Software Theft

I was lying in my bed trying to fall asleep when my mind took a trip down memory lane and stumbled upon this story. It was probably 1986. My Mom had a software company with a partner, let’s call him Thomas, a whiz-kid programmer whom I was very fascinated with at the time, to say the least. He seemed like a very grown-up, mature person to me then, but he was probably only around 23. But then I was around 13 myself.

Thomas and his team mates had written this DOS based office suite (word processing, database, etc.) with a 30% market share in Denmark, and a small handful of other applications (Whatever happened to DSI-UTIL? Does anyone even remember TSR?).

I myself was writing some DOS applications, and tried to emulate the style of my heroes. One day as I was visiting the office with my Mom after hours, I sat at one of the programmers’ computer, and must have stumbled upon some code. I have no recollection of the details, I must’ve somehow transported the two or three source files home on a 5¼” floppy, but anyhow, I do remember sitting at home again looking over some of their code. I didn’t understand most of it, they were using a bunch of library procedures which I didn’t have, but I do remember getting the big picture.

I went into action immediately, and refactored (the alert reader will note that the term refactoring was only invented for this use much much later, but still, that’s what I was doing) some of my own code to work the same basic way (it was something with a REPEATUNTIL loop which would get a single keystroke, update the screen accordingly, and continue until some key was pressed to leave the current input field).

Somehow Thomas and his friends found out about this, and I was called to order. I was lectured about how this source code was their livelihood, and how I couldn’t go around snooping, and that I’d misused their trust. While they were at it, they were also annoyed that my UI looked too much like theirs, and they were worried that I’d stolen much more code than what I had. I sortof understood what they were getting at, though I was confused, because I only did see a few files, and didn’t feel like I’d made anything real off of it. But I did get to work right there and then, in their office, on changing the UI of my application in some really stupid way, just to make them happy that it was different from theirs.

Thinking back, two major things happened since then that puts a new perspective on things (apart from the fact that I grew up to have my own software company and Thomas is now a commercial airline pilot).

One is open source software. Today, I’m in the business of making sure that as many people as possible see and learn from my code. The very thing that was important to him in order to preserve his livelihood is lethal to my livelihood. Of course, I still realize that what I did wasn’t right, and that there are still plenty of businesses around with the business model he had in mind back then, even a few that are more profitable than mine.

The other is the fact that today, in fact almost a decade ago, when Windows violently entered the desktop market, that code was immediately rendered completely obsolete. Again, that does nothing to detract from the value it had back then. Technology has its time, even the cars that people paid big money for back then are competely worthless today. Such is the dynamics in a fast-paced industry. But it still makes it a bit ironic for me to think back on, considering how big a deal it was to me at the time. :)


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