MS attacking government use of "open source"

Bob Drzyzgula bob at
Thu May 23 10:09:08 PDT 2002

On Thu, May 23, 2002 at 09:14:07AM -0600, Andrew Shewmaker wrote:
> >    "Microsoft has argued that some free-licensing
> >    regimes are antithetical to the government's
> >    stated policy that moneymaking applications
> >    should develop from government-funded research
> >    and that intellectual property should be
> >    protected."
> I don't understand why many people (not just MS) are so adamantly 
> opposed to the GPL.  I know that the GPL is not for everything, but 
> it is really a good license for the information age.  Instead of paying 
> for the right to use the software with money, a person simply pays with 
> any source code modifications they make.

What follows is simply my understanding of the arguments
on both sides of the issue. I very well may have got some
things wrong, in which case I offer my regrets and invite

I think that a lot of this comes down to what you
believe about the concept of royalties and rentals, and
intellectual property in general. There are those who
believe that royalties are, if not "wrong", then at least
are a questionable way to produce an income (in fact, these
are two examples of what are called "unearned income"). I
don't want to put words in his mouth, but by my reading
of the GNU Manifesto[1], Richard Stallman is one of these
people. RMS argues that far greater societal wealth is
created by freeing intellectual property than by "hoarding"
it, and that if everyone shared in this way, then we would
all share in a greater overall level of wealth. RMS further
argues that programmers don't have to sell the rights to
use their programs in order to make a living, they can
simply get paid to write more programs. RMS also has no
problem with someone charging money for the packaging and
distribution of software, even beyond a "nominal fee";
he's quite happy for this kind of activity to happen on
a "what the market will bear" basis. But he wants to be
sure that what is being charged for is the *service* of
packaging and/or distribution of the software, rather than
the right to use, modify and/or redistribute the software,
which in his worldview should always be free.

In any event, Microsoft does not see things this way at
all. Microsoft has no problem whatsoever in selling the
rights to use a piece of intellectual property as many
times as they can get people to buy it. In recent years,
they have even grown uncomfortable with selling perpetual
rights to use their property, and have been trying to
find a way to convince their customers to begin to pay
rentals instead.

These are, of course, two very different worldviews, and
clashes are bound to happen. One of the big concerns that
Microsoft appears to have is in having their intellectual
property, or IP, "contaminated" by the GPL.  Because of the
GPL's requirement that derivative works be covered by the
GPL, Microsoft is very concerned that some portion of their
IP will wind up being subject to this restriction. While
it may be an overreaction, their response to this threat
is to write their licenses in such a way as to prohibit
the mixing of their IP with GPL'd IP, even if it is not
Microsoft itself that might be doing the mixing.

In the past, prior to the publication of the GPL, most
government-supported work such as this has been either
released to the public domain (especially when the work
was done by government employees) or left in the sole
possession of the contractor. In some cases, such as when
Berkeley developed the TCP/IP code for Unix, the IP was
released by the contractor for anyone to use. In others,
such as the RSA algorithm, the IP was copyrighted or even
patented and royalties were collected. In any of these
cases, however, a company such as Microsoft was able to
make use of that IP, either for free (as in the case of
their use of the BSD TCP/IP stack) or by buying the rights,
or even the IP itself; none of this IP carried with it
license terms which unacceptably limited Microsoft's rights
with respect to derivative works that they might create.

The GPL is, of course, different. If the government
modifies GPL'd software, then by the terms of the license,
the modifications have to be released under the GPL. In
this way, the government is supporting the development
of a product that can be used only under what Microsoft
sees as unacceptably restrictive terms. Microsoft appears
to believe that there is an unfairness in this; they (and
others in a similar position) pay taxes like everyone else,
and they should be able to make use of this stuff without
having to drastically change their business model.

It is interesting to note that IBM does not seem to have
much trouble at all using GPL'd software; this appears
to be as much as anything because (a) they are very well
accustomed to marketing multiple, incompatible product
lines and (b) they have a long tradition of getting much
of their income from services, which is precisely in line
with RMS's (and by extension the GPL's) view of how income
should be earned.

Of course this all can be argued endlessly on both sides
of the question, and I imagine it will be.



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