/ copyright

Based on Yesterday's Needs

Human systems are usually built brick-by-brick, rule upon rule. Sometimes it seems that nobody's making sure the walls are coming up straight. Every now and then you come across something that exposes the foolishness of the end result.

I want to show you and example of this, but to do that I must start with an explanation of something very technical: the inner workings of a Unix command. In Unix computer systems, the successful execution of a program ends with the system outputting 0. This tells other programs, that the previous action succeeded.

The simplest possible program in a Unix system is the true command. The only thing it does is output a 0.

The source code for the original true command is here:


That's it. Nothing. When the system executes this file, and finds no problem with nothing, it outputs 0, signifying success, or in computy terms, truth.

In 1984, AT&T decided it needed to assert copyright on its own source code, so it added the following to the source of the true command.

 #     Copyright (c) 1984 AT&T
 #       All Rights Reserved
 #     The copyright notice above does not evidence any
 #     actual or intended publication of such source code.
 #ident        "@(#)cmd/true.sh        50.1"

AT&T copyrighted nothing. They claimed intellectual ownership of an empty file.

Ideas are innately unownable. Despite that, we have created a system of ownership of ideas to create an economic incentive for creativity. In the old days this caused no problems, but the writing was always on the wall.

In 1813 Thomas Jefferson wrote to Isaac McPherson.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Computer code can encompass ideas worth of billions of dollars in a form that can be copied and shared for almost zero cost. For those who play only the proprietary game this can be terrifying.

Even big organisations, like IBM and Microsoft, have noticed the immense value of sharing ideas that do not form the core of their businesses.

Nowadays many companies are even building their core businesses around open source and in certain cases, are embracing it fully into their cores.

Human systems are usually built brick-by-brick, rule upon rule. But unlike in masonry, there is nobody making sure that the foundational bricks have any functional integrity or that walls are coming up straight.

Now there is a new house being built and the walls of the older one are certainly showing some cracks.

Cover image by Craig Sunter