a result, a small group of these developers formed a community that valued free software. The heart of their argument was that owning the source to computer programs was important, and having the right to recompile a program was important. On a more idealistic level, many of them believed that knowledge about computers was the province of humanity itself, not of individuals or corporations. To them, it made no more sense to talk of owning a compiler or algorithm than it did to talk of owning the rights to the syntax of the English language. Ultimately, their argument was that proprietary software represented a restriction on the field of computer science, and on their rights as free individuals in a free society.

Particularly in the academic world, there was a sense that the computer community was working to create a tool that could be used for the good of mankind. The idea that knowledge which could benefit everyone should be owned by a corporation was repugnant to some people. These people wanted to live free, and they wanted knowledge to be freely accessible. They didn’t want to be told how, when, or to what extent they were free to use a piece of information. You can read more about this world view in Eric Raymond’s, The Art of UNIX Programming.

Clearly the thoughts of this small group of people in academia and in corporate think tanks does not provide a complete explanation for a trend as large as the Open Source Movement. Their ideas are simply far to abstract and too idealistic to gain hold in a country like America at the present time. Nevertheless, their ideas and their efforts formed one of the major motivating forces behind the creation of the free software movement.

The history of computer science in academia and in corporate think tanks explains what happened, but not why it happened. We know that people want to be free, and that they want knowledge to be freely available, but it is more difficult to understand why they want these things. To understand why people want to share the source for their programs, to see why they want knowledge to be free, we have to explore this subject further.

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