- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I felt bad for Ken Brown of the Alexis De Toqueville Institution (AdTI) last week. There he was, on a panel in a room full of Open Source advocates and people interested in learning more about Open Source. Even though Mr. Brown spoke as eloquently as a storefont gospel preacher he didn't seem to grasp that his message was missing its mark. But it took an unplanned lunch encounter to show me why Mr. Brown and his crowd have so much trouble grasping the concepts behind the GPL, and behind Open Source in general.
First of all, you need to understand that Washington "think tanks" like AdTI do "sponsored studies." That is, they get grants that pay for research in particular areas. Up until 2000, AdTI displayed no interest in software licensing. Their sponsors -- mostly ultra-rightist groups -- were more interested in other policy areas. Media Transparency attempts to track "the money behind the media" in an effort to expose the sponsors of studies by apparently independent research "institutes" like AdTI whose works are often published on newspaper op-ed pages, and whose spokespeople often appear on talking-head TV shows or are quoted as "experts" by reporters who don't know (or don't care) that they are flacking for their backers, not doing independent scholarly research. Media Transparency has records on AdTI from 1998 through 2000, and if you follow the links to AdTI donors, you'll find that they are generally on the right (even far right) wing of the American political spectrum.
More recently -- you never would have guessed this -- Microsoft Corporation has provided financial support to AdTI. The first big blast of anti-Open Source FUD unleashed by AdTI came in the form of this press release last May. After that AdTI's notoriety spread though the Open Source community, although (thankfully) few media outlets outside this tight little circle seemed to notice AdTI's views on Open Source.
Just to show you how credible AdTI's research is, a 1994 AdTI paper entitled "Science, Economics, and Environmental Policy: A Critical Examination" is often held up as a supreme example of "junk science" used by tobacco companies and anti-environmentalists in their attempts to alter public policy in their favor.
But we were talking about software. Or were we talking about Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla? I mentioned an impromptu lunchtime conversation with AdTI president Ken Brown. That's where he told the old story about how Thomas Edison, in an attempt to market his DC power generating systems over Tesla's technologically superior AC systems in the 1890s and the first years of the 20th Century, sponsored demonstrations of animals -- even an elephant -- being electrocuted with AC, and invented the electric chair -- powered by AC -- to prove how dangerous AC was, presumably so that utility companies would choose Edison's DC.
Brown used this story as an example of Edison's brilliance and business acumen. He talked of Edison in glowing terms as the "winner" of the AC/DC battle with Tesla -- and of how Edison and his backers later "bought out" Tesla and his backers' AC patents and business and used them to dominate the electric power marketplace.
The only problem is, Edison and his backers did not buy out the Tesla camp. Tesla's primary financier, George Westinghouse, bought Tesla out -- in a deal that was not considered fair to Tesla by most observers, but still left Tesla well-off by the standards of the time -- and went on to build a huge company that made AC motors and generating plants.
Those pesky facts!
Well, they're not important, are they? Imagination and marketing prowess and competitive ability, those are what make America great! Guys like Tesla, mere engineers and scientists, are tools. They're the kind of people who believe in all that GPL gobbledegook, you know. They talk about "the common good" and other such twaddle, not about profits.
I felt like an imbecile, sitting there in my casual clothes with my thoughts about software users and their needs, at a table with Ken Brown and two of his AdTI compatriots, all dressed in well-tailored dark suits, talking about the dangers of those pesky users not being willing to keep making software titans richer and richer, forever and ever, and about how that GPL nonsense must be stopped or no one will ever make any money writing software ever again, and even other Open Source licenses are dubious. I mean, you let just anyone look at your source code, and the next thing you know terrorists will know all your secrets and hack into all your computers and make your air traffic control system stop working so all the airliners run into each other, right?
Or something. I was almost scared, after that dose of propaganda, to go home and sit down in front of my computer full of Linux and other Open Source programs. I was relieved when no terrorist hand leapt from the screen and grabbed me by the throat. Even now, a week later, I worry that terrorists may have infested Bluefish, the GPL-licensed program I am using to write this article. Are my words being twisted even as I type them? Wouldn't I be better off using something safer and more American (Bluefish is developed by a team of programmers all over the world) like ... MS Word? Or at least WordPerfect, a fine proprietary program written by freedom-loving Canadians?
Brown and his cohorts at AdTI are good at their job, which is to convince you that what's good for their sponsors is good for America and, indeed, the entire world. EPA? Phah! Teacher's unions? Why, without them, teachers would probably earn as much as doctors. Defense? Spend more! Lots more! But keep taxes low and flat while you do it. High taxes are bad, you know. And everyone should be taxed the same, no matter how much they earn. (AdTI has graphs that prove this improves the economy.)
Open Source and Free Software activist Bruce Perens recently sent us a Call for Donations to try to counterbalance the "findings" of "think tanks" like AdTI. I've been hanging around the Washington, D.C., area for a good number of years now. I've watched the professional lobbyists in action, and they get the big bucks because they're good at what they do. But there are a lot more of us than there are of them. We have seen that Open Source activists can make a difference if enough of us make the right calls (and send the right emails and faxes) to the right people.
Bruce is 100 percent correct when he says, "Free Software is no longer 'under the radar.' Our electronic freedoms -- even our right to program -- are under a very well-funded and vicious attack. We must actively defend ourselves now, or the good that we've created will be erased."
It takes money, time, and effort to advance the causes we hold dear. Often the effort seems futile. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the endless wear-you-down tactics and resources the people on the other side enjoy. But the alternative is to simply walk away and let them have their way, and that simply won't do.