September 20, 2002

An email to CEI over its critique of Linux

- From: Grant Gross -
Hello, Declan and Jim:

A couple of points on Jim's rant against Linux and The New York Times editorial this week: Yes, Linux programmers are supported. Most have "day jobs," and some of those are even jobs where they're paid to write Linux or Open Source code.

And yes, companies like IBM have supported Linux (although much of the billion dollars IBM has spent on Linux has gone into its marketing efforts, as opposed to code-writing efforts).

But Linux has survived and grown for several years without huge corporate subsidies. While IBM and other companies have contributed mightily in the past couple of years, Linux and most other Open Source software has a long grassroots history. Much of the Linux movement really is a "folk song army," as Jim puts it.

Corporate support has helped Linux, but it is not necessary "to keep Linux going," as Jim suggests. Linux survived for nearly 10 years without backing from many large companies.

The bigger question is: So what? If IBM and other companies choose to support Linux because they see profit in doing so, what's wrong with that? Sounds like free enterprise to me, and as I understand it, CEI is all for letting the free market work. Or does CEI only support the free market for large corporations like Microsoft? Doesn't a folk song army, supported by a few companies, also have the right to participate in the free market?

In addition, Jim's comparison to Linux as a movement to the dot-com bust is overly simplistic. First, Jim complains that someone has to pay for Linux by supporting it, then he complains that Linux isn't a sustainable business plan. First, he criticizes Linux for not being free -- yes, some Linux companies offer support services -- then he criticizes Linux because giving products away didn't work for dot-coms.

Next: "The code writers will want pay for producing it, which means money must ultimately come from the users somehow." There are a lot of things wrong with that statement. Many of those code writers have been volunteers -- I imagine Jim understands the concept of volunteerism. Jim is thinking of Linux purely as a business model, when Linux has a much longer history as a volunteer project than as a business.

Interestingly enough, The New York Times' editorial didn't advocate Linux as a business model. It just advanced Linux as competition to Microsoft.

Jim's second critique of Linux and the GNU GPL is off target. It's interesting, of course, that Jim's criticism of the GPL mirrors the recent noise coming from Microsoft, a past backer of CEI. Many people have responded to the claims that the GPL is "viral," but let me try to put it in terms free-marketers should be able to understand:

The GPL is a kind of social contract, or even a business contract. GPLed code is free to use, but if you build on it, you have an obligation to contribute your code back to the commons from which you took the code. (And, a reader reminds me, only if you distribute your changes to others.) As you free-marketers like to say, "You can't get something for nothing." There is a price for using GPLed code, and if you'd don't want to pay that price, the choice is simple: Don't use GPLed code, create your own.

Also, Jim paraphrases the GPL as saying: "Thou shalt not charge for this program and its source code shall be public." Yes, most of the time, the source code must be freely available, but Jim, could you please point out where in the GPL it says you can't charge for a GPLed program? If that's the case, those copies of Red Hat and Mandrake Linux I see on the shelves of my local Best Buy violate the GPL.

Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman himself tells audiences how he used to charge to send out copies of his Emacs text editor on disk. As you know, Richard wrote the GPL.

Furthermore, Jim implies that it's nearly impossible to write proprietary applications for Linux because of the GPL's "viral" nature. "Writing aps without incorporating some operating system code is difficult," he says. That almost sounds like Microsoft's "can't separate the browser from the OS" position that got the company hauled into federal antitrust court.

The reality is that applications are written all the time without using code from the OS, as evidenced by the hundreds of non-GPLed programs that already run on Linux. (I'm writing this on StarOffice for Linux, which would violate the GPL using Jim's logic.) How have so many independent software developers managed to write thousands of apps for Microsoft's closed-source OSes, if they couldn't do so without using part of the operating system code?

Finally, Jim suggests that governments should stay away from Linux, because "incentives fueling the Linux movement are not necessarily those required for long-term production of software suited for the public as well as the nerds." Again, Jim contradicts himself. If companies like IBM are pouring billions of dollars into Linux, that feels an awful lot like the foundation for the long-term production of software.

Thanks for listening,



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