HomeIndustry Commentary

The return of the commies

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

What annoys me most is that they think they’re being clever.

I’m talking about the people who are resurrecting “communist” and “socialist” to describe those with whom they disagree. Really, folks, that went out with the John Birch Society. You remember them — the extreme right-wing organization of the 1950s and ’60s that claimed, along with a number of other peculiar fantasies, that the fluoridation of water was a communist plot.

You’d almost think they’re back in business, to hear various software vendors talk about open source. Sun Microsystems is the latest to take up the banner of truth, righteousness, and the American way of calling people names. To whit:

In his April 5th keynote address to the Open Source Business Conference, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s President and COO, started off reasonably enough by commenting that the GPL isn’t, in his opinion, beneficial to developers.

So far, so good, but then he turned up the dial, calling the GPL “predatory.” Why? Because if you write code that’s mixed in with GPL code, your code becomes GPL code as well.

“Imagine a developing nation that elects to use free software in the construction of its intellectual property and then finds that it has a rather predatory obligation to give back all the intellectual property to the wealthiest nation in the world that happens to be the author of the GPL,” Schwartz said.

Note the clever positioning of the words, “then finds.” It’s as if Sun figures nobody reads license terms until long after they start to use the product.

Schwartz went on to explain that the GPL’s authors are “… individuals and companies that want to use intellectual property models to define social models and economic models rather than intellectual property models.” Huh? Schwartz thinks we should only use intellectual property models to define intellectual property models? Brilliant!

Just in case you missed it, he’s calling the GPL’s authors socialists. What’s that about? If someone wants to build something and then give it away, it’s called a hobby, not socialism. And if that same someone wants to restrict its use — for example, to prevent anyone else from selling what they gave away — that’s their right as owners of the software.

It isn’t as if commercial software licenses are benign, after all. An ever-increasing number forbid the licensee from, for example, publishing performance benchmarks, or even talking about performance with colleagues. A lot of them make provision for, shall we say, dynamically and unilaterally redefining license terms. Many make it okay for the vendor to remotely shut off the software if the vendor perceives that you’ve violated the license.

Since there’s no due process provision in any of this, the cynical among us might conclude that those vendors are promoting an alternative legal system to the one we use here in America. Defenders of such practices generally respond that nobody is holding a gun to the licensee’s head — it’s a contract, which they’re free to not sign.

Uh … guys? That would be true of the GPL as well. It’s a contract, and if you don’t like it, don’t use the software.

Oh, and I nearly forgot: Isn’t Star Office a Sun Microsystems product?

Mr. Schwartz needs to switch to decaf. Intellectual property models are a subset of property models, which are in turn a subset of our overall social and economic model. It’s the traditional software vendors who have stood these on their heads. Otherwise, how could (for example) Autodesk cancel a valid license for AutoCAD if the buyer declares bankruptcy, and everyone seems to think that’s perfectly fine?

The essence of the open source movement isn’t social change, anyway. We are, after all, talking about software, not a constitutional amendment. Think of open source as the Gillette strategy: Give away the razor (software) and sell the blades (services).

That isn’t promoting a different social and economic model. It’s just competition. With one possible caveat: The open source strategy is more likely to earn its proponents a comfortable living than colossal wealth. Being satisfied with mere affluence probably is, in the eyes of the leaders of America’s software giants, socialism.

You might recall that awhile back, Microsoft testified before Congress that open source was tantamount to communism. Maybe what we’re seeing is the long-awaited first fruit of the much vaunted Microsoft/Sun Microsystems alliance: The two companies are coordinating, not directory synchronization or their service oriented architectures, but the formulation of petulant messages in their press releases.