Dan D rnberg, publisher at Peer-to-Peer
Pirates of Open Source: A Lions Tale -- 12/20/99
Communications, Inc. calls this the last feel -good story of the millennium. It's the story of John Lions, who wrote a work about the source code in Unix 6, and after 20 years of suppression by the owners of the code, saw his work published legally, just before his premature death from illness.
Lions was a computer science teacher in Australia in the mid-'70s when he first saw the source code for Unix, 6th Ed., the work of two Bell Labs employees that is widely hailed as the most brilliant software ever written. Lions liked the code so much that in 1977 he wrote what amounts to a literary criticism of it, Unix Source Code Level 6 and A Commentary on Unix, collectively referred to as "The Lions Book," to show his students how to write a good operating system. Unfortunately for Lions, Western Electric, the actual owner of the code, wanted to protect its trade secret, and moved to suppress even such educational uses as Lions's. Only 6th Ed. license holders should see the code, the company argued.
This was the era when Xerox machines became cheap enough for many people to have access to one, though, so, as D rnberg told PW, it, "The Lions Book quickly became the most pirated book in history. Fifth- and sixth-generation copies, barely legible, became prized heirlooms."
Over the years, the official Unix Support Group became the owner of the code, and was sold first to Novell and later to the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO). One of the two original authors, Dennis Ritchie, importuned each code owner to let Lions's work be published for the good of all computer users. Finally SCO relented, and in 1996 allowed Peer-to-Peer to publish Lions' Commentary on Unix 6th Edition as part of a four-volume history of computing edited by top Unix guru Peter Salus.
"It turned out we had to race to get the book published because John had a fatal disease, and we wanted him to see his creation make good," D rnberg continued.
Unix Review magazine named Lions' Commentary the Book of the Year when it came out -- not bad for a 20-year-old book about 25-year-old technology. Lions died a year ago this week, having lived just long enough to see his book back in print legally.
D rnberg said, "Lions' Commentary is enjoying renewed interest now because of the rise of the Open Source/Linux movement." Supporters of Open Source software feel that Lions's story represents a dual lesson for them. First, write code that works; second, the best way to guarantee the first part is for the users of the software to own the code and share the responsibility to make it work. "It has been and remains an important inspiration to the Open Source/Linux movement," D rnberg noted. "Linus Torvalds said that if he had had access to Lions' Commentary, he wouldn't have had to write Linux."
And all those Unix users wouldn't have become pirates.
"The book has been through three printings," D rnberg reported, "and the fourth is not far behind. And there is international interest -- we just signed a deal for a translation in China."
Lions' Commentary on Unix 6th Edition is available in a $29.95 paperback, distributed by the Coriolis Group.
Volume 245 Issue 51 12/20/1999