Open-Source History Part 1 of 2
I’m surprised how often Open Source and the Free Software movement are interchanged by folks within the Information Technology realm. I’m also surprised how little understanding most have of Open Source and the Free Software movement. In fact there seems to be much hesitation, misconception and negative stereotypes associated when someone says Open Source or Free Software. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to Microsoft’s anti-Open Source/Free Software campaign of the mid 90’s. But before we talk about that why don’t we start at the beginning…
The notion of sharing and peer review is not new. In the 17th and 18th century academics, scientists and thinkers alike freely shared their theories, findings, formulae with their peers. This not only fostered a healthy community of scrutinizers but helped refine and improve the end result. In fact a byproduct of sharing ideas promoted a reciprocal gesture fueling a continuous, thriving sharing community. It’s no surprise early free software ideas thrived in academia circles. Perhaps the one institution most often referenced with the Free Software movement is MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). MIT’s non-profit charter and fundamental cooperative roots was a natural hot spot for a thriving ‘hacker’ community in the early days of main frame computing. Although at the time, term ‘hacker’ referred to student programmers and clever computer enthusiasts vs. today’s notion of financially driven black hat hackers peddling malware, spyware and all sorts of nasty viruses.
It’s hard to discuss Free Software without mentioning Richard Stallman. Mr. Stallman started as a paid programmer at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and contributed to MIT’s hacker community. While the notion of free software, sharing and cooperation between academia and corporations was alive well before Mr. Stallman came on scene in the early 70’s. It wasn’t until Mr. Stallman quit MIT began working on GNU Software and founded the Free Software Foundation in 1986 that Free Software became a socio-political movement. To his credit, Mr. Stallman laid the foundation for today’s Free Software movement and has devoted his time to further Free Software ideals worldwide. Other initiatives unrelated to the Free Software Foundation commonly referred to as Open Source benefited from Mr. Stallman’s activities. For example Mr. Stallman authored the GNU GPL (GNU General Public License) otherwise known as GPL. It has been adopted as the license of choice by many Open Source projects. In fact so much so that Open Source is often confused with the Free Software Foundation and the Free Software movement to be one in the same. To the contrary Open Source is not part of the Free Software Foundation or Free Software movement. While many Open Source projects freely give away their software and source code, allow modification and redistribution of said software they may contain proprietary libraries with restrictive licensing. This is contrary to the fundamental core of the Free Software movement. The Free Software Foundation a not for profit entity behind the Free Software movement vigorously defends the ideals of software free of any and all restrictive licensing. For any software to be truly free it cannot contain any parts bound by restrictive licensing or patents.
Restrictive licensing by the early 80’s erupted on the scene as an opposing financially driven force which began influencing computer enthusiasts and computer hardware vendors, keen to profit from their software. The roots of this force may partially be attributed to the infamous open letter to the Home Brew Computer Club. In 1976 a relatively unknown individual named Bill Gates; the founder of a small New Mexico software company named Micro-Soft sent an open letter in which he implied sharing software was in fact stealing.