Road Ahead, Road Behind

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

January 21, 2000

Copyright ©2000 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

The road ahead is sometimes difficult to see, but even more obscured is the road behind. Mythologists and evangelists and faux-historians crowd the path, following the famous to pick up their detritus and declare holy relics.

How many now see only visionary titans in the accidental billionaires, raised high on the shoulders of circumstance?

Twenty years ago, I was researching and interviewing for the cover story on software copyright for a now-forgotten monthly called 80 Microcomputing. In March 1980 -- hardly two months after the 'birth of DOS' -- I interviewed two dozen equally unknown software authors and users by mail and telephone, including a young Bill Gates. The complete interview is posted on Slashdot.

After recently reading yet another feature on the 'visionary' Gates, I wondered if I remembered him incorrectly. My memory said he was pragmatic, acquisitive, dismissive, and whiny. Could that have been true? I hunted for the old tapes. My memory served correctly.

A lot about Bill Gates can be explained by his sound and his early pronouncements. And I found another use for this curious holy relic, muddied by the hum and noise on a Woolworth's cassette -- music!

Gates was fierce about ownership of his programs, and harsh with anyone who disagreed. Though correctly confident that copyright would eventually be extended to software in magnetic and ROM form, he was uninterested in any larger picture. Facts came first, laws second, and philosophy -- if at all -- last.

The late John Hersey (author of Hiroshima) was a member of the congressional Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works. He disagreed with the very concept of a computer program being protected by copyright, writing me that a copyrightable musical score "tells the human performer what fingers to push 'up-down' on wind instruments and when the lungs should go 'in-out', and what the fingers should do on the strings. In the case of the computer program, the instructions become part of the machinery and make the 'up-down' and 'in-out' take place." The distinction Hersey made -- that copyrightable works are intended for humans and programs are intended for machines. -- was dismissed by Gates.

He said, "Hershey [sic] was way off in left field ... He takes this thing that we're dehumanizing society by protecting our work, you know, that everybody should be, that somehow people can feel mechanistic things, and society is a little more human."

The future billionaire and visionary programmer had trouble assembling sentences, didn't know his authors from his candy bars, and pronounced the act of lifting verbal goods "plague-arism". In 1980, his college departure was painfully obvious -- as was his bulldog approach to his own rightness of his view of the world through the lens of property.

Questioning that rightness engaged his anger, but came in a pale second to someone taking advantage of his work.

One of Microsoft's major achievements at the time was writing the 16K BASIC that ran the Radio Shack microcomputer whose retronym was Model I. A copy of the source code was the hobbyist's holy grail, and several surreptitious disassemblies appeared in the home-brew press.

Gates believed that it wasn't in the consumer's interest to know about the software -- documentation wasn't sold as a feature of his software and "the support burden would just be unbelievable. I mean, they would virtually have to hire experts to answer the phone and spend hours educating people ... explain[ing] it to me and my eight-year-old son." The future of technical support was already being written.

But educating people was part of that hobbyist programmer community, and when presented with the fact of disassembled ROMs being sold, Gates exploded. "He's got our code in hex? He certainly violated our rights! That's my material! Whose does he think it is? ... I mean, that's ludicrous! All he did was take our stuff!" He continued with high irritation, concluding, "He's crossed the line. That's our material!"

Despite his fury, to Gates, this microcomputer software was still the low-end, clearly not yet the vision of the future he's rewritten it to be. "We view this thing totally as an experiment. If there aren't enough honest people out there to buy the stuff, we'll end it."

Long ago, Gates also wasn't interested in working through the courts to validate his view of copyright. No, he said, "I couldn't afford that kind of pioneering effort, taking something like that to court. I'd be out of business." Many years later, Gates was still skittish to engage the Justice Department during the first stages of the anti-trust investigation. And pioneering efforts?

But the real stunner came when asked to comment about his company: "There's nobody getting rich writing software that I know of. There are people who would like to stay in business and earn a salary." There's nobody getting rich writing software.

It was this line, spoken clearly and unequivocally, that inspired me -- former programmer, software author, and tech writer -- to create No Money (Lullaby for Bill).

Throughout my programming days, I remained a composer, for my own vision was that the microcomputer would become my amanuensis for scoring and playback. In 1978, my piece Rando's Poetic License at the Washington (D.C.) Project for the Arts was one of the first audience-interactive works to use a microcomputer, using hand-built interfaces and software.

But MIDI developed and eventually sound editors appeared. My own business, Green Mountain Micro, went bankrupt while I continued to create computer-controlled sound environments with strung-together KIMs and TRS-80s and Color Computers and OSIs. I went to Europe, learned new ideas, and returned to America ready to start again.

Yes, I finally gave up on the old machines and bought Bill's product in 1992, a PC running Windows with early Finale and Cakewalk software. Apple products were pricey, Linux was years away, and my old hardware would run on PCs. So there it was, and here I still am, using a platform for which buckets of interesting sound software is available.

But the words of that high-voiced, certain, dogged, pragmatic, intolerant young businessman haunted me.

So I cleaned up the interview, chose about 30 snippets of text to massage, manipulated these voice clips and transformed parts of them into instruments (with CoolEdit 2000 and other software on my cobbled-together overclocked Celeron 450 PC), and sequenced them with Cakewalk Pro Audio.

The centerpiece of the music is that crystal-clear lack of vision -- or denial, or diversion, or lie -- "There's nobody getting rich writing software."

The excerpted clips follow. Those in bold are audible in the music; the remainder were transformed into the various instruments, but every sound you hear emanated from the throat of Bill Gates. No Money (Lullaby for Bill) is available at MaltedMedia.

  1. There's lots
  2. In any way
  3. I'm sorry
  4. Umloops: ROMs, um, um, um, and, are, um, and, or, um, um, and, and, well, um, um, um, um, and, uh, see, um, I, and, and, um, uh, no, and-uh, okay, bye-bye
  5. I was involved in the CONTU thing
  6. ROMs, magnetic media, diskettes
  7. Hershey was just way off in left field
  8. That's what he thinks
  9. We're dehumanizing society
  10. If somehow people can feel mechanistic things, then society is a little more human
  11. It does not say
  12. No, it doesn't say that either
  13. Any sort of plagarism
  14. They're nothing novel about this
  15. That's a question of fact, not of law
  16. You take their money and you give it away
  17. We don't need to pay
  18. They put, they put, they put software companies out of business
  19. Nobody's willing to pay the cost
  20. I couldn't afford that kind of pioneering effort
  21. Who? who? who? Interpreting the law?
  22. Well, it doesn't really matter
  23. There's nobody getting rich writing software
  24. We are the most ripped-off company around
  25. If there aren't enough people out there to buy this stuff, we'll end it
  26. It's not overwhelmingly successful
  27. Well, if they want
  28. That's my material; whose does he think it is?
  29. That's ludicrous
  30. All he did was take our stuff
  31. Okay, I have to go