Open Source in Academia
In January 1967, tens of thousands of college students and hippies from the Bay Area came together in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for“A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In,” a celebration of uninhibited expression.
This event got a cultural snowball rolling downhill, and it culminated a few months later in the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival, two milestones of the baby boomer generation.
Ten years later, across the Bay, a handful of freewheeling academicians and students (most notably Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy) at the University of California, Berkeley, launched the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD).
This was proto-open source, in that it entailed adding on to the existing Version 6 Unix operating system. The next year, a second BSD distribution came out, and then a third the year after, starting a tradition at UC Berkeley that continues to this day.
Because of the legal and technical properties of the source code, “the BSDs” (as the various BSD programs that sprouted in the ensuing years have come to be called) have had a significant impact on the IT industry.
Some of the offerings that have been heavily influenced by these academic initiatives include Apple’s Mac OS X, Juniper’s JunOS and (not surprisingly) Sun’s SunOS.
Another open-source innovation at UC Berkeley was the development of the ViolaWWW graphical Web browser. This tool, which was developed by undergrad student Pei-Yuan Wei, was the first of its kind with scriptable objects, style sheets and tables. This would directly lead to Java applets when he donated ViolaWWW to Sun Microsystems as a hat tip of sorts to the open-source community.
The generally free-spirited atmosphere of the Bay Area made it a natural location for something like the open-source movement to spring up, particularly in a collegiate environment. Of course, to suggest UC Berkeley was the only place where open source had taken root is to ignore completely what was going on across the country.
In the early 1970s, a Harvard physics student named Richard Stallman, who also worked in the artificial intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), observed the process by which he and other top tech students worked on a wide range of software projects. In these assignments, the software would evolve as it was passed back and forth between these students, who would change it to meet their particular needs or enhance functionality.
Fast-forward about a decade: Now a professor at MIT, Stallman was frustrated by what he perceived to be freedom-stifling proprietary policies of the rising IT companies. In 1984, he left his position at the school to fully devote himself to the GNU Project, which he’d launched just a few months prior.
GNU, which stands for GNU’s Not Unix (a recursive acronym and another example of the droll semantics of this bunch), was at least a Unix-ish operating system that was more or less available for anyone to tweak and tune.
Additionally, in 1985, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation (FSF), an organization created to advocate free software.
It was around this time that the term Copyleft was introduced — not by Stallman but by his colleague Don Hopkins, who would go on to contribute to popular computer games such as “SimCity” and “The Sims.”
Hopkins had written a letter that included the phrase “Copyleft: All Rights Reversed.” Stallman however, was clearly the main driver behind the idea, and efforts such as his GNU Manifesto played the biggest role in shaping and promoting the concept.
Today, open source is hardly limited to pioneering academic institutions such as UC Berkeley and MIT, having spread to almost every university in the United States with an information tec