7. Quicksand

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The story of the end of the university's preeminence in the free software world is a tale of greed and corporate power. While many saw an unhappy ending coming for many years, few could do much to stop the inevitable collision between the University of California at Berkeley and its former patron, AT&T.


The lawsuit between AT&T and the University of California at Berkeley had its roots in what marriage counselors love to call a "poorly conceived relationship." By the end of the 1980s, the computer science department at Berkeley had a problem. They had been collaborating with AT&T on the UNIX system from the beginning. They had written some nice code, including some of the crucial software that formed the foundation of the Internet. Students, professors, scientists, and even Wall Street traders loved the power and flexibility of UNIX. Everyone wanted UNIX.


The problem was that not everyone could get UNIX. AT&T, which had sponsored much of the research at Berkeley, kept an iron hand on its invention. If you wanted to run UNIX, then you needed to license some essential software from AT&T that sat at the core of the system. They were the supreme ruler of the UNIX domain, and they expected a healthy tithe for the pleasure of living within it.


One of the people who wanted UNIX was the Finnish student Linus Torvalds, who couldn't afford this tithe. He was far from the first one, and the conflict began long before he started to write Linux in 1991.
Toward the end of the 1980s, most people in the computer world were well aware of Stallman's crusade against the corporate dominance of AT&T and UNIX. Most programmers knew that GNU stood for "GNU's Not UNIX." Stallman was not the only person annoyed by AT&T's attitude toward secrecy and non-disclosure agreements. In fact, his attitude was contagious. Some of the folks at Berkeley looked at the growth of tools emerging from the GNU project and felt a bit used. They had written many pieces of code that found their way into AT&T's version of UNIX. They had contributed many great ideas. Yet AT&T was behaving as if AT&T alone owned it. They gave and gave, while AT&T took.


Stallman got to distribute his source code. Stallman got to share with others. Stallman got to build his reputation. Programmers raved about Stallman's Emacs. People played GNU Chess at their offices. Others were donating their tools to the GNU project. Everyone was getting some attention by sharing except the folks at Berkeley who collaborated with AT&T. This started to rub people the wrong way.


Something had to be done, and the folks at Berkeley started feeling the pressure. Some at Berkeley wondered why the professors had entered into such a Faustian bargain with a big corporation. Was the payoff great enough to surrender their academic souls? Just where did AT&T get off telling us what we could publish?


Others outside of Berkeley looked in and saw a treasure trove of software that was written by academics. Many of them were friends. Some of them had studied at Berkeley. Some had even written some of the UNIX code before they graduated. Some were companies competing with AT&T. All of them figured that they could solve their UNIX problems if they could just get their hands on the source code. There had to be some way to get it released.


Slowly, the two groups began making contact and actively speculating on how to free Berkeley's version of UNIX from AT&T's grip.