Editorial

Giving

O'Reilly & Associates is starting to put out books faster than I can write glowing, puff-piece reviews of them. Their latest effort is the massive boxed-set "Perl Resource Kit" containing documentation of Perl modules and the CPAN archive, with texts on programming with modules. Prominently noted on the front is that it also contains new software by Larry Wall - the guy who invented Perl and gave it away to the world.

I haven't opened my copy yet, but my Perl-guru friend Byron has, and he writes that it seems O'Reilly wants to keep tight reins on this software distribution - it isn't the usual Larry Wall "free for everybody" effort. I wrote back that after all Larry has given away, he's entitled. Even Larry probably doesn't know how much time he's put into the development of the language and tools for it; but it would surely run into the tens of thousands of hours by now, far more than most people ever volunteer to improve the world. If he wants to do some programming for pay, that's fine by me.

The giving spirit with software has been around from the beginning. As with the first "software" - oral traditions and stories passed on to all who would listen - the first hacker programs were always kept on paper tapes in a drawer by the minicomputer at MIT, as documented by Steven Levy in Hackers. The payments for writing were the respect and admiration of peers.

When the commercial computer industry exploded, these efforts by naive, government-supported students were dwarfed but not extinguished. Academia, and devoted hobbyists, continued to put out some outstanding products for free just because they thought the world would be the better for it.

Shockingly, many such efforts play a significant role in the multi-billion-dollar computer industry of today. Free software includes entire operating systems - essentially all of them some version of Unix - languages like Perl and C, utilities, communications and business applications. All of the communications protocols that run the Internet can be obtained for free; and all the software to provide material on the Web.

The on-line magazine Salon recently did an article on the Apache Web server, describing the far-flung, nebulous, volunteer Apache organization as "the only ones that are beating Microsoft". In Web servers, that's simply true. Apache's "market share" of Web servers is 49%, and still rising - the market leader by far.

What the heck is going on here? This is not the way our society runs. Even supposedly free things like education and streets are actually paid for by taxes.

But just about everybody understands the joy of giving. I remember vividly reaching the realization, at 20, that I was looking forward to Christmas morning more for the joy of seeing people receive my gifts, than for the ones I would receive. I had always enjoyed giving, you understand, but the moment of shock when it hit me that I could receive no gifts and all and still count it a happy day has stayed with me as a final proof that I had grown up.

It has always been the Unix community that has distinguished itself in the industry as those most filled with the spirit of giving. There are a lot of freeware PC and Mac applications - but the huge majority of them are small utilities, games, and demos. Unix freeware includes whole operating systems and programming environments that took people-decades to write. Some contribute from vanity, but the overwhelming majority just can't stand the thought of some poor sod out there having to work on a problem that's already been solved - not when they could be forging further ahead. We can't stand the thought of others like ourselves subjected to such a pointless waste of time.

Not all freeware developers are University students lacking a life; Larry Wall held down a demanding real-world job for most of Perl's development. So has Linus Torvalds while he worked on Linux. Richard Stallman worked for MIT, but creating the GNU project wasn't his job there. He and hundreds of others put in their own time on it.

This is, obviously, one of the best things about the Unix world - and working in it, much less contributing to it yourself, gives a feeling of satisfaction that cannot be touched in a world of $500 shrink-wrap packages.

So get with the spirit of the season and enjoy a little giving this Christmas; it's that Unix-like time of year.


Postscript: Attack on the Public Domain

A couple of days after I wrote the above, I came across some news that relates to it. It seems that those who make money from intellectual property - not so much the original artists as their grandchildren and the corporations that hold corporate copyrights - are making another attack on the public domain itself.

Copyright has always been a bargain between authors and the public - they get a monopoly on the use of their products for life plus many years for their children, we get free use of it ever after to enrich the common cultural heritage, and to assist other creators. The original copyright term was life plus 30 years - long enough to pay for your children's upbringing. Corporations got copyright for 55 years after the first publication. In 1976, corporations and the descendants of some great writers and musicians managed to get the U.S. congress to add 20 years onto the term.

Just under 20 years later, they came back -twice- to demand another 20. Their proposed bill died in subcommittee both times. Somehow, in 1997, they finagled a third try right past the committee in essentially secret hearings that did not allow testimony by those who opposed it. They are trying to slip it in as a synchronization with recent European moves to go for life-plus-70. Those are only happening because the EEC is "harmonizing" laws between member nations and the only way to do it is to go with the most conservative laws that any of them have. The American proposal is even better for corporations - it also extends the corporate term by 20 years to an amazing 95 years after first publication or performance - even though the Europeans only go with 70 years, 5 years less than America (and Canada) already have.

If anybody out there thinks that creative artists will be discouraged from their work because only their children and grandchildren will benefit - but not their great-grandchildren, too; or that Disney will not make another movie unless they can count on a 95-year revenue stream - I have some swampland you might want to buy. This is robbery of the public good, pure and simple.

This is Canada's fight, too. As with so many legal changes, Canada moves with the winds that blow from the South. If the copyright hoarders have their way in the U.S., you can be certain that our Parliament will soon follow.

Please have a look at a few minute's worth of reading on the subject:

The home page of Professor Dennis Karjala of Arizona University, who's leading the fight.

An op-ed piece he wrote for national papers that explains the whole issue in 5 minutes

Testimony by other professors to Congress in 1995 , also a quick read.

Professor Karjala hopes to hear from organizations that support his work.

Roy Brander


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