From reference, page 4, The official ubuntu book, Eighth edition,

As computer’s became cheaper and more numerous in the late 1970’s, producer’s of software began to see value in the software itself.

Producers of computers began to argue that their software could be copyrighted and was a form of intellectual property much like a music recording, a film, or a book’s text.

They began to distribute their software under licenses and in forms that restricted its users’ abilities to use, redistribute or modify the code. By the early 1980’s, restrictive software licenses had become the norm.

Stallman, then a programmer at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, became increasingly concerned with what he saw as a dangerous loss of the freedoms that software users and developers has previously enjoyed.

Richard M. Stallman created the concept of free software in 1983.

My question:

Before coining free software concept(in 1983),

Was the software(before 1970's) released with free source?

  • I'm pretty sure I remember using free software before 1983. The original Adventure game came out in the late 70's, for example.
    – Bryan Oakley
    Mar 7, 2017 at 3:40
  • @BryanOakley What was the idea to coin open/free source(in 1983), when free software concept was in place(before 1983)? What is the value add? Mar 7, 2017 at 3:41
  • 1
    Tiny Basic was released as free software in 1975. There was also DECUS which distributed free software on tape. You might want to read this article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Bryan Oakley
    Mar 7, 2017 at 3:49
  • 5
    "Was the software(before 1970's) released with free source?" – Please define what you mean with "free source". That term is not a well-defined, universally recognized term. In fact, a quick Google search seems to indicate that you made up the term specifically for this question, since I couldn't find a single instance of it being used anywhere else. Mar 7, 2017 at 8:54
  • @JörgWMittag When I say free source, Was the software distributed with source code that can be modified? With the privilege for software users to modify the source code? Yes free source is not a standard term. My bad Mar 7, 2017 at 16:10

6 Answers 6


Was the software(before 1970's) released with free source?

Well, there was surely software released with and without free source, and lots of machine code software where the distinction was of minor concern, but I guess the point is the majority of software was released without a written license.

Moreover, don't forget at that time there was no internet, even 8 inch floppy disks came to the market after 1970, the typical form of distribution of software was on a physical data medium like a tape, a punch card, or it was directly released together with the hardware. So actually the act of copying software took a lot more time and effort than it takes today. I guess the question of rights to copy software, allowing or preventing this on a legal basis, just started to become a concern at that time.


Your question is very unclear and confused, but the simple answer is: before the 1970s, software wasn't copyrightable in the US, so the very idea of "licensing" doesn't apply. You cannot put a copyright license on something that isn't copyrightable.

In the US, companies started to argue that computer program source code was protected as a literary work, and judges slowly started setting precedent, until protection of computer program source code was explicitly added to 17 USC §101 in 1980 by Congress. In other countries, the process was similar. Nowadays, the TRIPS treaty requires all member states of the WTO to protect computer programs as literary works as defined by the Revised Berne Convention.

  • Before you get downvotes for this, can you explain why you think so? According to Wikipedia, copyright law goes back to 1790 (not 1970), so why do you think software was not copyrightable?
    – Doc Brown
    Mar 7, 2017 at 9:17
  • 3
    Because copyright law says what is copyrightable, and I am pretty sure computer programs are not listed in the copyright act of 1790. In the US, discussion about copyright for software didn't start until the 1970s. I didn't feel the need to repeat this, since it is already stated in the question. Mar 7, 2017 at 9:47
  • 1
    I guess the problem was two-fold: at first, software wasn't even being recognized as something valuable and/or creative, and then once it was recognized, it wasn't clear whether it was protected. According to Wikipedia, the US Copyright Office started to recognize copyright for software under its "Rule Of Doubt" in the 1970s, which seems to imply that there was, in fact, doubt. Mar 7, 2017 at 10:51
  • 2
    For example, the German Law explicitly restricts copyright to "works of literature, science, and art", and it is universally recognized that engineering works are not copyrightable, so the fact that software is copyrightable is not at all self-evident; it is, in fact, only a consequence of artificially lumping it in with poems, sonnets, novels, etc. under "works of literature". Mar 7, 2017 at 10:58
  • 1
    @DocBrown see Software copyright on Wikipedia for a detailed discussion and history of all this. Before 1980, software wasn't considered copyrightable in the US. Mar 7, 2017 at 13:54

As the quoted statement says, the value of software was only recognized later so it was more not-an-issue than free. It was just unthinkable one could build a business (or hurt the hardware manufacturer's business) by writing software for a couple of multi-million dollar machines in the world that were typically programmed by their owners already.

This pattern is universal to technology. First the money is made with hardware, then with services and finally with content, as each of these progressively gets cheaper (= less valuable).


Answering this is a bit like trying to nail jelly to a wall as it depends on what software we're talking about and the definition of "free".

In the timeframe you describe, the sheer number of machines was far lower than it is now. Coupled with this is the fact that a lot of the software was bespoke to the business or closely aligned with the machine.

As machines became more plentiful and software more transferable (through media) and portable (via 3rd generation languages) did the concept of software having value appear. Once the hare was set running, there was naturally pressure the other way that some software should be free.

In a nutshell, the concept of free (as in beer) software didn't exist as the concept of massed produced (or distributed) portable paid for software didn't exist as it does now. Software was bundled with the hardware at considerable cost.

This isn't to say that software wasn't passed around without charge (free as in speech). I remember working with a retirement age COBOL developer when I was starting out 20 years ago and he mentioned that it wasn't uncommon for programmers to tweak the source and liaise with the supplier with a view to including it in the next release.

  • 2
    "This isn't to say that software wasn't passed around without charge (free as in speech)." -- um, that is definitely not the definition of "free as in speech". Maybe you accidentally left a misplaced example from an earlier edit of your answer?
    – Andres F.
    Mar 7, 2017 at 13:04
  • Taken out of context, no it isn't. This describes sharing of source code between the supplier and customer with a view to improving the quality of the software. See the section on UNIVAC here.
    – Robbie Dee
    Mar 7, 2017 at 14:44

Nope, I don't think it was all free, nor always with source, even in the late 1960's. I recall a program called Mulreg (for multiple regression) that ran on our System 360's (first /30, and later /40 and 50). This was at NYU's School of Commerce, and we got it free from the University of "I-don't-remember", where it was written, because of our educational status. But I believe commercial users had to pay, and even we never had Mulreg's source. Aside: you could always tell when Mulreg was running because of the distinctive pattern of tape rewind noises it made munging through data. Also, on the /30, the console lights displayed a distinctive blinking pattern when running Mulreg. But the /40 and 50 ran much faster, and their console lights were always just a continuous blur. Googling mulreg is getting me a few hits, but only of much later programs using the same name. I'm not able to google anything on the entire internet about that original program I'm talking about here.

Besides Mulreg, there was another even more comprehensive statistics package in the same late 1960's timeframe whose name is slipping my mind at the moment, and that I don't think was free. But there was lots and lots of free stuff, like IBM's Scientific Subroutine Package, which still has lots of google hits (in fact, I just stepped away for a minute to dig up my original paper copy of its "Version III Programmer's Manual", Fifth Edition, August 1970).

As far as copyright, per se, is concerned, I'm not personally sure, but preceding answer seems to nail that down. However, I am personally sure that some software was commercial. And OS's didn't really count one way or the other in that regard, since IBM and other manufacturers rented rather than sold (until the courts forced them to sell) their machines. And rental included OS's and on-site software support for them. Aside: as I recall, if you're curious, our 360/30 rental was $10,000/month, and that was 1968 dollars, for a machine that was roughly equivalent to an original IBM 8088-based PC.

edit University of "I-don't-remember" mentioned above is, I think, U of Wisconsin. So, okay, I've got to ask: does anybody here personally recall Mulreg and similar programs from that period? It's remarkable, at least to me, that google can't find one single reference anywhere on the internet to that original Mulreg program. Feel free to contribute some additional stuff below here, including corrections to anything I've mis-remembered above (please don't edit any above mistakes, just leave them as-is and add corrections below).


My question:

Before coining free software concept(in 1983),

Was the software(before 1970's) released with free source?

My father (Dimitri Starynkevitch, died in 1993) developed the PAF compiler on CAB500 in the early 1960s in France.

If I recall correctly, the CAB500 computer could be sold (before 1965) with the "source code" of PAF on punched tapes, or at least printed in books.

Later my father worked at IBM. on the PL/1 compiler.

The PAF compiler was not free software, it was just sold with the computer (probably in source form, printed in books). I believe customers could buy IBM 370 mainframes with source code of PL/1.

I had the privilege to type PAF programs on an old CAB500 computer at Palais de la Découverte in the mid 1970s (as a teenager). Some parts of it are visible (in 2021 or 2022) at Paris Arts et Métiers museum.

IIRC, source code was then considered more like an art, e.g. like music or mathematical proofs or books, than as something patentable. And before Internet, source code was sent on magnetic tapes or punched cards by trucks.

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