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The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin, Ch. 8 - by Peter Salus
Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 08:58 AM EDT

Here is Chapter 8 of Peter Salus' book, "The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin," which he is publishing in installments on Groklaw under the Creative Commons license, 2.0, attribution, noncommercial, noderivatives.

Here are the earlier chapters:


The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin

~ by Peter H. Salus

Chapter 8. "Free as in Freedom"

Richard M. Stallman, though a freshman at Harvard, began working for Russ Noftsker at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971. While still in high school (The Adams School through junior year, senior year at Louis D. Brandeis on West 84th Street) in New York, he had worked briefly at the IBM Science Center and at Rockefeller University.

As he put it,

I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.

The AI Lab used a time-sharing operating system called ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System) that the Lab's staff hackers had designed and written in assembler language for the Digital PDP-10... As a member of this community, an AI Lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system.

We did not call our software "free software," because that term did not yet exist, but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program.1

Less than a decade later, everything changed for the worse. "It was Symbolics that destroyed the community of the AI Lab," rms told me. "Those guys no longer came to the Lab. In 1980 I spent three or four months at Stanford and when I got back [to Tech Square], the guys were gone. The place was dead." (Sam Williams says that Symbolics hired 14 AI Lab staff as part-time "consultants." Richard was truly the "last of the hackers.")

We see here what Richard wanted: a cooperative community of hackers, producing software that got better and better.

"In January '82 they [Symbolics] came out with a first edition," rms continued. They didn't share. So I implemented a quite different set of features and rewrote about half of the code. That was in February. In March, on my birthday [March 16], war broke out. Everyone at MIT chose a side: use Symbolics' stuff, but not return source for development. I was really unhappy. The community had been destroyed. Now the whole attitude was changing."

In the essay cited above, rms continued:

When the AI Lab bought a new PDP-10 in 1982, its administrators decided to use Digital's non-free timesharing system instead of ITS.

The modern computers of the era, such as the VAX or the 68020, had their own operating systems, but none of them were free software: you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement even to get an executable copy.

This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, "If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them."

The idea that the proprietary software social system--the system that says you are not allowed to share or change software--is antisocial, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong, may come as a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless? Readers who find the idea surprising may have taken the proprietary social system as given, or judged it on the terms suggested by proprietary software businesses. Software publishers have worked long and hard to convince people that there is only one way to look at the issue. ...

I have quoted Richard at length, because I think that his "voice" should be heard. He has frequently said that "Software wants to be free." But in 1982 and 1983 his was a single, lonely voice. He duplicated the work of the Symbolics programmers in order to prevent the company from gaining a monopoly. He refused to sign non-disclosure agreements, and he shared his work with others in what he still regards as the "spirit of scientific collaboration and openness."

In September 1983, rms announced the GNU project. In January 1984 he resigned from his job at MIT.

He has written:

I began work on GNU Emacs in September 1984, and in early 1985 it was beginning to be usable. This enabled me to begin using Unix systems to do editing; having no interest in learning to use vi or ed, I had done my editing on other kinds of machines until then.

At this point, people began wanting to use GNU Emacs, which raised the question of how to distribute it. Of course, I put it on the anonymous ftp server on the MIT computer that I used. (This computer,, thus became the principal GNU ftp distribution site; when it was decommissioned a few years later, we transferred the name to our new ftp server.) But at that time, many of the interested people were not on the Internet and could not get a copy by ftp. So the question was, what would I say to them?

I could have said, "Find a friend who is on the Net and who will make a copy for you." Or I could have done what I did with the original PDP-10 Emacs: tell them, "Mail me a tape and a SASE, and I will mail it back with Emacs on it." But I had no job, and I was looking for ways to make money from free software. So I announced that I would mail a tape to whoever wanted one, for a fee of $150. In this way, I started a free software distribution business, the precursor of the companies that today distribute entire Linux-based GNU systems.

That's it. In September 1983, the first draft of the Manifesto announced Richard's intent; just over a year later, his $150 GNU Emacs initiated an innovative business model.

Thanks to Patrick Henry Winston, director of the MIT AI Lab from 1972-1997, Richard's resignation didn't have the expected consequences. Winston allowed rms to continue to have office and lab space at Tech Square. The AI Lab's computing facilities were also available for Richard's use.

In his Defence of Poesy (1595), Sir Philip Sidney contrasts the historian, who is obliged to be faithful to recorded events, to the poet, who is capable of depicting ideals, employing imaginative fictions. To Sidney, the poet's superiority lies with clarity of moral vision, whereas the details of events may result in the blurring of the historian's vision. Spenser (1552-1599), referring to himself as a "Poet historical," views historians as being forced to follow orderly chronology, where poets can move back and forth in time. All of this is to attempt to excuse my moving ahead to 1984, perhaps illustrating my drift between historian and "Poet historical."

Let me now move back in time and across the Atlantic.

1From Free Software, Free Society (FSF, 2002), p. 15.

Dr. Salus is the author of "A Quarter Century of UNIX" and several other books, including "HPL: Little Languages and Tools", "Big Book of Ipv6 Addressing Rfcs", "Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Imperative Programming Languages", "Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and Beyond", and "The Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Functional, Concurrent and Logic Programming Languages". There is an interview with him, audio and video,"codebytes: A History of UNIX and UNIX Licences" which was done in 2001 at a USENIX conference. Dr. Salus has served as Executive Director of the USENIX Association.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.


The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin, Ch. 8 - by Peter Salus | 246 comments | Create New Account
Comments belong to whoever posts them. Please notify us of inappropriate comments.
Corrections here please
Authored by: josmith42 on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 09:12 AM EDT
You know the drill...

This comment was typed using the Dvorak keyboard layout. :-)

[ Reply to This | # ]

Off topic here please
Authored by: fudisbad on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 09:13 AM EDT
For current events, legal filings and Caldera® collapses.

Please make links clickable.
Example: <a href="">Click here</a>

See my bio for copyright details re: this post.
Darl McBride, show your evidence!

[ Reply to This | # ]

respecting Richard Stallman
Authored by: chrism on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 10:06 AM EDT
I've always had a hard time with Richard's contention that it is morally wrong
for someone to attempt to sell software they wrote under the typical proprietary
license. I don't see that a closed source software business is necessairly
being dishonest or violent in any way, and I just don't get the idea that
peaceful and honest behavior can be morally wrong.

Richard once proposed a tax on software to pay for the development of free
software (I've quoted this part of the GNU Manifesto below). It is hard not to
be grateful to Richard for what he has done for the world of free software (he's
certainly done more than I have or probably will) but it is equally hard for me
to respect someone who thinks they are entitled to tax me to fund the sort of
work they find personally rewarding.

These days, however, the threat of software patents is so dire, I almost feel
like the proverbial peasant caught between the entrenched king (whose abuse of
my village has been steadily increasing for ages) and an upstart looking to
raise an army to unseat the king. Tempting as it is to aid the upstart in any
way I can, I don't feel like the king or the upstart has much respect for me.

Richard consistently comes off as being anti-business, often saying nasty things
to decent people/companies that we should be thanking. Like Nvidia and their X
driver (a closed source firmware image with an open source wrapper that
interfaces with the kernel). Nvidia could not release an open source driver
even if they wanted to because even to write their closed source driver they
have to obtain patent licenses from other companies. The abysmal state of the
patent system is not their fault.

Chris Marshall

p.s. Here's Richard's hardware tax proposal from the GNU Manifesto:

All sorts of development can be funded with a Software Tax:

Suppose everyone who buys a computer has to pay x percent of the price as a
software tax. The government gives this to an agency like the NSF to spend on
software development.

But if the computer buyer makes a donation to software development himself, he
can take a credit against the tax. He can donate to the project of his own
choosing--often, chosen because he hopes to use the results when it is done. He
can take a credit for any amount of donation up to the total tax he had to pay.

The total tax rate could be decided by a vote of the payers of the tax, weighted
according to the amount they will be taxed on.

The consequences:

* The computer-using community supports software development.
* This community decides what level of support is needed.
* Users who care which projects their share is spent on can choose this for

[ Reply to This | # ]

The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin, Ch. 8 - by Peter Salus - Thanks.
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 11:03 AM EDT
This reminds me of the serialized stories in the past. I look forward to next

This method of development should produce a high quality end product. All errors
should be caught and additional information may get included prior to
publication. Already have a place reserved in the bookshelves for the bound
print version.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Recipies and Cooking!
Authored by: PSaltyDS on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 12:05 PM EDT
"Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking."

Maybe just me, but that struck me as a very powerful analogy, on par with "the car with the hood welded shut". You can take that pretty far in relation to software patents, for example.

Imagine Betty Crocker and Nabisco getting together with their congress-critters to push for "Recipie Patent" legislation. They go on to argue that the publishers of fund-raising cookbooks made by elementry school classes owe them huge royalties for use of the "methods and priciples" of using salt in a specific 2:1 ratio with pepper as a seasoning for poultry (US Patent 20051234). A national add campaign decries the baking of cookies containing the pirated combination of a pinch of ginger and any amount of brown sugar(US Patent 20052345). The entire fast-food stand market of San Diego is wiped out over expensive Fish Taco legislation regarding US Patent 20053456. McDonalds demands an end to the blatant violation of its Trade-Secret Special Sauce by those who mix ketchup with their thousand island dressing...

Oh the Humanity! :-(


[Dunks chocolate bar in peanut butter and eats it, in violation of Reeses US Patent 20054567...]

It's OK, I'm feeling much better now... :-)


"Any technology distinguishable from magic is insuficiently advanced." - Geek's Corrolary to Clarke's Law

[ Reply to This | # ]

I can't wait to buy this book!
Authored by: Nick Bridge on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 12:27 PM EDT

[ Reply to This | # ]

Stallman and The Way It Used To Be
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 12:32 PM EDT
I'm actually a veteran of the same era as Stallman, not at MIT but in the
broader (academic Arpanet) community. My experience is different only in degree
from his. There *was* a community of code sharers. Lots of the code for the
net worked under that paradigm. Lots didn't; there were proprietary O/Ss with
different degrees of cost and openness. Stallman was lucky in that the MIT AI
Lab staff was so skilled that they could build their own full O/S stack and have
it be competitive and used for so long.

I'm tempted to re-parse the Symbolics episode, though. I don't know details.
Potentially, two things were lost from the open community of software sharing:
certainly the code hackers, but perhaps the code as well. That is, it's clear
that lots of the people of the community were folded into the private enterprise
model (at Symbolics). (And, that's in some sense the right of the individuals
to walk.) But was the once-public MIT source code also copied and modified and
licensed? Is what happened that the programming work that had been done under
the implicit free-license model was taken private, forked into a commercial
sphere? Where the modifications to this private copy were paid for by the
private concern, and the source to this modified, private copy was kept private?
If this is what happened, this would indeed rankle deeply.

Imagine, if this is the case. You're in a community of free sharers, paid for
by a benevolent administration that reaps the fruits of your work by having its
user community supported. Then someone takes your work and starts charging for
the whole package, your work plus their private modifications. Maybe you get to
use their work in binary form, or some such thing, but you no longer get to
modify it (though you may have written it in the first place).

So it's clear that some people (hackers) in the community traded the membership
in the community of sharers for the membership in the commercial enterprise (and
doubtless a different kind of paycheck). But it would be much more rankling if
they did their work not by coding from scratch, but rather by starting with a
body of work that had had other contributors as well. Gee, the GNU Public
License sounds like a sensible reaction to such an event.

[ Reply to This | # ]

mischaracterizing RMS ("software wants to be free")?
Authored by: stevenj on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 12:49 PM EDT
He has frequently said that "Software wants to be free."

Does anyone have any evidence that RMS has ever actually said this? Via Google, I can find lots of instances of people attributing this sentiment to him, but no actual quotations with context. Nothing on contains this phrase.

Nor does it seem like a particularly good description of his seems like a more accurate paraphrase might be, "Users should be free."

We see here what Richard wanted: a cooperative community of hackers, producing software that got better and better.

The connotations of this sentence seem, to me, to be somewhat misleading. RMS has frequently emphasized that better softw are is not his primary goal (unlike ESR's open-source philosophy).

Whether or not you agree with RMS, let's not put words in his mouth.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Once again a good read. And more so ...
Authored by: dmarker on Thursday, May 12 2005 @ 06:28 PM EDT

because of the wealth of very interesting discussion.

This type of debate makes Groklaw such a great place. It is easy to believe that
powerful and inquiring minds are working to capacity and the result is being


Doug Marker

[ Reply to This | # ]

OT - Another TCO study
Authored by: Stumbles on Friday, May 13 2005 @ 09:48 AM EDT
This one is interesting, Reasons to adopt Linux – part 94

You can tune a piano but you can't tune a fish.

[ Reply to This | # ]

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