Free beer, free speech, etc.

kmself at kmself at
Fri Jan 19 00:05:07 UTC 2001

on Thu, Jan 18, 2001 at 02:36:36PM -0500, Lou Grinzo (lgrinzo at wrote:
> There's another option in this running beer/speech/software thread
> that I haven't seen anyone else bring up, so I will.
> Not all that long ago IBM licensed one of its mainframe OS's, VM,
> according to the usual system for such things--a monthly fee based on
> some metric (CPU size?).  The interesting detail is that customers got
> the binary and the full source code to the OS, and they routinely
> wrote (still write?) their own modifications and patches for the
> system.  

This mode of "free software" (not the FSF definition) exchange predates
the organization of the FSF and GNU, and in some ways describes the
state of software prior to copyright law and business practice revisions
in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  IBM, SAS, and several other
companies routinely distributed source code.  However, computing
resources were largely centralized, with a miniscule number (by current
standards) of servers supporting a small number of users, with a large
user:server ratio.

> They even traded the changes among themselves, even though they
> weren't allowed to give away copies of the base OS.  

Essentially a patch distribution model.  Practiced today by such
projects as qmail and pine.  Which, despite source-availability, are not
"free software" (FSF def) or OSD conformant.

> This was all with IBM's complete knowledge--I worked in one of the VM
> development labs at the time, and we would see many customers trading
> contact information at conferences so they could then send each other
> source code patches.  A few customers had so heavily modified the OS
> that it was barely recognizable, and they had zero chance of upgrading
> from what was theoretically a several-years-old version to a current
> one, thanks to the massive incompatibilities and differences it would
> trigger.
> It seems to me that such a system has many, but not all, of the
> benefits of open source--lots of eyeballs chasing bugs and making
> fixes, lots of experimentation looking for better solutions, open
> API's, etc.  Customers routinely offered to give their changes to IBM
> in the hopes we'd use them in the system (although they weren't
> obligated to make the offer, and we weren't obligated to accept).
> They didn't want anything for it, they just wanted to help improve the
> product.

See the thread I initiated under "Free Software Licensing Strategy --
Some guidelines".  The closed-communit, patch-distribution network
*does* work, within limits, for an appropriate community and sufficient
incentives to contribute.  However, I feel the strategy would be less
successful than a parallel, open, fully-free, project, as you note
(excised copy).  It seriously crimps several of the key success
foundations of the free software development process. 

Note that I *don't object to such schemes, if presented at face value.
It's been the attempt of numerous organizations to claim "open source"
(or more properly, "OSI Open Source Certified®") status for such
projects, stating that they are fully free, etc., which tends to set off
me and other members of the free software community.   I also feel that
while appropriate for some stages of some projects, this isn't a
long-term successful or sustainable strategy.

Karsten M. Self <kmself at>
 What part of "Gestalt" don't you understand?       There is no K5 cabal
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