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Is Open Source Un-American?
Pages: 1, 2, 3

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,, 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 ( the UK, who wrote:

Hi, Ever seen this?

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 ( 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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