Studying the History of Free (Libre) Software and the Early Attempts to Co-opt it in the Mid/Late 1990s

Posted in Debian, Free/Libre Software, FSF, GNU/Linux, OSI at 10:09 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Earlier today: Key Parts of the Latest Talk From Bruce Perens, Who Seemingly Wants to Go Back to Freedom (Because ‘Open’ Became Increasingly Meaningless and Users Are Harmed)

Bruce Perens
The Debian project owes a lot to Bruce Perens, who lost many nights for this project’s sake and sometimes received unwarranted scorn; Photo source: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Summary: Techrights has undertaken the task of long-term examination of the history of Free software, in particular the point at which corporations were taking control of the whole thing (under the banner of “Open Source”)

THE past few days have been hectic because I spent nearly 10 hours reading loads of ‘private’ (now published) E-mails from 1996 and 1997, i.e. one year before “Open Source”. All the E-mails are from males (all that I have seen), but that’s not the point. Many of these E-mails are from and to Bruce Perens, who co-founded OSI. Reading along with yours truly are a bunch of other curious people (it is publicly accessible to all), who want to shape a better understanding/grasp of what motivated the whole “Open Source” thing; the word “open” was already flowing a lot in 1997, either in relation to the development model or hardware (“Open Hardware”). So the term “Open Source” didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, no matter who the term was attributed to (the famous lady who repurposed an existing and already-widely-used term from the intelligence community and Perens who offered a formal definition). No doubt the media was already promoting “Linux” (no credit to GNU) before 1998 and the FSF (or Richard Stallman directly) wasn’t happy with improper attribution. Stallman correctly foresaw the harm of this misattribution. It even led to some flamewars at times; the mailing list’s exclusive if not exclusionary membership complains about these (not just about flamewars in the public mailing lists; Debian-private had its own flamewars too, at times not polite ones, either).

“No doubt the media was already promoting “Linux” (no credit to GNU) before 1998 and the FSF (or Richard Stallman directly) wasn’t happy with improper attribution.”We’re going to try to limit the focus on pertinent E-mails, as those messages were generally considered private at the time (23 or 24 years ago, sometimes over 24 years ago!). We’re particularly interested in how “Open Source” came to be what it is today (mostly openwashing; even Perens himself complains about it). “Remember to avoid gossipy details and focus on the substance,” an associate said this week. We believe we’ve managed to avoid publishing or at least mostly avoided highlighting personal stories and disputes. There’s some personal stuff there like people going on holiday, but lots of discussion of value like E-mails from Stallman, Ian Murdock, Patrick Volkerdering, Bdale Garbee and so on.

“In terms of productivity, reading the E-mails is very time-consumption an activity but it is time well spent.”I’m nearly halfway through these E-mails, which I’m not reading in their entirety (the subject lines/threading help cull or reduce the number which need reading). At the end, hopefully, the reading will inspire some writing about the history of the whole thing. The evidence is there, even if we don’t cite it directly. Red Hat is mentioned quite a lot; back then people still argued about packaging standards, the licence of various packages including Qt, security aspects (yes, Debian had some security incidents) and expulsion of some developers. A lot of the issues back there were similar to the ones we have today.

In terms of productivity, reading the E-mails is very time-consumption an activity but it is time well spent. It slowed done publication a bit (we published 301 posts in August, 302 in July, and 317 in June, compared to 231 in May and 154 in April), but it’s going to be worth it. A lot of evidence in those E-mails helps establish pertinent facts. Remember that those were secret (only in some E-mails inboxes — if they still have them at all) until this past weekend.

“Like we said before, we don’t pick topics at random and we don’t explore things at some arbitrary order.”When we started the EPO (European Patent Office) leaks in 2014 we gradually amassed a huge number of leaks and reports which prove relevant to this day. This morning I still received some messages from sources in Croatia. It’s not over. August was quiet as many people were on holiday, but with António Campinos at the helm it’ll only be a matter of time before Battistelli era scandals are back. We have not yet tackled the issue of software patents in Europe; in fact, documents we recently saw show IBM (Red Hat’s steward) still lobbying for such patents, even in Europe (under the guise of “Hey Hi” of course). It’s likely that a lot of our focus will shift back to the EPO very soon. IBM was the subject of 23 posts last month and 28 in July, even 26 in June. In May? Only 2. And 5 in April, which was a good baseline for the rest (preceding months).

Like we said before, we don’t pick topics at random and we don’t explore things at some arbitrary order. We identify topics of both importance and real relevance, then dissect them until near exhaustion. Then we move to the next. We typically deal with several topics in parallel. We periodically decide on priorities. At the end of 2018, for instance, we decided to relegate news about software patents in the US to Daily Links, seeing that the problem was mostly going away inside the courtroom (the USPTO kept granting such patents, but they almost always perished in courts at all levels).

“Bruce spoke a lot to Stallman (and the FSF) back in the 1990s, typically siding with Stallman rather than conspiring against him (unlike many others who egged him on).”When it comes to Debian, of particular interest to us at the moment is the ‘cancel culture’ (relatively new term, not a new problem), which in turn extends to CoC, censorship, suppression of enquiry about funding sources (with strings attached). This helps us better understand the roots of the Open Source folks, especially when studying Debian-Private E-mails from 1-2 years before OSI. Remember that the project leader of Debian at the time was the same person who co-founded OSI.

As a final note of polite courtesy, Bruce Perens seems like a really awesome person who received a lot of grief if not abuse when he led Debian. At the time, Ian Murdock (by his own admission) was preoccupied with the university, so he at least temporarily left the project in the hands of a technical, hard-working, well-intentioned, good-spirited person. Seeing the latest initiative from Bruce (he keeps calling/referring himself by the first name, as a third person), we’re very interested. Remember that a year after establishing OSI he left in protest and he did so again earlier this year. It seems like he’s conflicted ‘within himself’, seeing that the things he created with good intentions/goodwill (at the time) have turned into a weapon against human rights, civil liberties, software freedom and basic human dignity. He makes no apologies for it, but at times he seems regretful that everything became a zero-cost labour mill for monopolies (he says that Free software developers became “supplicants”). He’s eager to change that. Last year we said that Bruce would be a decent candidate to succeed Stallman (after his virtual ‘expulsion’ by shaming), but seeing the remark Bruce made shortly thereafter about this ‘expulsion’ we had to re-evaluate. Bruce spoke a lot to Stallman (and the FSF) back in the 1990s, typically siding with Stallman rather than conspiring against him (unlike many others who egged him on). He later recalled that he had learned ESR (Raymond) was hoping to cause a sort of Stallman ‘expulsion’ as soon as OSI was established. Not fair, perhaps something he can never truly make up for. Kudos for at least trying — better late than never!

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