Stallman takes Gates to task over GPL attacks

Microsoft's chairman recently equated the GPL licence with anti-capitalism, urging developing nations to shun it; now the GPL founder, Richard Stallman, has hit back

Attacks by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates on the GNU General Public License (GPL), under which a lot of open source and free software is distributed, have been driven by a fear that the GPL creates a domain of software that Microsoft cannot privatise and control, according to GPL founder Richard Stallman.

Gates' latest speech on the issue was delivered in mid-April to Government Leaders' Conference in Seattle, Washington, where he warned developing countries against using software based on the GPL, saying those who put development time into it are denying themselves the benefits of essential taxes.

Using some of his strongest language yet in his tirade against open source and free software, Gates equated the concepts to anti-capitalism.

Noting that some countries that really believe in the capitalist approach -- "that is that software should generate jobs... and government research and development should be generated on a basis that can be commercialised" -- Gates characterised the open source and free software movements as factions against this.

"The so-called (Free Software Foundation)... says that these other countries other than the US should devote R&D dollars in the so-called open approach, that means you can never commercialise that software," said Gates. The Free Software Foundation is Stallman's fund-raising organisation for GNU projects.

But in a column for ZDNet UK, Stallman says the real reason that Microsoft attacks the GPL is that it creates a domain of software that the company cannot privatise and control. "Microsoft's approach to free software is simple: 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine.'"

Gates, says Stallman, believes that Microsoft should be allowed to take anyone's free software and make a proprietary version, "whose source code is their secret: they will push us to run it but they, not we, will control what it does. We are supposed to be grateful to them for barging in."

In his speech to the Government Leaders' Conference, Gates said countries that put money into open source, deny themselves "the benefits of these high-paying jobs and the kind of taxes that let countries fund their universities, and fund general research that then goes to renew that pool of commercial R&D."

Clearly, he said, "there's an ecosystem there that has worked extremely well in the United States... and there is now a recognition that it's really a question of policy of allowing the so-called capitalistic approach to win the day." Gates reeled off a number of reasons that countries should not adopt open-source software. One question, he said, is: "Do you need the source code of an operating system as a user of that operating system? That is, should you be paying your people to study the intricacies of how the operating system is built and stuff like that?" The basic answer, he said, is no. "For a few percent of the price of the PC you can buy a commercial operating system, where all the work of testing it, supporting it, delivering it, is included."

Microsoft, said Gates, does provide source code to universities and large companies who want it. "But 90-some percent of the time, that's more an -- okay, it's nice, I have it, you know, should I ever need it." So source availability, said Gates, is not the big issue.

Not so, according to Stallman. The Microsoft "shared source" programme, he says, is not about sharing at all -- it is just another name for a nondisclosure agreement. "Think twice before you sign, because it is not just antisocial, it is risky too," he wrote.

As an example, Stallman offers the students who, around 1990, had seen the secret AT&T Unix source code at school found their employment prospects narrowed, because AT&T had threatened to sue when some students used ideas reminiscent of Unix. "AT&T ultimately backed down, but before they did, some employers became anxious about hiring anyone who had signed an AT&T NDA. Microsoft is much more powerful than AT&T was in software, and much more arrogant. Do you trust Microsoft not to take advantage of its power?"

But the real issue, according Gates, is who is going to be the most innovative. "Will it be capitalism, or will it be just people working at night?" It is not so much free software as the GPL that, Gates said, causes problems. "Microsoft thinks free software is a great thing," he told the audience. "Software written in universities should be free software. But it shouldn't be GPL software. GPL software is like this thing called Linux, where you can never commercialise anything around it; that is, it always has to be free."

Nonsense, says Stallman, who points out that GPL-covered free software already has been commercialised, noting that even Microsoft sells a package that includes GPL-covered software. "IBM, Apple and HP both distribute and develop GPL-covered free software," he writes, adding that many other smaller companies have commercialised free software. "What they cannot do is privatise it."

Microsoft's position, said Gates, is that there should be an "eco-system" like BSD. "There's a big difference. A government can fund research work on (BSD), UNIX, and still have commercial companies in their country start off around that type of work." Countries whose universities are working on open-source software will not generate IT jobs, said Gates, and should "just say that farming is your thing, or whatever it is. All the taxes will be paid by those guys or something -- I don't know. And the farmers will go home at night and work on the source code."

But what Gates is really asking, writes Stallman, is that countries should accept "prey status" for the sake of making jobs. "Is it really a good idea to make a product noxious to its users just so more people will be employed to produce it? That is make-work, not market economy. Gates would like every country in the world to scramble to get Microsoft jobs, but remember: that game has hundreds of millions of losers, and only tens of thousands of winners."

For the full article, see Richard Stallman: What Gates' attacks on the GPL really mean.

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