July 3, 2001

ESR: Who is 'viral' now?

Author: JT Smith

(Editor's note: The following is an email message from Eric S. Raymond, sent to several news organizations today.)

A Microsoft drone writes: "We are sincerely concerned about the GPL,
and its impacts upon the ecology of the developer community." The gravamen of Microsoft's argument against the GPL is that it is
"viral"; that it can somewhow infect other peoples' software,
effectively nullifying their intellectual-property rights and removing
their ability to profit from their work.

This charge is full of logical and factual errors.  It confuses three
different issues: mere use of software, aggregation of software, and
derivation of software.  The best possible ilustration of its falsity
and fundamental hypocrisy is that Microsoft has been shipping GPLed
software aggregated with its Interix (aka OpenNT) product for years.
Because the Interix software is not a derivative work of the GPLed
code they ship with it, not a single line of Microsoft code has ever
been "infected" by the allegedly "viral" GPL.

But the most interesting irony here comes from considering the terms
of Microsoft's so-called "shared source" program.  Microsoft assures
us that its shared-source program will be deliberately constructed so
that Microsoft retains all intellectual-property rights in the code it
allows developers to see.

What does this mean?  Well...suppose you are a developer.  You
register with Microsoft to get access to "shared source", or you work
at a development shop that registers (giving you presumptive access
to Microsoft's source code).  

Congratulations.  Your brain is now infected with the "I have seen 
shared source" virus.  Are you prepared to bet your career, or your
company's existence, that Microsoft will never sue if you write
code that (a) behaviorally resembles a Microsoft product, (b) competes
with a Microsoft product, or (c) clashes with the color of Bill
Gates's underwear this week?

Bear in mind that Microsoft doesn't have to win such a lawsuit.  It
doesn't even have to overtly threaten one.  The mere threat of the
threat of being sued by a multibillion-dollar company is enough to
scare the bejezus out of any entrepreneur or corporate legal
department, and more than enough to exert a massive chilling effect
on software-industry competition.  How convenient for Microsoft!

`Shared source' is the ultimate virus.  The GPL, which leaves your
brain alone and can't "infect" your code unless you deliberately
shoose to incorporate GPLed code or link to it, is an innocent
symbiote by comparison.  It actually protects you, because it
guarantees your right to redistribute and re-use the code you see.

So...who is "viral" now?


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