Subject: Re: Sun, BSD, and GNU
Date: 30 May 1999 02:22:50 -0000

John, thanks for the great write-up explaining the situation!  As I could
only speculate based on my sketchy knowledge of Sun's history, I tried
to put the most positive BSD "spin" on what might have happened, so
it's interesting to get the opinion of One Who Was There, and that
opinion being, no, having BSD'd vs. GPL'd code was not a major factor
in making billions of dollars.

It's particularly pertinent, since my wife and I are *slowly* (in fits
and starts) watching a video I taped off of PBS many months (maybe a
year) ago, a 3-hour-or-so show on the history of the Internet, and
we recently watched the part about Sun's beginnings.

(An aside: I find the '60s-'70s stuff most familiar, because I was
getting into computers then, hacked on the ARPANET at MIT, etc., so I
recognize it.  My wife, on the other hand, finds the '80s stuff a bit
more familiar to her than the earlier, because she attended Stanford
around that time.  Though her MBA had hardly anything to do with
computers, she remembers using Emacs there.  Oh, though, she also
remembers having to run computer programs back at Middlebury in the '60s,
but barely.)

We're just getting into a part of the show that explains the importance
of the influence Whole Earth Lectronic Link (sp? anyway, WELL) had on
today's Internet.

If the show is to be believed on *that* topic, it's interesting to observe
the chain of influence:

  -  Lots of people have already made $millions because of the sudden
     impact of the Internet (the rapidly growing user base).

  -  WELL supposedly influenced (positively) the speed at which
     "ordinary" people came onto the Internet, perhaps (when we
     get back to watching the show) some formative aspects of
     standards, during a critical phase (one of many!).

  -  WELL probably wouldn't have survived, early on, if a certain
     two-month period didn't see a huge increase in subscribers,
     basically all of which were Grateful Dead fans wanting to talk
     to each other.

  -  What probably drove most of those Grateful Dead fans to take
     the plunge, buy and learn how to use a computer just to get
     onto WELL, wasn't just *talking* to GD fans, but being able
     to get into the "market" of trading tapes, which I assume are
     bootlegs of GD concerts.  (I get the impression this was essentially
     a very-low-cash-flow market, but a barter market or even a
     gift economy is a market just the same.)

  -  Bootlegs are normally illegal, and I gather record companies normally
     try to shut down any sufficiently large gathering of people openly
     trading bootlegs.  But the GD "officially" sanctioned them, from
     what I've read, even offering audience members the ability to "jack
     in" to the sound board to get the "best possible" sound.

  -  Not only were GD bootlegs thus free to *exchange*, they may well have
     been *effectively*, if not legally, GPL'ed.

Why do I say those tapes were effectively GPL'ed?

Because, as far as the *market* was concerned, you could do anything with
copies of GD tapes you freely received that you wanted, except that
you couldn't profit off of withholding those freedoms when distributing
copies of your tape to others.

Not being a GD fan at all, I'm only guessing at this, based on what little
I've read about this particular phenomenon, but the pertinentaspects of my
thesis are that, having obtained your GD tape in a trade, or just as a
friendly gesture, from someone else, you could:

  -  Make as many copies for yourself as you liked

  -  Modify the tape

  -  Redistribute the tape to others, in original or modified form

But you could not:

  -  Redistribute the tape as your own copyrighted material

  -  Redistribute the tape under some other name

  -  Redistribute the tape on the condition that the recipient would
     not be allowed to distribute it further

(Yes, maybe you could *try* to do those things, and might succeed,
and do it legally, but the *market* apparently did not allow such
actions to succeed on a wide-enough scale for it to happen.)

If my (not quite *entirely* speculative) thesis is correct, this
situation illustrates the subtle effects GPL'ed-style freedoms
*combined* with a market that values those freedoms can have on
the formation of wealth on a large scale.

Because, while it's true people have made $M on today's Internet,
the profits GD fans made trading tapes, even the profits WELL made
off those fans, were comparatively miniscule, while the *real* wealth
being made on the Internet is not so much in the form of the
stockholders of and the like (though that's substantial),
but in the greatly improved ability we all have to use sites like to research opinions of books that we haven't yet

(And, as I pointed out to my wife, one salient difference between today and Prodigy of ten years ago, aside from technical
issues, is that Prodigy was a single-vendor, lock-customer-in deal,
smacking of proprietary-software distributions.  Once you decided
you didn't like what Prodigy chose to sell/advertise/communicate
on behalf of others, you had to leave the *whole* net.  If you don't
like's choice of what to put up on its site, though, you
can easily go to another site run by an entirely different
organization.  That's *much* truer to the notion of "freedom" than
merely being able to communicate with others through a single mediating
third party, however well-intentioned that party might be.)

A lesson here is that, if you tried to muscle into the market of
GD tapes using a non-GPL-like model, that *market* wouldn't have let
you succeed, because that *market* valued its GPL-style freedoms
so strongly, it'd have walked away from your high-priced, "value-added",
tapes as soon as it realized you would use legal muscle to go after
them when they did their normal copying/trading bit.  (Especially
if you sold the tapes under a name other than Grateful Dead, pretending
they were your own creation.)

But, if you happened to be providing *services* to that market,
such as offering lower-friction means of conducting its business,
you could make a profit.  Not as much as you *thought* you could
make proprietizing the tapes themselves, but probably more than
you could *actually* make doing that.  (I'll be really embarrassed
if it turns out some major record company made $billions doing
exactly what I'm saying they couldn't do, but at least I'll be
more informed...assuming someone tells me.  :)

Still, maximum freedom or not, GPL or BSD, wouldn't really have
bothered me if I'd been in on the success of Sun and taken a nice
big cut of change out of the rewards.  After all, I was writing
purely proprietary software almost exclusively during roughly 1978-1989,
and didn't end up invested in any big winners.  (Unless you count
having my 401K automatically "roll out" of the stock market in June
1990, nearly a year after leaving Numerix, combined with our not getting
around to rolling it back into the market months later...*after*
the invasion of Kuwait and the roughly 25% drop in market value during
that period I was "out".  But that still doesn't compare to being an
early shareholder at Sun.  :)

        tq vm, (burley)