License Zero

gainful open software development

March 29, 2020

Distribution Religion a noncommercial hacker commune, a decade before GPL

Behold the Image Processor, vintage 1973.

Now behold its license terms, the “copy-it-right distribution religion”:

Distribution Religion

The Image Processor may be copied by individuals and not-for-profit institutions without charge. For-profit institutions will have to negotiate for permission to copy. I think culture has to learn to use high-tek machines for personal aesthetic, religious, intuitive, comprehensive, exploratory growth. The development of machines like the Image Processor is part of this evolution. I am paid by the state, at least in part, to do and diseminate this information; so I do.

As I am sure you (who are you) understand a work like developing and expanding the Image Processor requires much money and time. The ‘U’ does not have much money for evolutionary work and getting of grants are almost as much work as holding down a job. Therefore, I have the feeling that if considerable monies were to be made with a copy of the Image Processor, I would like some of it.

Put in your own method of returning energy to me here:


Of course enforcing such a request is too difficult to be bothered with. But let it be known that I consider it to be morally binding.

Much Love,

Daniel J. Sandin
Department of Art
University of Chicago at Chicago Circle

A free, noncommercial, public license. A frank admission of all-too-familiar funding problems. A succinct explanation of public-private licensing. A space for customizable quasi-conditions, no less.

For the curious, conditions of the early collaborators apparently included:

I decided that I would like 1 good tape from each copy of the I.P.

Decidedly communitarian. And an example of share-alike conditions jumping the gap between different kinds of IP-protectable work. But also:

So, I am asking (not telling) that if considerable money were made by an individual with a copy of the Image Processor, or if a copy of the Image Processor were sold (to an individual or not-for-profit institution), I would like 20% gross profit…! Things like $100.00 honorariums sould be ignored.

Decidedly businesslike.

Dig around a bit online, you might find this e-mail response to RMS about computer user freedom movements before 1983. The sender mentions introducing RMS to Sandin and Morton’s work in the 1970s.

It’s not hard to see why, even apart from the resemblance, strange religious hats and all. Later on in Distribution Religion, in notes from collaborator Phil Morton:

If you deviate in the process of ‘copying’ and then Dan makes an improvement on his I-P, you will most likely find it quite frustrating in updating your instrument due to your I-P being incompatible in detail to the original. If you get yourself in a jam, then you have to go to Dan and ‘$PEND’ his time getting you out of it.

Perfect foreshadowing for the birth of EMACS, a standard set of shared, standardized macros for the TECO editor. In the beginning, if you patched EMACS, you owed RMS the patch. To keep the whole forking apart into a big, incompatible mess.

I’m reminded again of Linus’ first license for Linux, a brush with noncommercial terms, to head off those in it “for the quick money”. I’m reminded of L. Peter Deutsch’s Aladdin Public License for Ghostscript, similarly prohibiting charges for copies, even for media, with a patch to GPL. I’m reminded of the personal, noncommercial license for NSCA Mosaic. I’m reminded of the nonprofit acceptable use rules of the NSFNet. And of course I’m reminded of Stallman’s visceral reaction to the sale of James Goslin’s EMACS to UniPress, outside the bounds of his “EMACS Commune”.

There is a theme running through the terms of those who invest delivery the great bursts of labor that set things in motion, then seek to give their fruits away. Left to their own devices, or empowered to put hands on existing terms, they seek defense against commercial expropriation, by available means. Whether worded as injunctions or closer to prayers, they hope to ward off “commercialization” more broadly, especially premature.

Partly because they need money. Pouring all your heart, soul, talent, and time right out tends to leave you that way. But more importantly, I sense, as an act of creative self-defense. Nothing snuffs out the flame of originator passion quite like the prospect of suits and drive-by hucksters sapping the fun out of everything, changing the scene, and attracting more strange goons sniffing principally after banknotes.

This is quite a different human problem from cajoling unpaid, large undifferentiated hackerlings to do free maintenance work. Assuredly, after a burst of great energy, a willingness to maintain often follows, at least for a time. And so there’s no surprising in reading that Dan, Phil, and crew set up occasional open shop, helping hobby copiers fix their copied-wrong Image Processor circuit boards, pro bono. And of course Linus may still play more defense than offense, engineering-wise. But a long, slow burn always follows a spark. Without inspiration, a lot of time, no little luck, and a willingness to throw results to the wind, there’s nothing of interest to maintain.

There is a hard practical aspect to the terms of early sharing. They have to work. But they have to work on the creator—their mentality, their motivation, their continued belief the promise of their work—as well as on others.