From rick Sat Jun 1 23:01:17 2002
Date: Sat, 1 Jun 2002 23:01:17 -0700
To: Peter Belew (
Cc:, SlugLug (
Subject: Re: [SlugLUG] RevolutionOS showing
User-Agent: Mutt/1.3.27i


I gather that substantially all of the videocassettes of "Revolution OS" that people have been waving about, lately, must be derived from three showings in March 2002 on the Sundance cable channel. People taped or otherwise captured that broadcast, and so here we are. Meanwhile, filmmaker JTS Moore (CC'd) — who, to remind everyone, ran up personal consumer debt funding this film out of his own pocket — is struggling to book theatrical showings that might actually recoup some of his money, not to mention funding (legitimate) release and distribution on VCR and/or DVD.

But rather than dwell on all that, I thought I'd address this bit about Bill Gates's "Open Letter to Hobbyists",[1] which Peter Belew dragged into the discussion.

Peter, I happen to be one of the old-timers, too, and my memory is perhaps a little better than yours. The letter was not to the Homebrew Computer Club (of which I was a member at the time)[2], but rather to the MITS Altair Users' Newsletter, in New Mexico. David Bunnell was then newsletter editor, and he lobbed a copy to us at the Homebrew club, among other people. Which is how we got it. (And this was in early 1976, not 1977.)

The letter caused quite a flap. For one thing, this complaint from the General Partner of "Micro-Soft" over in Albuquerque wasn't entirely honest: The software in question had been created on a taxpayer-subsidised PDP-10 (running an 8080 emulator) at Harvard, and also there was very strong, reasonable suspicion that Gates, Allen, and Davidoff had "borrowed" from several other people's BASIC implementations without their authors' permission.

Also, and less relevantly, Micro-Soft was already getting a reputation for questionable business deals: If you were buying MITS dodgy boards, Micro-Soft's Altair BASIC was $150. If not, the same product was $500, which was a hell of lot in those days. Which was not a good reason to misappropriate it, although the questionable ancestry of Micro-Soft's 4kB interpreter arguably was.

Nobody understood software licensing back then. For one thing, software had never really been though of as a product before 1975-6.[3] We had only a rough sense of the hacker ethic to work from — but this involved authors' work being shared because they wanted it shared. I was vocal among the Homebrewers who, following the flip side of this logic, wanted to give Gates (and Micro-Soft) the obscurity he was demanding. We already had TinyBASIC and other freely-distributable dialects — which flourished after Gates's nastygram. We didn't need his $500 boondoggle.

But the hacker ethic was never about ripping off creative types.

If anything, one of the distinguishing traits of the free software movement since the late 80s is that some of us actually do bother to take licence agreements seriously. I still think that, if more Homebrewers and others in the hacking community had more consistently adopted my viewpoint and said "The hell with Altair BASIC and the horse it rode in on", we'd have had an open source explosion a decade sooner than we did, and the 1980s would have been a lot more fun.

Cheers,   The difference between common sense and paranoia is that common sense
Rick Moen     is thinking everyone is out to get you.  That's normal; they are.      Paranoia is thinking they're conspiring.  -- J. Kegler

[1] Readable at, among other places.

[2] However, I was just a high school student, which might be part of why few paid attention to what I said, in this matter.

[3] Nitpickers have noted that the concept was not unknown in parts of the mainframe world. But it was an unwelcome surprise to microcomputerists.