Bill Gates was right

Gates' 'Open Letter to Hobbyists' wasn't a declaration of war against open source. It is a key foundation of it.

Bill Gates was right

The Homebrew Computer Club was a personal computing hobbyist group in Menlo Park, California, which began in 1975 and met until 1986.

It was an informal gathering of computing enthusiasts to swap parts, circuits, software, and served as a forum to share information about DIY projects, when most personal computing was, in fact, DIY.

Its members included Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Jerry Lawson, Adam Osbourne, and other early personal computing pioneers, hackers, and entrepreneurs, many of whom would go on to start companies, launch revolutionary products, and become tech legends.

There is no denying that the Homebrew Computer Club and the exchange of ideas there was a critical incubator in the growth of personal computing.

But the swapping of software at the Homebrew Computer Club, on tape form at the time, is often cited as an antecedent to open source in open source lore. I take issue with that notion.

In 1976, Bill Gates, co-founder of what was then 'Micro-Soft', published an open letter to hobbyists in the Homebrew Computer Club newsletter, decrying rampant piracy of Altair BASIC among the hobbyist community, including at meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club.

In his letter, Gates argued that widespread piracy of Altair BASIC made development of software for the burgeoning hobbyist market unsustainable:

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however, 1) Most of these "users" never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

For many, this letter was the beginning of an ideological war between what would become open source and proprietary software, of free software vs. Microsoft.

For example, in the otherwise excellent documentary "Revolution OS" at 7:15, Gates' letter was cast as a declaration of war on computing freedom:

Or in this excerpt from "Rebel Code":

In the light of his Open letter to Hobbyists, the open source movement emerges as Bill Gates' worst nightmare magnified a thousand times. Not just a few hobbyists who "steal", but a thriving community that writes its own - excellent - code, and then gives it away. Because their actions patently do not "prevent good software from being written," they implicitly call into question the very basis of the Microsoft Empire: If good software can be written and given away like this, who needs Microsoft or companies like it?

Excerpt from Rebel Code by Glyn Moody. Published by Allen Lane. Copyright © 2001 Glyn Moody.

This all makes for a compelling apocryphal story. But it gets it wrong.

Piracy is not the foundation of open source. The exchange of pirated copies of Altair BASIC among hobbyists is, at best, an antecedent to warez BBS and boards in the 80s and 90s. That is a vastly different story than the story of open source.

Open source is a social contract between the developer and users.

That social contract relies on developers having the right to dictate the terms of distribution of their software and users adhering, in most cases voluntarily, to those terms.

At a minimum that social contract includes respecting the applied license. Under licenses such as the GPL, that contract also includes sharing derivative code.

The social contract between developers of open source and users can go further than just the license, of course. It can include contributing upstream, fostering community, and financial support, even if not explicitly required by the terms of the license.

It is this social contract and adherence to the developer's license that allows open source to work, mostly because we just all agree this is how it should work.

The notion, put forward by Gates in his open letter, that developers have the right to license software as they see fit and have that license respected, is not the antithesis of open source, it is the foundation of it.

It was a revolutionary idea at the time, that developers set their terms and users should respect them, upon which the free software and later open source movements were entirely based.

Gates was right.

It would be seven years before courts would recognize that software code could be copyrighted.

The open letter was not a declaration of war against open source. Without respect for licensing, that unique social contract between developer and user, the GPL and open source would not function, nor would we have the benefit of all the quality open source software upon which modern computing is based.

The open source movement owes a nod to the idea Gates put forward in his open letter. The open letter deserves its proper context in the development of open source.

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