6.1 Speaking in Tongues

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.

I was part of the free software movement for many years, but I didn't know it. When I was a graduate student, I released the source code to a project. In 1991, that was the sort of thing to do in universities. Publishing the source code to a project was part of publishing a paper about it. And the academy put publishing pretty high on its list.

My first big release came in May 1991 when I circulated a program that let people hide secret messages as innocuous text. My program turned any message into some cute play-by-play from a baseball game, like "No contact in Mudsville! It's a fastball with wings. No wood on that one. He's uncorking what looks like a spitball. Whooooosh! Strike! He's out of there." The secret message was encoded in the choices of phrases. "He's out of there" meant something different from "He pops it up to Orville Baskethands." The program enabled information to mutate into other forms, just like the shapeshifting monsters from The X-Files. I sent out an announcement to the influential newsgroup comp.risks and soon hundreds of people were asking for free copies of the software.

I created this program because Senator Joe Biden introduced a bill into the Senate that would require the manufacturers of all computer networks to provide a way for the police to get copies of any message. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, among others, was afraid that they would have trouble obtaining evidence if people were able to encode data. My software illustrated how hard it would be to stop the flow of information.

The best, and perhaps most surprising, part of the whole bloom of email came when a fellow I had never met, D. Jason Penney, converted the program from the fading Pascal into the more popular C. He did this on his own and sent the new, converted software back to me. When I asked him whether I could distribute his version, he said that it was my program. He was just helping out.

I never thought much more about that project until I started to write this book. While two or three people a month would write asking for copies of the software, it never turned into more than a bit of research into the foundations of secret codes and a bit of a mathematical parlor trick. It was more an academic exercise than a prototype of something that could rival Microsoft and make me rich.

In the past, I thought the project never developed into more than a cute toy because there was no market for it. The product wasn't readily useful for businesses, and no one starts a company without the hope that millions of folks desperately need a product. Projects needed programmers and programmers cost money. I just assumed that other free software projects would fall into the same chasm of lack of funding.
Now, after investigating the free software world, I am convinced that my project was a small success. Penney's contribution was not just a strange aberration but a relatively common event on the Internet. People are quite willing to take a piece of software that interests them, modify it to suit their needs, and then contribute it back to the world. Sure, most people only have a few hours a week to work on such projects, but they add up. Penney's work made my software easier to use for many C programmers, thus spreading it further.

In fact, I may have been subconsciously belittling the project. It took only three or four days of my time and a bit more of Penney's, but it was a complete version of a powerful encryption system that worked well. Yes, there was no money flowing, but that may have made it more of a success. Penney probably wouldn't have given me his C version if he knew I was going to sell it. He probably would have demanded a share. Lawyers would have gotten involved. The whole project would have been gummed up with contracts, release dates, distribution licenses, and other hassles that just weren't worth it for a neat way to hide messages. Sure, money is good, but money also brings hassles.