of an odd event in my computing career.
There's no such thing as bad publicity, the saying goes.
Unless, of course, you have no interest in being a public figure.
That's where Richard Stallman and I start to diverge.
A friend called early Saturday to report some good news; groggily,
I countered with a feeling of impending doom. I had to spend the
day preparing for a talk Monday afternoon at MIT. The talk itself
would be fine: I'd been invited by Butler Lampson to talk about Plan 9
at the Lab for Computer Science and took that as the kind of honor
I rise to. I'd give a hell of talk, provided I was allowed to.
The problem, I said, is that MIT and I are connected by some history.
I explained about The League for Programming Freedom,
just the `League' to insiders, whose multiply ambiguous name
hearkens to an innocent age in software. Free Software is
like Free Love, a hippie pipe dream in which
computing is free from venality, commercial interests, even
capitalism. The founder of the League, Richard Stallman,
has been preaching the gospel of promiscuous programming
for years now and has won many converts, especially
in academia. Especially at MIT. Especially among the undergraduates.
Especially in the building on Technology Square in Cambridge that
the League shares, in part, with LCS.
Stallman's sermons, in print and in person, always include a
long harangue about patents on software. The citation in that
harangue is usually #4,555,755, AT&T's US patent on what is
colloquially called ``backing store,'' a technique for implementing
windows on a bitmap display. This patent is of particular interest
to Stallman because he claims to have used the idea, before the patent
was filed, while writing the window system for the
Lisp Machine at MIT. The patent is of interest to me because I am
listed as the inventor.
I don't wish to dive into the legal and technical intricacies of
the patent question here. I will just state that I know what I
invented and when I invented it, and I know what Stallman did and
when he did it, and I do not believe that Stallman had nearly as
good an idea as I did. And as for the propriety of software
patents, I signed a contract when I joined AT&T that said, in
effect, that I could work on whatever I fancied and would be
supported well in that endeavor; all AT&T asked in return was that
they be allowed to make money from my work. In Stallman's
world that is a Faustian deal, but then I always thought only
boring people went to Heaven.
When the patent was filed (October 7, 1982; issued
November 26, 1985), there were very few software patents and
the occasion was celebrated. I was congratulated warmly and
people were excited about the future of software patents.
Nowadays, however, the climate in universities at least is
very different, and Richard Stallman is almost single-handedly
responsible for the change. (The business community, on the other
hand, is still excited.)
A few years ago, AT&T began quietly pressing its case on a small
portfolio of computer graphics patents, with #4,555,775 being central.
Polite letters were written to a number of places inviting people
to draw up license agreements; polite letters were returned, and
legalities proceeded normally. (I don't know, and wouldn't say if
I did, what the state of those legalities is today.) One of the
letters went to the X consortium at MIT, where it was largely
ignored. A follow-up letter early in 1991 hit the electronic
bulletin boards, however, and I have been a public figure ever
I hung up and began preparing for the worst. Stallman and I had
never met, and I felt sure he'd capitalize on my visit to his
I was therefore not surprised early Monday afternoon, as we were eating
a takeout lunch in the fifth-floor lounge at LCS, when someone
said that Stallman was preparing to stage a protest at my talk.
Jerry Saltzer went to his office to get a copy of the announcement,
made on a local LCS electronic bulletin board:
Date: Sun, 17 Nov 91 20:26:37 -0500
From: Richard Stallman
Subject: Protest the AT&T backing store patent, Monday afternoon
You may have heard that AT&T has a patent on a simple technique called
"backing store" which consists of saving the hidden parts of a window
in off-screen memory. AT&T is using this patent to threaten to sue
all the users of X windows, including MIT. A few weeks ago, the X
consortium stated that these threats are "chilling to university
Rob Pike, who obtained this patent for AT&T, is going to be visiting
Tech Square on Monday afternoon. If you don't like AT&T's
monopolistic threat, now's the time to express your opinion by joining
in a quiet protest against his visit.
Let's meet on the fourth floor of 545 Tech Square, near room 430,
Please make a sign, even an el-cheapo sign, to identify yourself as
part of the protest. Make up a slogan on the subject of Pike, AT&T,
backing store, X windows, patents..., then write it with a magic
marker on a piece of copier paper.
(Pike has spoken publicly in favor of software patents and the backing
store patent in particular. He is thus not a reluctant participant in
AT&T's campaign of threats.)
This notice has some characteristic inaccuracies, of which the worst
is that AT&T has never threatened to sue anyone over the patent,
but I love it anyway. The penultimate paragraph typifies Stallman
as only Stallman himself can. I asked if Stallman really believed
that people needed instructions on how to make signs. I was told
that among MIT undergraduates a bizarre form of political correctness
had developed, putting Stallman in charge of a pack of eager
misguided nerds who in a healthier environment would probably
be protesting the killing of rats in biology class.
My hosts at LCS were mortified. Stallman had staged a protest
at a company (to complain about Lotus's ``look and feel'' lawsuit),
but had never picketed a technical talk. Moreover, I was the
guest of LCS, not the League, had been invited to give this talk,
and was planning to give a technical lecture, not a legal debate,
on a topic unrelated to patents. There was even a suggestion
about examining the MIT code to see what it said about freedom
of speech. But then someone pointed out that
Stallman, for all his eccentricities (don't get me started) was
polite, and if he wanted a `quiet' protest it would be quiet, and
A wag remarked that in the cloistered MIT world, participating
in a demonstration like this would be a broadening experience.
I was admonished not to talk to the protesters, not to answer
any questions about patents, and to let one of my hosts deflect
any verbal missile hurled at me. I replied that I had expected
as much and was prepared. For example, I was wearing a Bugs Bunny
T-shirt rather than a three-piece suit; I am a researcher more
than an AT&T Ambassador, to quote a giveaway pencil from a few
I needed to go to the lecture room early to prepare a laptop and
overhead projector for a brief demo during my talk. Because of
a scheduling conflict, the room was not a classroom but a sort
of playroom full of bean bags and not enough chairs.
I quickly identified the protesters: they were the ones in the back
with hand-written slogans on pieces of copier paper taped to their
chests. ``We don't back AT&T's Store of Patents,'' was perhaps
the most creative sign, except for a woman in a wheelchair with a
large placard reading, ``Patents Cripple Software.'' I looked
twice to verify that she needed the wheelchair. I tried to meet
Stallman's gaze but he would only steal surreptitious sideways
glances as he nervously paced back and forth in front of his
My equipment set up easily, so I sat down in a reserved chair
in the front row to await the starting time and began chatting
to someone from LCS. Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to
see a sign-encrusted protester. Physical contact. I braced myself.
- Excuse me, would you mind moving? I won't be able to see the screen.
- Don't worry, I'm giving the talk so I'll be moving all through it.
- Fine. Thanks.
He sat down. At that moment, I finally relaxed with the realization
that nothing ugly was going to happen.
And nothing did. The talk went very well; I was pleased with the
story I told, a technical explanation of how distributed applications
are built in Plan 9 using its namespace operations (patent applied for).
The protesters were surprised, I think, that my subject was interesting
to them. At one point they all applauded spontaneously when I described
a feature of the system. I also think they were surprised that the
inventor of #4,555,755 was funny, theatrical, and clever. At least
half the questions (all technical) during and after the talk were from
the protesters. Stallman said nothing.
Afterwards an LCS member said that, as a result of Stallman's ploy,
my audience was about twice what it would have been. The people
he dragged in came for political reasons but ended up learning
Here's what the League's newsletter said about the event:
CAMBRIDGE, MA, November 18, 1991 -- Rob Pike, a software designer
from AT&T Bell Labs, expected to deliver an ordinary seminar on
his latest research project. Instead, he found a room filled
with programmers carrying signs to protest the consequences of
his previous project: the AT&T "backing store" patent which AT&T
has used to threaten all the members of the X Consortium,
including MIT itself.
Of the approximately 80 people present at the talk, about 50
carried protest signs. The protestors (sic) did not try to interfere
with the seminar. They simply raised their signs as Pike began
to speak. This accomplished the purpose of making their ire known.
I accomplished my purpose of delivering a ``seminar on [my] latest
research project.'' Other than being a good talk, it was also,
in the end, pretty ordinary.