Free Software Leaders Stand Together

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Free Software Leaders Stand Together
by Bruce Perens

Introduction[edit]

The Craig Mundie speech is old news by now, so hopefully this is the last word. A number of the free software evangelists, in informal discussion, felt that the proper response to Microsoft would be to stand together. Mundie's speech shows that Microsoft's strategy is to keep us divided and attack us one at a time, until all are gone. Thus, their emphasis on the GPL this time. While we didn't try to represent every group and project, many major voices of Open Source and Free Software have signed this message. We took a while, because we're not used to this, but we'll be better next time. So, please note the signatures at the bottom of this message - we will stand together, and defend each other.

Bruce Perens

The Message[edit]

We note a new triumph for Open Source and Free Software: we have become so serious a competitor to Microsoft that their executives publicly announce their fear. However, the only threat that we present to Microsoft is the end of monopoly practices. Microsoft is welcome to participate as an equal partner, a role held today by entities ranging from individuals to transnational corporations like IBM and HP. Equality, however, isn't what Microsoft is looking for. Thus, they have announced Shared Source, a system that could be summarized as Look but don't touch - and we control everything.

Microsoft deceptively compares Open Source to failed dot-com business models. Perhaps they misunderstand the term Free Software. Remember that Free refers to liberty, not price. The dot-coms gave away goods and services as loss-leaders, in unsuccessful efforts to build their market share. In contrast, the business model of Open Source is to reduce the cost of software development and maintenance by distributing it among many collaborators.

The success of the Open Source model arises from copyright holders relaxing their control in exchange for more and better collaboration. Developers allow their software to be freely redistributed and modified, asking only for the same privileges in return.

There is much software that is essential to a business, but which does not differentiate that business from its competitors. Even companies that have not fully embraced the Open Source model can justify collaboration on Free Software projects for this non-differentiating software, because of the money they will save. And such collaborations are often overwhelmingly successful: for example, the project that produces the market-leading Apache web server was started by a group of users who agreed to share the work of maintaining a piece of software that each of their businesses depended on.

The efficiency of this cooperation is in the best interests of the user. But Free Software is also directly in the user's interest, because it means that the users control the software they use. When they do business with Open Source vendors, the vendors do not dominate them.

With very little funding, the GNU/Linux system has become a significant player in many major markets, from Internet servers to embedded devices. Our GUI desktop projects have astounded the software industry by going from zero to being comparable with or superior to others in only 4 years. Workstation manufacturers like Sun and HP have selected our desktops to replace their own consortium projects, because our work was better. An entire industry has been built around Free Software, and is growing rapidly despite an unfavorable market. The success of software companies like Red Hat, and the benefits to vendors such as Dell and IBM, demonstrate that Free Software is not at all incompatible with business.

The Free Software license singled out for abuse by Microsoft is the GNU General Public License, or GNU GPL. This license is the computer equivalent of share and share alike. But this does not mean, as Microsoft claims, that a company using these programs is legally obliged to make all its software and data free. We make all GPL software available in source form for incorporation as a building block in new programs. This is the secret of how we have been able to create so much good software, so quickly.

If you do choose to incorporate GPL code into a program, you will be required to make the entire program Free Software. This is a fair exchange of our code for yours, and one that will continue as you reap the benefit of improvements contributed by the community. However, the legal requirements of the GPL apply only to programs which incorporate some of the GPL-covered code - not to other programs on the same system, and not to the data files that the programs operate upon.

Although Microsoft raises the issue of GPL violations, that is a classic red herring. Many more people find themselves in violation of Microsoft licenses, because Microsoft doesn't allow copying, modification, and redistribution as the GPL does. Microsoft license violations have resulted in civil suits and imprisonment. Accidental GPL violations are easily remedied, and rarely get to court.

It's the share and share alike feature of the GPL that intimidates Microsoft, because it defeats their Embrace and Extend strategy. Microsoft tries to retain control of the market by taking the result of open projects and standards, and adding incompatible Microsoft-only features in closed-source. Adding an incompatible feature to a server, for example, then requires a similarly-incompatible client, which forces users to "upgrade". Microsoft uses this deliberate-incompatibility strategy to force its way through the marketplace. But if Microsoft were to attempt to "embrace and extend" GPL software, they would be required to make each incompatible "enhancement" public and available to its competitors. Thus, the GPL threatens the strategy that Microsoft uses to maintain its monopoly.

Microsoft claims that Free Software fosters incompatible "code forking", but Microsoft is the real motor of incompatibility: they deliberately make new versions incompatible with old ones, to force users to purchase each upgrade. How many times have users had to upgrade Office because the Word file format changed? Microsoft claims that our software is insecure, but security experts say you shouldn't trust anything but Free Software for critical security functions. It is Microsoft's programs that are known for snooping on users, vulnerability to viruses, and the possibility of hidden "back doors".

Microsoft's Shared Source program recognizes that there are many benefits to the openness, community involvement, and innovation of the Open Source model. But the most important component of that model, the one that makes all of the others work, is freedom. By attacking the one license that is specifically designed to fend off their customer and developer lock-in strategy, they hope to get the benefits of Free Software without sharing those benefits with those who participate in creating them.

We urge Microsoft to go the rest of the way in embracing the Open Source software development paradigm. Stop asking for one-way sharing, and accept the responsibility to share and share alike that comes with the benefits of Open Source. Acknowledge that it is compatible with business.

Free Software is a great way to build a common foundation of software that encourages innovation and fair competition. Microsoft, it's time for you to join us.

Signatures[edit]

  • Bruce Perens, Primary Author: The Open Source Definition