BT proves itself open to correction

The GPL is very good at keeping people honest. Perhaps that's why some find it distasteful

Free software doesn't come without a price, as BT recently discovered. To its mild embarrassment, the British telco forgot to read part two of the GPL.

Part one says 'Take this software and do what you like with it' — and BT liked to create its Home Hub wireless networking device on the back of a Linux distribution designed to help build exactly that.

Part two, however, says 'as long as you give away the resulting software to anyone who wants it, under the same conditions'. BT omitted that bit, and got nabbed. But swift action to put the source code online, and honour was satisfied.

It's always enjoyable when a large and somewhat pompous organisation gets caught out fair and square. There are deeper lessons in this incident, though.

Open source and free software is not an attack on intellectual property. Quite the opposite. The GPL operates firmly inside the laws of copyright and licence, and depends on them for its power to prevent unfair use. And unlike proprietary software, because the GPL and the code it protects are unambiguously public, such theft is easy to spot and impossible to deny. That's why the community can bring any remotely sensible violator to heel, no matter how unresponsive it normally is, without activating the lawyers or demanding silly money. This is law that works equally well for the powerful and powerless without recourse to the courts: for that miracle alone, open source wins hearts.

Open source and free software is no barrier to innovation. Again, quite the opposite. BT, like many other companies, found the BusyBox embedded Linux system a very quick, reliable and capable platform on which to build communications hardware. Freed from restrictions and licensing considerations, the telco spent its time and resources adding new features — the return on innovation was high. And the cost — making the changes available to all — will not damage the product or the company strategy in any way.

Open source and free software is not a one-way street. Another BusyBox user, Cisco, switched away from that software to a closed system when it found that the proprietary alternative worked better in a cost-reduced version of its hardware. BT is free to make that choice in the future, with no hidden consequences.

Open source is no magic panacea: it makes life easier, but doesn't remove the need for intelligence, honesty and hard work. The only criteria it deserves to be judged on is whether it does a good job for you — and whether you can afford the price: that of keeping an open mind.

 

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