The Creation of Open Source

Once, in the Middle of Time, there was Town, and there was Gown. In the Town were Merchants of all sorts, who bought Stuff from Craftsmen and Peasants, and sold it for as much as they could to people who needed Stuff. They spent much time helping people understand that they needed a lot more Stuff than they'd realized, and Merchants who were good at this became Rich, and their wives (who had been listening) bought a great deal of Stuff from anyone they could. Near the Town, or possibly within it, was the citadel of Gown. The Gowns lived in their own enclave, variously called a Monastery or a School or a University or a College, depending on its location and its era and on the proclivities and biases of its founders. The Gowns valued Learning; they did not generally buy a lot of Stuff because for them Knowledge was wealth more precious than Stuff -- and also because they didn't earn a lot of money through being studious. Studiousness and Accumulated Knowledge did not get the goats milked or the wheat threshed or the yarn spun, and could not be sold in the market. Town and Gown despised each others' weaknesses. Townies mocked the effete gownies, terrorized children, paraded their wealth, and sat in the front pews of the churches. Gownies derided the Townies for doing foolish things in Ignorance, educated children, paraded their learning, and ran the churches. It would be pleasant to say that, despite their differences, Town and Gown lived peacefully if not in Mutual Respect. But they didn't, always; sporadically there was violence between them, which hardened their bad opinions of each other. It came to pass, after many centuries, that the Merchant Class prospered, and enlarged its coasts throughout the Whole World, and sold Useless Stuff everywhere: Opium in China and Tobacco in Europe and Whiskey in North America and Glitter everywhere -- as well as Useful Stuff like china in Europe and machinery in North America and down jackets in China. And Wealth was Created and Wealth was Destroyed, and Life continued Apace. And through many centuries, the Gown Class prospered also in its own way, and made many Discoveries, and valued Knowledge for its Own Sake, and offered Knowledge Freely to each other and to the World. And the Scientific Method was developed, and from this spawned Technology and Invention. And from Invention was born a Great Deal of Marvelous Stuff, which charmed the Hearts of the Merchant Class, who began to understand that Gownism might be Useful to Society as long as it was confined to its Proper Sphere; that is to say, it stayed at least metaphorically in its Cidadel, and did not attempt to Run a Business. And also from Invention was born the Mechanical Printing Press, a primitive form of the Internet. And Gown gave thanks, and worshipped, and defended Freedom of the Press, and resolved to spread Knowledge throughout the World. And Town realized that books were Stuff, and caused Copyright to be invented, and restricted ownership of Ideas to the Originator. And so it was that in the Universities, Knowledge was pursued; and because Knowledge fueled Invention, a few Rich Merchants founded Universities, and paraded themselves about, and became richer. And then, in the End of Present Time, machines were invented in which Thought could be encapsulated and cause Rational Actions to occur through other machines; and these machines were called Computers, and the encapsulated thoughts which they contained were called Programs. And because the machines were made of brittle or metallic Stuff, they came to be called Hardware, and the ideas they contained were called Software. This Software existed in two forms: one which could be understood by humans, called Source Code, and one which could make the machine seem smart, called, approximately, Compiled Code. And it came -- but has not yet passed -- that the Town prevailed, and they seduced the Gown with lucre, and Ideas were called Stuff, and were named Intellectual Property. Townies taught Gownies that this should not properly be Bought or Sold, but Rented. And the Townies went in unto the Gownies, and Knew them, and they gave birth to Proprietary Software. And they formed great alliances, the greatest of which were known as IBM and AT&T, and they became Rich. But, if the truth were known, though the Townies shared a philosophy, they did not share markets or knowledge willingly, for they long knew that Particular Knowledge was the Secret of Riches, and that Commoditization was often the Road to Poverty. Moreover, they believed that Dog should eat Dog, and they Worked Diligently to destroy each others' businesses through Competition. And they called this Good. Twenty five and more years ago, two foolish lads who did not understand all this nonsense, built and sold a computer that anyone could use. They made public the hardware specs, and it was cheap and easy to program, and it became a commodity, and they named it after a fruit, another commodity. And some programmers could not afford to start companies, and so cast their software upon the public -- on floppies and through bulletin boards; and some of it they gave away, and for some of it they begged payment. The former was called "freeware" and the latter was called "shareware." And some of the programmers became Rich, and some suffered Disappointment, and the World was little changed. The Great IBM Alliance saw the success of the Fruit, and was jealous, and thought to do them in by doing them one better; and it came to pass that IBM nearly did themselves in by making a commodity computer and hiring a very shrewd man to supply the operating system, a man who was very slick and sly with his competitors, and reduced most of them to ashes and made the others servile. And he Waxed Rich and became Very Annoying and Hard of Spirit. And the name of his Alliance is an oxymoron, "Micro-Soft." Now though Compiled Code went from these Alliances to the User with the Machine, the Source was kept locked up in Secret Places, and was not revealed to the User, but was kept in the Most Holy Place by the Great Priests of Commerce. Yet not every Gown was seduced by Stuff; a few rigid, narrowminded Gownies clung to the outmoded belief that Knowledge should benefit All, that it was a Common Good, and that to lock it away was Antisocial and Selfish and Capitalist-Greedy, and furthermore it was personally frustrating to them not to be able to get one's hands on Good Code and play with it. One Gownie, a brilliant and unkempt thinker, the Man who Stalls, turned the Townie philosophy upside down. If Intellectual Property Rights could be used to keep ideas secret and to accumulate Money, then they could also be used to force ideas into the public and to accumulate Knowledge. And so it came about that Richard the Stall-man invented CopyLeft, and wrote the GNU General Public License and other codes to protect the freedom of ideas -- to protect the freedom of intellectual property -- which required any Townie that possessed and sold copylefted programs to also provide the source to the customer, who could then play with it or hire someone else to improve or maintain it. And Gownies who knew of this and undersood it rejoiced, for it hoist the Townies on their own Petard, and skewered them with their own sword, the copyright, for this liberated software from the imprisonment of being Property and made it Free (but not gratis). And among the geeks and users and other peasants, for as many as understood, this was met with rejoicing and very much Collaborative Work, and Great Things were done, and the Internet and the URL were invented, and Linus Torvalds invited whomever was interested to join the writing of a Really Good and Liberated Operating System, and the Rest is History. But because many people did not like Richard Stallman, or thought that his GNU copyleft (verily, a copyright) was too restrictive, or not lawyerly enough, other forms of permitted use were described by others. And a word became necessary to describe this new class of intellectual property rights, which were devised with the idea of sharing for public good rather than secrecy for the sake of riches, and this phrase became "Open Source." This is the fable of Open Source. Long may it prosper. Copyright (C) 2003, Daniel L. Johnson MD All rights reserved.