ESR Shares A Forgotten ‘Roots Of Open Source’ Moment From 1984

Eric S. Raymond recently documented one of the first public calls for free software, which happened immediately after AT&T’s fateful decision commercialize Unix:
[I]n October 1984 I was in a crowd of people watching a presentation by a woman from Bell Labs describing the then-new getopt(3) library, written by AT&T as a way to regularize the processing of command-line arguments in C programs… Everybody thought this was a fine idea, and several people asked questions probing whether AT&T was going to let anyone else use the getopt code they had written. These questions related to the general anxiety about Unix source code distributions drying up. Frustration mounted as the woman gave evasive answers which seemed to add up to “No, we refuse to commit to allowing general access to this code.” Which seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears about what was going to happen to Unix source code access in general. At which point Henry Spencer stands up and says (not in these exact words) “I will write and share a conforming implementation.” — and got a cheer from the assembled.

If you’re thinking “That’s not a big deal, we do this sort of thing all the time,” my actual point is that in October 1984 this was indeed a big deal. It took an actual imaginative leap for Henry Spencer to, in effect, say “Screw AT&T and its legalisms and evasions, if they’re going to cut off source access we hackers are gonna do it for ourselves”… [H]e got an actual cheer exactly because he was pushing forward, exposing the possibility of doing not just small projects and demos and quirky little tools but at competing with the likes of AT&T itself at software production.

Raymond also remembers this as an important moment for him. “I was a young, unknown programmer then — just 27, still figuring out what I wanted. I watched Henry make that promise. I heard the cheer, and felt the change in the air as culturally, we realized what the solution to AT&T fscking us over had to be. And I thought ‘I want to be like that guy.'”


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