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The Emacs commune

Gosling initially allowed free distribution of the source code, to which others had contributed, but as Stallman tells it:

"He stabbed everyone in the back by putting copyrights on it, making people promise not to redistribute it, and then selling it to a software-house"

in April 1983. Stallman was hurt by what he saw as a betrayal, and was to say of Gosling:

"My later dealings with him personally showed that he was every bit as cowardly and despicable as you would expect from that history. "

Gosling's sale of GOSMACS to Unipress led to recriminations and legal threats against Stallman, and his experience with Gosling undoubtedly coloured his future attitude towards the law as it applied to software, leading to the founding of GNU, and the later hack on copyright law which became the GPL, although the GPL itself didn't emerge until several years afterwards.

In an email to the GOSMACS mailing list, Gosling wrote that:

"Emacs has grown to be completely unmanageable. Its popularity has made it impossible to distribute free: just the task of writing tapes and stuffing them into envelopes is more than I can handle," and "the alternative of abandoning it to the public domain is unacceptable. Too many other programs have been destroyed that way."

The first release of GNU Emacs (numbered 15.34) was in 1985, and still incorporated some of Gosling's display code. The dispute continued, with Unipress announcing that it wanted to "inform the community that portions of the GNU Emacs program are most definitely not public domain, and that use and/or distribution of the GNU Emacs program is not necessarily proper." This was countered by Fen Labalme and others who claimed that Gosling had included their code in the sale to Unipress.

Stallman solved the problem in characteristic fashion by announcing:

"I have decided to replace the Gosling code in GNU Emacs, even though I still believe Fen and I have permission to distribute that code, in order to keep people’s confidence in the GNU project. I came to this decision when I found, this night, that I saw how to rewrite the parts that had seemed hard. I expect to have the job done by the weekend."

Within a week he had replaced the disputed code and GNU Emacs had become the vital element in his "explicit political campaign to make software free." The Emacs commune evolved into the free software movement, and GNU Emacs and gcc, the hammer and chisel of the free software movement, became the early flagships for the GNU operating system.

The first tangible version of the GPL emerged as 'the GNU Emacs copying permission notice' in 1985, and went through several versions before the release of GPL 1.0 in 1989.

Inside the cathedral

Although Emacs in all its versions has been around for more than thirty years, and despite the copyright wars, the copies and imitations of the "ersatz Emacs", engagements with vi and the coming of RADs, Emacs remains a thing of beauty and the programming environment of choice for the many developers who revel in its infinite extensibility and ability to become whatever you want it to become.

And although many still claim to find it dated or difficult, Bernie Greenberg was moved to say back in 1979:

"It was soon found that Emacs could be taught within minutes or an hour to those with no technical experience at all. Experienced and sophisticated users found Emacs to be eminently more usable than any of the previous forms of editing, and via the construction of more macros (for processing Lisp source programs, for example), could rapidly be extended to handle any task in the same manner."

Emacs continues to grow, gaining new macros and support for languages, toolkits and data formats, anti-aliased fonts, Unicode support, XML editing, and Ruby mode. It continues to recruit new users and initiates to the religious and philosophical movement that is the Church of Emacs.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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