Jerry Garcia – Father of Open Source

Yesterday was the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death. I met him once, backstage at the Oakland Coliseum in 1988 during the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve show, and we talked about banjo playing, Steve Martin, and his fondness for Forbes Magazine. A very nice man.

I was in a conference room at CompuServe’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio when I heard the news and I had to excuse myself from the meeting to collect my thoughts. It was also the day of Netscape’s IPO. Ironic that I was in the bastion of closed online systems and mourning the death of the Godfather of OpenSource.

I had been a Dead Head since a friend left me a copy of Mars Hotel he “borrowed” from an older brother. I was in my formative years in terms of music taste and one song on that album — Unbroken Chain — mystified me enough to propel me to start buying every Dead album I could get my hands on. This was in the very early 1970s, when the band was arguably at their zenith, and I was old enough to wish I was a hippie, but young enough to know I wasn’t. In August of 1976 — thirty years ago — I saw my first Dead show at Colt Park in Hartford. It was chaotic, amazing, and the beginning of a fondness that hasn’t passed yet.

In the mid-80s I found a BBS called the Brokedown Palace where Dead Heads posted ASCII files of the shows they owned and the shows they wanted. You could download other Dead Heads’ lists, see what they had, and propose a trade. It was strictly honor system. The preferred media were Maxell Gold 90 minute tapes. So I invested in a dual deck cassette recorder and started swapping, finding along the way one of my best friends, Ben Lipman, who was a senior at Milton Academy and thought it very funny he was swapping tapes with a writer at a business magazine with two babies in a Boston apartment.

The process was simple. You’d identify the ten tapes (two per show generally) from another trader’s list which were usually annotated in terms of their quality and “generation” or the degrees of separation away from the original recording. A first generation tape was one recorded either directly by a taper — who was a fan who purchased a ticket for a special section set aside by the band. There, in the company of other tapers, they would use a Sony D5 or D6 and stick a forest of microphones up in the air on telescoping poles. Very coveted were so-called Betty Boards, or tapes made by a woman who worked for the sound crew and were directly patched off of the band’s soundboard.

An email would be sent to the person you wanted to trade to, and they in turn would look at your catalogue. select ten they wanted, and off you went to the store to buy a box of Maxells. For a day or two you’d copy your tapes to the blanks, provide the set lists, stick everything back in the box, wrap it up, and snail mail it off. A few more days would go by and like a miracle a box of tapes would arrive in your mailbox. I never once was screwed in the transaction.
A compendium to all the Grateful Dead’s concerts, DeadBase, was compiled by some Dartmouth geeks. It became my bible, ranking every song, every concert, every set list.
I accumulated well over 500 cassettes which I still have today, slowly rotting in the attic, but the source of covetous fascination by my son’s friends, all of whom are Dead Heads in their own right. The band decided to release their own recordings under the Dick’s Picks label, and I think there are about 50 live shows now available on CD. Definitely not as fun as the old Brokedown Palace days, or trading on the W.E.L.L., but the quality can’t be argued with.

The Dead were the first band to encourage their fans to record shows and share them. As Garcia said, when the band was done with the music it was the fan’s to share. The only rule was no selling or profiteering and the fans were self-policing, criticizing anyone who tried to sell bootlegs.

Other bands followed suit — notably (and ironically because of their lead role in criticizing Napster) Metallica and Phish. The advent of digital recording technology and the ride of the Internet, specifically Brewster Kahle’s archive.org sparked a renaissance in the past decade, leading to the controversial decision to shut down the availability of shows through archive.org a year ago.

So, why is Jerry Garcia the god-father of OpenSouce? It’s pretty simple — Garcia’s support of profit-free trading marked a breakthrough in the music world in terms of intellectual property rights. The engineering-geek slant of many of the fans (the W.E.L.L. was dominated by it’s Dead conferences, many of the participants were Valley engineers) permeated the tape-trading culture.

This post was sparked by J.P. Rangaswami’s “about” page at Confused of Calcutta.

“…given that my thoughts on opensource were probably more driven by Jerry Garcia than by Raymond or Stallman or Torvalds et al.”

The sharing ethic that drove the development of the computing industry in the 60s and 70s (see John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said) evolved into the shareware movement of the late 80s and eventually was a driver behind the Free Software Foundation, the formation of the General Public License, and today is, it may be argued, the basis of the OpenSource movement. Stewart Brand, the founder of the W.E.L.L., uttered the famous quote at the first Hacker’s Conference:

“”Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

When launching Forbes.com in 1994, there was intense debate about whether or not to lock the content behind a subscription wall. I stuck to my guns that we needed to be free and big, not paid and small, and philosophically my instincts were driven by Captain Trips more than anything else.