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Is Open Source Un-American?

by Tim O'Reilly
03/08/2001
Comment on this articleWhere do you come down on this issue? Is Microsoft justified in its extensions to Kerberos, given its license terms? Or is Microsoft defeating the spirit of the license? Try our new talkback feature and join the debate.

I got a lot of email in response to my weblog, Shuttle Diplomacy Between Jim Allchin and Richard Stallman, in which I chronicled my efforts to mediate between Microsoft and the Free Software Foundation. I answered a lot of the email, but I have also asked some of the most vocal of the early respondents for their permission to reprint their email to me.

My responses follow each message. In most cases, this is the response as I sent it out in email. In a few cases, I've added a few extra points or made small edits.

I've organized the discussion into four categories:

The Best License for Government-Sponsored Software

A number of people wrote in with specific suggestions for licensing for government-sponsored software.

Jim Penny (jpenny@mindspring.com) wrote:

I am not comfortable with GPL myself, mostly because I think there is no way in the world to decide what is permitted under it. (What is a derivative work under copyright law, how can I integrate, how can I link?)

But, I think there is more than a bit of disingenuity in Allchin's preference for BSD.

Number 1 case in point is Microsoft Kerberos. It is possible only because MIT mis-chose the license.

I would like to see something of an intermediate between BSD and GPL which said something like, you are free to use our code for any purpose, including commercial, you are free to extend it in any way -- BUT, you must accurately and completely document any changes made to any file or wire format. This documentation must be placed free of charge in a public repository. You may not assert patent or copyright protection on independent implementations of the extensions as documented. If your documentation and implementation fail to conform, then you must make source code public.

Jim Penny

Thanks. I think that this is the intent of the Sun Industry Standards Source License (SISSL), one of the two licenses the OpenOffice code is dual-licensed under. (The other is the GPL/LGPL.) The license is a little hard to read, but it basically says that your implementation will conform to an approved industry standard, or if it doesn't, that you will post specific documentation of the deviance from the standard as well as a reference implementation. See http://www.openoffice.org/license.html for details.

I would very much like to see a license like this (perhaps drafted with a little less legalese) become much more common.

Mathias Brossard (mbrossard@idealx.com) wrote:

I have a middle-ground for the RMS vs Allchin debate. It's simply the LGPL. It allows commercial developments without allowing IP hijacking (by preventing Embrace and Extend and other nasty techniques).

Thanks for your attention,

PS: Neither RMS nor Allchin will like (fully) this solution.

This is an interesting suggestion, and not without merit. In the end, I don't think that there's a single one-size-fits-all license. But it's really clear that we need some pressure to keep government-funded software (and other technology) available to the people who paid for it.

Jeff Root (toorffej@yahoo.com) wrote:

I just read your piece, "Shuttle Diplomacy Between Allchin and Stallman". I wanted to comment on one point, which you touch on in your piece.

You mention taxpayer funded software development (e.g., at universities), but I think this issue can and should be expanded to include discussion about all taxpayer funded research.

When my tax dollars are spent on research, shouldn't I have the benefits of that research? Should I have to pay a second time to use the results that I already paid for? But this is precisely the situation today.

RSA and Diffie-Hellman were funded (at least in part) by tax dollars. But the universities in question immediately filed a patent on both discoveries. Until those patents lapsed, I was required to pay license fees to private corporations in order to make use of the results of this research.

This situation has become the norm. Universities routinely patent discoveries and charge tax payers twice for the privilege of using them. This is immoral and unethical behavior; taxpayers fund universities to enrich the public, not the corporations.

I found something interesting while reading Steven Levy's new book, "Crypto". In the situation above, when the university patents something developed with tax dollars, the government gets a royalty-free license to use the discovery in any way they see fit. Note that this license extends to government agencies only; the taxpayer is still out in the cold.

And this is precisely the situation RMS has repeatedly warned us about. In the RSA and Diffie-Hellman case, the two universities worked out a cross-licensing deal so they could each use the algorithms without cost. And the NSA could use them any way they chose, since they are a government agency. The only people prohibited from using this discovery were the ones who had paid the bills in the first place.

Now, what about the GPL? I think the GPL (or LGPL) is required in this case, in order to preserve the people's right to these discoveries. Consider what we know about Microsoft's use of the Kerberos code. Kerberos was released under a license derived from the BSD and X11 licenses. Microsoft 'embraced and extended' Kerberos in an intentionally incompatible way. While they are legally entitled to do this, the result is to prevent heterogeneous networks from using Kerberos. This defeats the intent of the originators of the code. Given Microsoft's market share and aggressive promotion, it is more likely that Kerberos will evolve away from the putatively free code and move toward a proprietary implementation.

If Kerberos had used, say, the LGPL, then Microsoft would have been able to use the code just as well. But the resulting KERB.DLL would have been free software. This has implications for security as well as freedom. The only 'innovation' denied to Microsoft would have been an incompatible extention made only to frustrate competition.

While I have made this argument in the framework of software development, it applies with equal force to the full range of taxpayer funded research. With the recent advances in genetics, we stand on the brink of a new age. In the future, there will be entire classes of disease that will disappear from the human race. We will be able to extend a high quality of life well past 100 years. But these advances must be in widespread use. Should we allow the corporatization of our universities to provide these benefits only to those who have the price?

Allchin's view of the future is one where corporations can use taxpayer dollars to fund their research and development, while denying those same taxpayers the fruits of that work. Just as the Bill of Rights protected our civil liberties, the GPL is needed to protect our electronic freedoms. And *that* is the American Way.

Jeff Root

I replied:

I agree completely about patents, and the general problem of universities trying to profit from government-funded research. There's a general erosion of the concept that universities play a key role in maintaining and extending the public domain. When Bill Joy released the BSD Unix code, it was because he assumed that was what a research institution was all about. Ditto for MIT and the X Window System. Now, universities think that they are in the intellectual property business, with a mandate to maximize the return on their staff's work. This is a terrible, slippery slope. And frankly, I don't think that RMS and others who talk about the dangers of BSD/MIT-type licenses help the situation. It's the heart of the reason I spoke up on this issue. The battle between Linux and Microsoft is only one small front in a much larger war. The FSF could win that war, and find that the world was a far worse place, because of university patents in areas like biotechnology, or next generation computer hardware, or some area of research that isn't on any of our radar.

This is why I think it might be a net win for open source if we could get Jim Allchin to come out strongly supporting the idea that government-funded work should be in the public domain, or close to it. This seems like more of a win than just trying to make Microsoft look bad. ("Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" and all that.)

Regarding Kerberos, Jim insists that Microsoft's Kerberos implementation is interoperable. He admits that you can't use the additional Microsoft-specific features in other systems, but says that if it isn't interoperable, he will make it so. I'll be publishing those comments later this week or early next week, and have some private mail in to Jim pushing him to publish the specs for their changes.

Jeff then wrote:

Thank you for your reply. I think we agree on the basic problem with taxpayer funded research, we just have to find the solution. This dialog is a good start.

As for Kerberos, I don't believe that compliance with standards was an issue for MS until they started getting beaten up in the press. But this is really a side issue; I used that example to illustrate how the license used did not protect the code from being hijacked.

I noticed in the news this week that the team who gave us Dolly the sheep (now a *corporation*) have managed to transform a skin cell into a heart cell. We're on the seashore of genetics.

Jan Nieuwenhuizen (janneke@gnu.org) wrote:

While your piece has a number of interesting and softening points, I'd like just to make perfectly sure that there's not a little something about the GNU GPL that you may have forgotten.

You quote Jim Allchin saying:

I'm an American. Microsoft is an American company. We pay taxes. I don't see why government-funded software should be put out under a license that prevents us from using that software."

However, I'd like to argue that this wouldn't matter. For a lot of projects, especially USA-government-funded projects, the GNU GPL would still be the best choice. Why?

People like me, will quite certainly *not*, in our spare time, contribute to projects that, in the end, can be taken away from us-the-people-of-the-world, by a USA company like Microsoft (or whatever other proprietary software verdor). And neither would probably any other government in the world, if they have a clue.

That's why, for projects that should live outside, and get considerable input, from non-US-government sources, GNU GPL will work best. Otherwise, we (who know about the world outside the USA) will have to fork/start our own GPL'd version. In the meantime, Jim Allchin can ask himself all he wants and wonder about why his company is paying taxes to the US government.

But you knew that, and just want us to discuss and keep an open mind, Right?

David Skoll (dfs@roaringpenguin.com) wrote:

You wrote, paraphrasing Jim Allchin:

"I'm an American. Microsoft is an American company. We pay taxes. I don't see why government-funded software should be put out under a license that prevents us from using that software."

How does the GPL prevent Microsoft from using software? Microsoft has as much right to use GPL'd software as any other citizen or corporation.

What Microsoft _cannot_ do is take the code and make it proprietary without the consent of the author. I believe that this is perfectly just: If software is developed with taxpayer's money, then _everyone_ should have free access to that software and products derived from that software. I don't see why anyone should have the right to take publically-funded software private.

Regards,

David.

I replied:

Actually, David, I don't think that what you've said is accurate. I agree that no one can "make the code proprietary." However, the "viral" characteristics of the GPL make it impossible to combine that work with other code without "infecting" that code with the GPL license provisions. If you have a proprietary business model, this does "prevent" you from using that software.

"How does the GPL prevent Microsoft from using software? Microsoft has as much right to use GPL'd software as any other citizen or corporation."
-- David Skoll

Obviously, "prevents" is a relative word. Nothing "prevents" RMS from using proprietary software either. But he finds the license provisions unacceptable for his purposes. Jim is just making the same point in reverse.

Obviously, as I noted in my original posting, from Jim's point of view, this is not a discussion about whether any individual software author should choose GPL or BSD or a proprietary license, but whether government-funded projects should choose those licenses. And my point is that if the government is funding software development, an argument can be made that the software should be published under a completely free license, so that it's equally accessible to people with proprietary and free software business models.

David then replied in turn:

On Fri, 2 Mar 2001, Tim O'Reilly wrote:

Actually, David, I don't think that what you've said is accurate. No one can "make the code proprietary." However, the "viral" characteristics of the GPL make it impossible to combine that work with other code without "infecting" that code with the GPL license provisions. If you have a proprietary business model, this does prevent" you from using that software.

Absolutely. But I am unaware of any inherent "right" of software manufacturers to make money from proprietary software, so my answer to them is -- too bad. You can as easily change your business model as free software advocates can change their license.

Obviously, "prevents" is a relative word. Nothing "prevents" RMS from using proprietary software either. But he finds the license provisions unacceptable for his purposes. Jim is just making the same point in reverse.

OK. But Jim Allchin represents an organization which has huge financial and political clout, which is why his comments have riled up so many people. RMS is comparatively powerless; he can urge, but he cannot apply the same kinds of pressure as Microsoft.

And my point is that if the government is funding software development, an argument can be made that the software should be published under a completely free license, so that it's equally accessible to people with proprietary and free software business models.

Why is that? Why should people be able to make money from government-funded software? The argument that they've "paid" for it is specious. By "paying" for the software, you get to use it. You don't get to hoard it.

Clearly, if government-funded software is published under a BSD-style license, companies like Microsoft stand to benefit much more than smaller companies with fewer resources. GPL'd software levels the playing field.

Bryan Dumm wrote:

I hear you loud and clear. We went through the same exact problem with our ALFS [Automated Linux From Scratch - http://alfs.linuxfromscratch.org/] project and chose a BSD license in the end.

I think the conversation should really be on and what would happen if GPL software was sponsored and really thought out. We all see how the old licenses or BSDish licenses would work, but w/o really exploring a GPL scenario, we will never know if Jim's comments hold any truth or just bias....

Bryan

I replied:

I'm not sure I understand your second paragraph. What do you mean "GPL software was sponsored and really thought out" and "really exploring a GPL scenario"?

To which Bryan responded:

Sorry, me and my ramblings. :)

What I am saying is that Jim thinks GPL software is bad for the government. No one really knows if it is or not. We know that BSD and other types of licenses work, as people have been using them before with the government. Plus MS, etc. has no problems with those types of licenses.

We need, though, to explore a GPL/Government scenario to see if Jim's comments really hold water or not. I think [it's worth] looking at Linux and how it and other GPL projects have evolved, the way the community accepted them, and how do business's use this GPL technology transfer. Would the viral nature of the GPL hurt innovation under such a model? If the government put the product under GPL that would mean those other software projects building off of that GPL product, must be GPL and so on. What does this do?

Could dual licensing work for Jim? If Jim is really willing to talk and not just shut down the Linux community, then I think there is plenty of room for a good discussion. MS and Linux together on Tim's page... :) Who woulda thunk it.

Glad to know that you are still leading out there. You are one of the more rational leaders in our community and I appreciate that. BTW, I just finished with a DoD proposal for ALFS. :) Took about three weeks of my life, but wow what a document. The solicitation is @ http://www.darpa.mil/ito/Solicitations/CBD_01-24.html if you are curious.

kevin lyda (kevin@suberic.net) wrote:

the largest point that i can make is that both yourself and jim allchin's have said that gpl software is not usable by microsoft. that is incorrect. it is usable, they just choose not to use it.

i'm not saying that the gpl should be used for publically funded s/w, i'm just saying that nothing in the gpl prevents them from using it.

the other point that i disagree with is his comment that the gpl prevents innovation. i find that more unpalatable then his american comments (which i just see as standard fare for political lobbying).

while not sexy, there are a host of technical innovations present in the linux kernel alone. any decent unix admin from the late 80's onward has installed the gnu tools for a wide number of innovations on the standard unix tools. and gnu hurd, while i haven't used it, is apparently chock full of new ideas.

more importantly, how many companies effectively manage developers world-wide? a linux distribution is built up from pieces developed by people all over the world with low grade communication links among them.

Kerberos and the dangers of embrace and extend

A number of people hammered on the Kerberos issue. For example, Bob Weiler wrote:

Two points regarding Jim Allchin's comments. One is that they have to be taken in light of Microsoft's co-opting of the Kerberos code and their subsequent refusal to share the details of the change on the same basis as they obtained the original specification. This isn't the action of a company that is interested in the well being of their customers, the American taxpayers, or in fair play.

The other point is sort of an aside, but is worth mentioning. As I understand it, due to the way that stock options are accounted for, Microsoft doesn't actually pay any federal taxes, or at least, no where near the same percentage as a 'traditional' manufacturer. Many other tech companies don't either, but then again, those other tech companies don't whine about the GPL either. Microsoft isn't doing anything illegal or unethical here, but it is very hypocritical.

As an actual taxpayer, I'm getting my money's worth from GPL'ed software. I wish I could say the same about Microsoft's products.

Bob Weiler

I replied:

Jim specifically addressed your point about Kerberos in his comments to me. I am not close enough to say that he's right, but he argues that their Kerberos implementation does in fact interoperate. But it does seem to me that there may be some possibility to persuade them to adopt a SISSL-like approach where they document the changes.

Bob replied:

As I understand it, Microsoft's implementation is not interoperable to the extent that you can replace a Win2000 Kerberos server with some other implementation and provide the same functionality to a Win2000 client since the additional functionality is trade secret. As long as you have his ear, you could ask Allchin to release the spec of their Kerberos changes to the public domain. Such an action on his part would speak much louder than words.

I replied:

As a matter of fact, I immediately forwarded your comments on to Jim. I don't know how strategic to Microsoft they consider their enhancements to be, but it would seem to me that this would be a good move on their part.

However, I do want to emphasize the point that you make, since it's a point of disagreement between GPL and non-GPL advocates. GPL advocates argue that failing to make free enhancements to free software is somehow taking something away from the free software community. However, there are many cases where the developers of the software don't in fact support the goals of the free software movement. They put the software out as free software under a non-GPL license precisely because they wanted people to do whatever they wanted with it, including building proprietary extensions if that's what made sense to them. In theory at least, no one is forced to use the proprietary extensions. (I'll come back to that one in a moment.)

I think most of my readers understand the justification for the GPL, and Richard argued the points compellingly in the piece that started this thread. However, I don't see a lot of people sticking their neck out to argue the hybrid view, (which, I should point out, is shared by many noted authors of open source software, most of them in the BSD or other university-license camp), in which software source code is released freely to achieve various strategic goals (knowledge sharing, ubiquity, establishment of a standard, goodwill), while other code may be kept proprietary in order to achieve other goals (revenue, control, or whatever.)

I'm a big proponent of this view, which says that it's the right of the author of software to dispose of his or her creation in any way that he or she wishes. I take this back to literature. I curse the fact that many an author has requested that his unpublished work be burned upon his death, but I completely honor the right to do so. An author may give her work away, sell it, keep it, or destroy it. No one has the right to Stephen King's next novel because they liked the last one. Ditto for software.

Now, consider the case of a program that's built upon the work of others. If you give me a gift of your program, and tell me I can use it in whatever way I want, I am free to give it away in turn, to keep it for myself, or to incorporate it into a new product of my own, which I might sell rather than give away. If on the other hand, you give me that same gift with the stipulation that I must give away anything I build with it, then I should follow that stipulation, or not use the software.

"I support Microsoft 100% in their right to build and distribute a set of proprietary extensions to Kerberos ... If the original authors of Kerberos didn't want them to have that right, they should have used the GPL."
-- Tim O'Reilly

This is the situation with free software. We have a well-known license that says "I'm giving you a gift. You may pass it along to others, or build on it. But if you do so, you must give it away with this same requirement." We also have well-known licenses that say "it's okay to do whatever you want with this, including building proprietary extensions."

So I want to be absolutely clear that I support Microsoft 100% in their right to build and distribute a set of proprietary extensions to Kerberos, if that's what they want to do. If the original authors of Kerberos didn't want them to have that right, they should have used the GPL. I strongly urge any author who wants their software to be kept free and not used as the basis for proprietary extensions to use the GPL. As Richard argues so eloquently, it's the best tool we have to ensure ongoing freedom of a piece of software.

But I also urge the proponents of the GPL style of software freedom not to muddy the water by asserting that their goals are also the goals of all free software authors. I remember Bob Schiefler of the X Consortium (who is one of my heroes) stating so clearly that he was developing software that he wanted to be used as a base for further development, whether that development occurred as free or proprietary software. I don't know whether the Kerberos authors shared Bob's "build a platform" objectives, but they used a similar license. If they regret that choice, they are free to say so.

So, if I believe Microsoft has the right to build proprietary extensions to software like Kerberos, why do I believe they should release those extensions? The reasons are pragmatic. Here are some possible answers (Microsoft would have to explain the actual ones they choose):

  1. There is good evidence that freely available software and source code leads to unexpected innovations and other improvements (e.g. bug fixes) from people you don't already know. In the absence of any good reason for keeping software proprietary, giving away unrestricted source should be the default behavior whenever building on any previously free software.

  2. Goodwill. There are a lot of people who are mad at Microsoft on principle, or because of various hyper-competitive things they've done. Any goodwill points that can be earned can help to even the scale, and make people more forgiving in other areas where Microsoft feels a business need to be more aggressive.

  3. Standards. Microsoft has enough market power to make its own de facto standards in many cases. However, I don't think that network security infrastructure is one of those areas. It's still a multi-platform world when it comes to networking, and the industry as a whole would benefit from agreement on some common standards in this area. When we spoke last week, Jim said as much in explaining why they chose to build on Kerberos rather than starting from scratch in the first place. If common standards are the goal, I'd argue that Microsoft could get there faster by open sourcing their extensions (or at least documenting them completely and openly).

In short, unless Microsoft has big revenue plans for Kerberos, or has a deliberate strategy of co-opting the Kerberos framework so that it becomes not an open industry framework but a proprietary Microsoft one, I'd urge them to free their enhancements.

This last point is a key one. What a lot of independent developers fear is that Microsoft's "embrace and extend" strategy is deliberately designed to take software out of the public domain, and make it Microsoft property. This goes to the heart of the antitrust discussion that's been going on for the past few years. For any other company to make proprietary extensions to industry standards or to free software is likely commercial suicide. But Microsoft has sufficient market share and market power to establish their proprietary extensions as a de facto standard. And this does end up taking away the gift that was originally given, even from people who don't want to use Microsoft products.

Even if this isn't a deliberate strategy, it is an ever-present reality for most developers. Microsoft is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, and as a result, they need to tread especially lightly when extending free software or open standards. Microsoft will argue, quite rightly, that no one is forced to use their proprietary extensions, that they are a benefit to their customers, and that there's no need to make them available to non-customers. However, because of Microsoft's unique position in our industry, and past history of "embrace and extend" used to "de-commoditize internet protocols" (cf. The Halloween Documents), this position is taken to be somewhat disingenuous by their competitors and critics.

Since I'm on a roll here, I want to clarify just why a company like Microsoft might want to keep software proprietary: money. There's no question that proprietary software has a better business model than free software. (It may not have a better development model, but that's another story.) It's certainly possible to make money with free software, but unless someone demonstrates otherwise, I think it's fair to say that none of the known free software business models produce Microsoft-sized returns. Bob Young of Red Hat once remarked, "My goal is to shrink the size of the operating system market." He believes that Red Hat can own a big share of the smaller pie that would result from making operating systems into a commodity, and so that's a net win for both his company and for customers.

Given the fact that Microsoft is under attack by new business models in which their old cash cow is commoditized, I think it's quite understandable why they would want to use every trick in the book to hold onto their current dominance. Apart from the special requirements of antitrust law, there's no law that says they have to be nice guys in their attempt to do so. In fact, you can even argue (as they no doubt do) that their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders gives them a moral imperative to defend their business with every tool at their disposal.

My argument for a more open, standards-compliant Microsoft comes from an entirely different point of view than Richard's moral argument for free software. In essence, it is this: software is being commoditized, whether you like it or not, just as computer hardware was commoditized by the introduction of the IBM PC. You can be Apple or Digital, who hung on to their proprietary hardware business model until it was too late, or you can be IBM, who realized the sea change in the industry (and is doing so again), and migrated their business towards a future in which proprietary hardware was not their core business advantage.

In the age of the Internet, it's open standards and network protocols that are going to provide the next platform. What business advantage can you build on that foundation?

Bob then put in the last word. He says he can't disagree with what I've said, but I don't know that I can disagree with what he's said either.

It is clear that you have invested some thought on this, and I don't actually find anything to disagree with here. I was going to write you a fairly long missive, but it wouldn't be fair to make you wade through all that. The bottom line for me is that when Jim Allchin says 'the GPL in un-American', I hear it as 'the GPL is bad for software monopolists in general, and therefore, bad for Microsoft'. Basically, Jim is making that argument that 'what is good for Microsoft is good for the country'. What's more, he is suggesting that legislators should do something about it, in particular, he apparently thinks the government should not allow grant recipients to GPL the software that they write. I don't buy it.

I can see why Jim is worried, the GPL is bad for Microsoft and bad for Microsoft shareholders. I myself expect to be Microsoft-free by the next release of Linux distributions because of GPL software. However, I can envision GPL'ed software being successful enough that Microsoft is no longer a monopoly, but I can't envision any scenario in which Microsoft is not a large and profitable company. There is nothing preventing Microsoft from packaging and selling GPL'ed software in areas where they don't see that they can innovate, and nothing preventing them from spending their development dollars on proprietary software in areas where they think they can innovate. In fact, in essence, the GPL frees Microsoft and other software companies from the cost of developing commodity software so they can spend all of their development resources on innovation.

But Microsoft isn't really all that interested in innovation, they are interested in preventing competition. I don't see any reason why the government should be forcing licensing terms on developers to help them out.

Bob

Breaking through the marketing firewall

There was some good discussion of whether or not it was a good idea to engage with Microsoft at all. Kevin McCormick wrote:

This is one of the most infuriating articles you have ever written. Your books are successful because they set a higher standard than the normal "throw it together" crap that was the norm for the computer book publishers. (I have 6 or more of them) However, your "diplomacy" appears as nothing more than a pandering to MS for some kind of publishers inside track. As a consumer victim of the Microsoft Money and Manipulation Machine, I really object to these unholy alliances of the moguls. You have no understanding of corporate feudalism and MS' mastery of the concept and you will be used as a complete fool. You should keep your nose out of politics.

Thank you, and better luck next time.

I replied:

I'm sorry you feel that way. I certainly have some worry about being used to provide "cover" for Microsoft. But at the same time, I think that it's worth the risk. This is certainly NOT "pandering to Microsoft for some kind of publisher's inside track." We already have all of the inside track we need with any technology provider -- and it's because of that inside track that I am able to see both sides of a complex issue. I believe deeply that people ought to talk to one another and get their real disagreements out on the table. If all we do on both sides is set up straw men that we then conveniently demolish for the edification of our supporters, we'll never get anywhere.

I think it's possible to move the debate away from one of mutual flaming that goes nowhere ("Allchin says open source is un-American" ... "Politics is the last refuge of the scoundrel") to a substantial conversation that illuminates the real points of difference and allows us to make better decisions. There are important issues to be raised about the choice of license for publicly-funded software. I'm not coming down on one side or the other. (Well, I guess I am -- I like publicly funded software to be as free as possible.) And I'd really prefer that that be the debate, rather than one that simply reinforces each side's prejudices about the other. (Microsoft people can be as dismissive of the motives and thoughtfulness of open source people as open source people are of Microsoft. I know people on both sides of the fence, and wish they'd start talking instead of just sniping.)

You said I should keep my nose out of politics. Maybe you're right. But it's said that "politics is the art of the possible." I try to find the right balance between the stick and the carrot in getting people to go where I think they need to go. If all you have is a stick, it had better be a very big one.

This issue of "appeasement" was raised on a private email list of a number of well-known free software leaders who were discussing possible responses to Allchin's comments. I had let folks know that I intended to try to set up a meeting with Jim Allchin. Bruce Perens had responded by saying "Well, try not to make a Neville Chamberlain of yourself." Someone else then said that was a rather insulting statement, and suggested that Bruce apologize. Here's the response I wrote then, and that I stand by now even more after having met Jim:

No offense was taken. It's something I worry about myself. I do tend to believe that everyone is honest and means well in his heart of hearts even if experience teaches otherwise, and there is a possibility as a result of being taken advantage of by someone who is cynical.

Still, I think it's worth the risk not just to try to make Microsoft look bad, but to give them some avenues to back down. Below the posturing and rhetoric, I believe that there is a lot more commonality between developers on the Microsoft and open source sides of the fence than would often be believed. As my friend Rael Dornfest notes, we need to "punch a hole in the marketing firewalls" that keep developers from understanding each other.

An aside: I'm actually going to be on a panel with Cass Sunstein at Stanford on March 20. It's in Room 190 at the Stanford Law School, at 5 pm. See their site for details. Larry Lessig asked me to be on this panel, and sent me Sunstein's book so I could be prepared for it, and by perfect coincidence, it arrived just as I was leaving on my trip up to Microsoft.

But this approach only works if both sides are in fact operating in good faith, and it's certainly true that MS doesn't have a good track record there. But I also know a number of people who know Allchin and think highly of him. I also see lots of signs that there is a lot of ferment inside MS on the open source issue, rather than a united front in which everyone is unalterably opposed. There is an opportunity for movement on their part.

BTW, I'm just reading a very interesting book, Republic.com, by University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein. He makes the point that when people self-select and talk only to people who agree with them, their beliefs tend to become increasingly polarized. He argues convincingly (at least to my mind) for the need for people who disagree to engage with each other.

So I asked for this meeting hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst. I'll do my best not to be taken advantage of by way of giving cover to these guys. But if I can spark some real dialogue about the deeply held beliefs on each side, I hope that some good might result.

Kevin replied:

I appreciate your response. I agree that licensing of government sponsored software is an important issue, which should be thought out carefully. There is potentially a great untapped benefit to be had, as the internet amply demonstrates. There is also a potential for severe limitation of future options, as shown in the monopoly ridden broadcasting and telecommunications industries. The age old practice of turning the public good to selective private advantage no doubt applies to software projects as well. Thus, in my opinion, the GPL offers a very viable framework for licensing of government sponsored software, and Mr. Allchin's argument (as restated) represents the fallacy of a timid defense of the public good. Lastly, I also appreciate your quote: ". . . when people self-select and talk only to people who agree with them, their beliefs tend to become increasingly polarized." Different points of view are both annoying and refreshing, but we (most of us :) have more in common than we realize.

Kevin's comment "the age old practice of turning the public good to selective private advantage no doubt applies to software projects as well" rang some bells. There's a fascinating interview with Noam Chomsky on this very subject at Corporate Watch. I got this pointer from Toby Watson (toby@ridgmount.demon.co.uk)in the UK, who wrote:

Hi, Ever seen this?

http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/microsoft/chomsky.html

You know I stumbled across a piece of software developed at London's National Gallery called vips/ip . Publically funded it is now public under the GPL. As an 'un-American' I'm perfectly happy with the idea that GPL's existance actually causes *pressure* against Microsoft's inclination to "embrace and extend" public artifacts, cf Kerberos.

I thought it was interesting with reference Jim Allchin's comments to Tim on paying taxes. When MS pays its taxes is that the same as when you pay yours?

Chip Thomas (thoca@directlink.net) wrote:

I appreciate you taking the time to get to the bottom of this conflict. The views you voiced allowed the general public (and me) to understand what Allchin was really trying to say. (Something that the reporters were unable to explain.)

I think I fall closer to the RMS side of the spectrum on this issue. However, the understanding you have provided should allow everyone to discuss this topic productively without reducing their comments to a flame war.

Thanks, Chip Thomas

Thanks for the support. I agree that RMS might well be right. I'd just like to have the debate be about the issues, not about the misrepresentations on either side.

Josh Allen wrote:

Tim, that was really cool -- you make it clear that you disagree, but you do so without misrepresenting what was said. Very impressive given the current mood of the industry, thanks.

(Josh had previously written a very interesting response to Allchin's comments from the point of view of a Microsoft developer. His passionate defense of Allchin's statements and feeling of being misunderstood by the open source community was part of what sparked my attempt to play peacemaker.)

A wolf in sheep's clothing

There were also a lot of people who weren't having any, and don't trust Microsoft no matter what they say. For example:

Jurgen Defurne from Philips wrote:

I think that what the FSF/Open Source movement should do, is make an end to doubletalk and fuzzy speak.

M$ has declared war, and we should be prepared to do guerilla on them.

People of the FSF/Open Source movement want to be polite, and that is a good thing, because we should not spread FUD and half truth's, but it is also not our task (and I do not think that of you either) to find excuses for what M$ employees possibly could have meant.

We have to take their words literally and act accordingly, so that next time they want to say something, they will think twice about what they say.

Tony Grant wrote:

"I'm an American. Microsoft is an American company. We pay taxes. I don't see why government-funded software should be put out under a license that prevents us from using that software."

Excuse me but since when has GNU software been 100% US government funded?

GNU software is also developed by american people who are not students or working for US governement funded companies.

This one comment just goes to show how high handed Microsoft is with non americans. By reproducing this thought it shows how upper handed you are with non americans despite your pretended internationalist bent.

Microsoft has been very much more efficient in strangling to death all or most of the European software industry. The only way to stop that from happening in the US is to go head to head with these people. This is War not intellectual debate. The battle on the European front is lost - don't side with the enemy or you will lose too.

I replied: I don't think you read what I wrote carefully enough! No one is suggesting that existing GNU software is government funded. However, there are some specific government-funded projects and RFPs that are specifying the GPL as the preferred license. I referred to one of them in my original posting.

Nor is anyone suggesting that free software is developed only by Americans. I've frequently pointed out in my writing and speaking that the high level of international participation in free software and open source projects shows how open source is an outgrowth of the Internet's power to let people associate freely around common goals. For some of my thoughts on open source as an outgrowth of collaborative networking, see my keynote at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in April 2000 or my 1999 Linux World Tokyo keynote.

Tony's answer was a good one, and does say something about the environment in which we're all communicating:

I read carefully enough but I am on a short fuse at the moment. I really wanted to read this is total warfare - they will crush us if we don't react strongly enough to this.

My reading was _supposed_ to reflect the transversal quick reading we all use on the Web. And the hot headed uncalculated kind of post that gave us the "GNU= un american" reading of the first comments.

I agree with most of what you said. But you need to use your talent with words, and your high profile, to beat the FUD down more efficiently for those who don't take as much time as they should to read what you have been writing on these issues over the years.

A poster who wished to remain anonymous wrote:

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

First, the GPL in no way hinders Microsoft from using GPL'd software. They just can't turn it into proprietary software _and_ distribute/sell it.

Second, they don't want the NSA to release a version of Linux. They do not want GPL'd software to be used or developed within the government. They want GPL'd software to be prohibited by law from use in the public space. Any other interpretation of their comments is naive IMHO.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.


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