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A Message in a Bottle Aimed at Solaris Island
Saturday, April 09 2005 @ 03:17 PM EDT

What else is new? Sun's Jonathan Schwartz, who last time we looked was defending Open Source, this week attacks the GPL. Must be Jonathan's evil twin.

I know. It's just a coincidence that Sun and Microsoft do a deal and then Sun begins attacking the GPL in public. Not only that, they present their own competing license, one he obviously believes CEOs will love:

Schwartz singled out the GPL provision that says source code may be mixed with other code only if the other code also is governed by the GPL. That provision is intended to create a body of software that must remain liberated from proprietary constraints. But Schwartz said that some people he's spoken to dislike it because it precludes them from using open-source software as a foundation for proprietary projects.

"Economies and nations need intellectual property (IP) to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I've talked to developing nations, representatives from academia and manufacturing companies that had begun to incorporate GPL software into their products, then...found they had an obligation to deliver their IP back into the world," Schwartz said.

The GPL purports to have freedom at its core, but it imposes on its users "a rather predatory obligation to disgorge all their IP back to the wealthiest nation in the world," the United States, where the GPL originated, Schwartz said. "If you look at the difference between the license we elected to use and GPL, there are no obligations to economies or universities or manufacturers that take the source code and embed it in (their own) code."

CEOs probably will love Sun's license, but here's the problem. CEOs don't generally write Free or Open Source software. Programmers do. That's the grain of sand in the CEO's eye. And there is a reason some 68% of all such projects are under the GPL. Here's the reason: it's fair to the programmers and to the end users, not just the landed gentry, so to speak.

As for Schwartz's observation that some folks don't like the GPL because it precludes them from using OS software as a foundation for proprietary products, here's a clue. That's a feature, not a bug. Open Source works so remarkably well because it's... well... open. The scientific method of sharing knowledge openly works. That's the secret sauce, bub. And the GPL ensures participants have to play fair.

The GPL says to proprietary companies that if they wish to write proprietary software, they should write their own from scratch. There is nothing wrong with being a proprietary company, if that is your choice, at least not to me. But don't pretend you are Open, slapping on a thin veneer of Open Source, just enough to pass, if you really are still dreaming your closed, proprietary dreams. You can make money from GPL code. Companies already are. But IBM at least made the effort to grasp the culture, not just the benefits of Open Source.

But it's not nice to grab other people's hard work, which is protected by copyright to boot, and then violate the license under which the code is distributed. (It's not nice to trash talk it either, but that's a separate discussion.) Surely the proprietary mind can understand paying for what you use, if it belongs to someone else. With GPL code, the payment isn't money. The payment is code. The purpose of that is to ensure that the common pot of code keeps growing and having value.

The proprietary mind can't swallow the FOSS concept all the way down, I guess, so Sun's response to the GPL is to offer a license under which programmers can write Brand X Open Source software, software that ends up not open at all on a whim, which the engineers get to write for them in the open and then the company gets to take closed and proprietary, and not only that, you don't get any code back from them in return for the code you donated, unless they feel like it. No money either. The company makes all the money.

What CEO wouldn't love that? The only thing better would be slavery. No. Slavery is worse, because you have to pay to feed slaves.

A Computer Associates' senior VP already is drooling and predicting the Open Source world will use Sun's almost open source license as a "constitution" for industry players. He's talking, he says, to Sun and IBM about it. But why would programmers find this appealing? How will these industry players get folks to do it their way instead of the GPL way?

What about programmers? Anything in it for them? The thrill of helping Sun make money from your unpaid labor, perchance? Sun's Schwartz says he expects open sourcing Solaris will make money for the company:

Sun is trying to ally itself with the open-source programming movement as part of a strategy to turn around its ailing fortunes. The company's revenue and stock price have remained largely flat in recent years despite a recovery in Sun's core market, powerful server computers at the heart of corporate networks.

Open-source software, despite being available for free, will help Sun financially, Schwartz said. "We're expecting more revenue," he said, citing historical parallels with the company's support of the now universal TCP/IP networking standard and the widely used Java software.

The problem with allying yourself with "the open-source programming movement as part of a strategy" is, programmers are generally brainiacs, and they see what you are doing.

Sun is expecting more revenue, but what about you volunteers? Why, pray tell, should programmers donate their code so companies can take it proprietary? I see why Sun wants that, and I am sure some will sign on just for the fun of playing with the code (although I reiterate my cautions), but seriously. What is in it for the programmers? What do they get out of the deal? They contribute code, and they don't get any code back, and the company makes all the money and they work as volunteers. That isn't Open Source to me. That's worse than proprietary, actually, because at least proprietary software companies pay their employees and give them benefits.

The GPL prevents dipping into the common code pot unless you agree to contribute back, if you distribute code that isn't stand-alone. If you don't distribute the code, then you don't have to give anything back. That means a business can grab some GPL code, make changes and tweaks to suit the business, and keep their changes in-house and private forever. If, however, they decide to go into the software business, for one example, the authors of the GPL code they used to get started would expect "payment", and the payment they want isn't money. They want the common code pot strengthened with those additions.

That is the "consideration", you might say, the fairness in the deal. The code is yours to take and make use of, and there is wonderful code available to you, to help you and your business, if you have one, but if you distribute, you have to donate back any code you add on that becomes integral. You know why? Because, to quote that illustrious proprietary thinker, Darl McBride, there's no free lunch.

I'm not saying don't do it, if you don't care, but most people do care. If companies can get a lot of people to sign on to work for absolutely nothing, who am I to complain? But I bet in the long run the results won't hold a candle to GPL code. The quality is built in to the license. Humans are born with an innate sense of justice, so don't call it "Open Source" if the whole point of the license is to close off the results. OSI made a mistake approving this license in its current form, in my opinion, but when I saw all the Sun and Sun-oriented folks on the board, it wasn't exactly a surprise. Now we see that in fact the whole point of the license is a very not-so-Open goal. Promises were made that have not been kept, in addition, regarding the Contributors' Agreement and FAQ, and so there are alarming questions still in the air about the Microsoft factor and patent issues, and under no circumstances can I recommend this license to anyone in its current form. (Cf. here, here, here, and here.)

GPL code, by the way, is written all over the world, so the Schwartz trash talk that the benefits of contributing code back accrue only to the US reveals a serious misunderstanding of how the GPL works and where the FOSS community writes the code and who benefits from it. Ask Brazil.

Well, Schwartz is new to all this Open stuff, so he may need some time to learn. But attacking the GPL before you understand it is just asking for it.

Speaking of the proprietary mindset, you might enjoy this April 1st joke, about SCO winning, as an antidote to all this offensive anti-GPL nonsense. Or for more comic relief, here's the winner of the Red Hat Magazine's contest to find the hidden meaning in the CDDL. At this point, I think it must be said that there is nothing hidden about it now. And for some intriguing thoughts, check out this article on open hardware, which links to www.power.org.


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