[TUHS] Thoughts on UNIX Licensing vs UNIX Technology

Clem Cole clemc at ccc.com
Wed May 16 02:55:24 AEST 2018

Larry’s question about PWB made me think it might be useful to this list
for some of this to be written down.

When you write the story of UNIX, licensing is a huge part of it (both good
and bad).  As I have tried to explain before the 1956 consent decree and
the later 1980 Judge Green ruling, as well as how the AT&T legal department
set up the licenses really cast huge shadows that almost seem trite today;
but seem to have been forgotten.

In fact later licensing would become so important, one of the more infamous
UNIX wars was based on it (if you go back to the original OSF Founding
Principles – two of them are ‘Fair and Stable Licensing Terms’).   As we
all know, because of the original 1956 decree, AT&T was not allowed to be
in the computer business and so when people came calling both to use it
(Academically and Commercially) and to relicense it; history has shown that
AT&T’s management killed the golden goose.   I’d love to hear the views of
Doug, Steve, Ken and other who were inside looking out.

FWIW: These are my thoughts from an Academic and Commercial user back in
the day.   AT&T’s management was clearly concerned about the consent decree
and the original licenses show it.   UNIX was licensed for free to academic
institutions for research use (sans a small tape copying fee) and the bits
were ‘abandoned on your door step.’     This style of license, along with
the publishing of the ideas behind really did get the ideas out and the
academic community loved it.   We used it and we were able to share

The academic license was fine until people want to start to use in a
commercial setting (Rand Corp).   Again, AT&T legal is worried about being
perceived in the computer business, so the original commercial use license
shows it.  AT&T licensing basically uses the academic license but add the
ability to actually use it for commercial purposes.    Then the first
Universities start to want to use UNIX more like a commercial system [Dan
Klein and I would go on strike and force CMU to purchase first commercial
use license for an Academic setting, following by Case Western].

As AT&T management realized the UNIX IP did seem to be some value, just
like the transistor had been earlier, it seems like they wanted to find a
way to keep it under their control.   I remember having a dinner
conversation with Dennis at a USENIX about this topic.  Steve has expressed
they told many folks to treated it as a ‘trade secret’ (which is strange to
me since the cat as already out of the bag by then and the ideas (IP)
behind UNIX had already been extensively published (we even had USENIX
formed to discuss ideas).

By the time Judge Green allows AT&T to be in the computer business I think
AT&T management completely misunderstood the value of what they had.    The
AT&T legal team had changed the commercial rules in every new UNIX release
a new license was created, and thus firms like DEC, HP, IBM *et al* were
getting annoyed because they had begun to invest in the technology
themselves and the feeling inside of those firms was that AT&T management
was changing the ground rules after the game started.

IMO a funny thing happened (bad karma), it seems like the tighter AT&T
management seems to try to control things in the UNIX community, the less
control the community gave them.   Clearly, the new features of the
technology started to be driven by BSD.  But the license was the one place
they could control and they tried.    In fact, by the time of the SVR4 it
all came to a head and OSF was formed because most firms were unwilling to
give AT&T the kind of control they were asking in the that license [as
Larry has previously expressed, Sun made a Faustian deal WRT to SVR4].   In
the end, the others were shipping from an SVR3 license or had bought it
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