The Roots of Sharing

I’d like to thank Danielle Citron and everyone else at CO for inviting me to be part of this symposium.  I’m honored to be here again.

I want to start by discussing the culture of sharing in engineering, and in particular in the computer field; it far antedates Richard Stallman and the FSF.  I can point to some classic science fiction stories from the 1940s and early 1950s, George O Smith’s classic Venus Equilateral collection.  The heroes are engineers—this is pure “wiring diagram” science fiction, where you feel that you almost have enough information to build the circuits described—and the villains, other than the laws of physics, are businessmen (and, I fear, lawyers).  That engineers will cooperate, even when they work for different (and rival) companies, is one of the themes of the stories.  Trying to understand, and to make things work in the face of an uncooperative Nature, took precedence over the mere commercial interests of the “suits”.

That attitude has certainly carried over to the real world.  In the IBM mainframe world, SHARE (which dates to the mid-1950s) has long served as a forum for computer programmers to exchange not just tips and success stories but also source code, both original and patches or additions to the code from IBM.  (IBM itself ran a library to distribute contributed software; these packages came from both its own employees and its customers.)  There were other organizations similar to SHARE, such as DECUS for users of Digital Equipment Corporation’s machines and Usenix for Unix users.  (That latter was originally known as the Unix User’s Group, until the prospect of commercialization led Bell Labs’ lawyers to insist on their trademark rights to “Unix”, circa 1980.)  In those early years, it was common wisdom that one should always bring a reel of mag tape to a Usenix meeting, in order to bring back useful software contributed by others.  As networking took over, the form of cooperation changed, but cooperation and sharing remained important goals.  Indeed, one of our primary goals when we came up with the idea for Usenix in 1979 was to provide an online forum for sharing and self-help.

This culture—the one in which Stallman came of age professionally—was born in part of economic necessity; changing economics threatened it.  SHARE et al. arose because there were too few computers in the world to support much of an independent software industry.  IBM and its rivals all bundled software with their machines not so much from a desire to be monopolists as because the very expensive hardware was useless without software.  It would have been like selling cars without seats: in principle, you could buy them elsewhere, but in fact there weren’t any other manufacturers, because there were too few “cars” to make it worthwhile.

As Coleman notes, IBM switched to an unbundled model circa 1969.  This was certainly in response to a threatened antitrust suit, but it was also a response to the changing market.  Not only were there nascent software vendors, there were also companies making clones or near-clones of IBM mainframe computers.  By 1980, software had acquired a value independent of the hardware it ran on.  That in turn led companies to restrict access to their source code, which threatened not so much the ideology of sharing but rather some of the ability to do so practically.  Things were not necessarily completely locked down; IBM, for example, still sold source code to its operating systems, albeit in a form that for technical reasons wasn’t nearly as useful.  (For reasons I’ll discuss in a later post, it is less than clear that the change in copyright law was a major factor.)

Stallman’s Manifesto, then, had two components.  The first was an attempt to preserve a culture in the face of economic and technological change.  By itself, that can be seen as a quixotic enterprise; trying to hold back the tides of time is rarely successful.  Stallman took it a step further, though: he elevated sharing to a moral principle and effectively hacked copyright law to enforce his views via the GPL.  It is an interesting question to what extent the open source software movement, built around the same culture of sharing but without the mandatory aspects of the GPL, would have thrived without the free software movement.  To give one very specific example, BSD systems (also Unix-like systems, derived from the so-called Berkeley Software Distributions that built on Bell Labs’ originals) are considered by many (including myself) to be technically cleaner; however, their development was hindered by lawsuits, internecine conflicts, and personality clashes  The net result was that Linux won mindshare and market share—but could BSD have survived at all without free software movement providing philosophical cover for the culture of sharing?  It is an interesting, albeit perhaps unanswerable, question.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Gabriella Coleman says:

    Thanks for these fascinating historical antecedents that help us understand the present. The question you raise too as to whether the BSD/licensing would have bore so much fruit is hard to answer but I suspect there is something about the obligation clause with the GPL which helped pave the way.