Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Viral software production Richard Stallman is a well known figure in the technology community. He founded the Free Software Foundation, which promotes free software around the world. He wrote GNU, an integral part of the Linux operating system. And if that was not enough, he also created Emacs, arguably the world's greatest text editor.

But his most important innovation is the GNU Public License (GPL).

The GPL recognizes that programmers write better software when they can re-use existing code and fix each others' bugs. Therefore, programs released under the GPL come with their source code which can be freely reused and modified by others. The catch is that any software containing GPL'd code must also be released under the GPL if distributed. For example, an insurance company that created an in-house application using GPL'd code must release their program under the GPL as well if they plan to commercialize it.

Freely available source code undermines the commercial software business model based on selling programs as products that customers cannot modify or share. The GPL's "pass along" effect continually enlarges the code base GPL programmers can draw from when writing new programs. This is why Microsoft describes the licence as being "viral," "a cancer," and "unamerican"--it undermines the way they do business and keeps getting bigger.

Freely available soure code also undermines the research and development process that has driven software innovation ever since Microsoft established its desktop monopoly in the 80s. Instead of building products and hoping to be bought, coders are now launching innovative products directly into the marketplace, and leaving future development to the network, not to a proprietary software firm. Under this model, the market selects software based on its use value, not corporate best-guesses.

The GPL is a catalytic mechanism, defined by business author Jim Collins as galvinizing, non-beaurocratic means of turning objectives into performance, that changes the way software is built, sold, and maintained. Don't like a piece of software? Change it at will. Don't like the limitations of proprietary software? Use open software. Just make sure you contribute to the community. Microsoft has responded with its own "viral" licensing scheme, "shared source," which forbids any programmer who has ever looked at Microsoft code from writing anything which may resemble it or compete with it.

One can see software production splitting into two worlds. Microsoft recently banned any GPL'd code from being used in developing one of its applications. Coders who develop GPL'd software are wary of participating in Microsoft "shared source" projects, for fear of future lawsuits. Microsoft's viral strategy is more divisive, because it actually segments the community of developers, instead of just the body of code ("shared source" applies to minds, GPL just applies to software.) This restrictiveness seems unwisely antagonistic. Given that Microsoft has a monopoly on the PC, it's not clear which development model will ultimately dominate, but the catalytic GPL has accelerated the debate.
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