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
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
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."
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
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
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, prep.ai.mit.edu, 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
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.
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.
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