November 7, 2002  ·  Lessig

ESR has a wonderful analysis of the latest Halloween document from (some mole in) Msft. Eric rightly emphasizes substantial good news. Yet though this may be just my nature, I think there is more here to be worried about than the good news suggests. Bottom line: Regardless of our OSS/FSF loyalties, we need to work hard to de-FUDify GPL.

My worry about this comes from two recent experiences—one reading the extraordinarily misguided missive from New Democrat Adam Smith, calling on the government to stop funding research producing GPLd code; the other watching a Japanese audience react to an argument ably made by Msft’s General Counsel, Brad Smith, about GPL.

Congressman Smith’s argument, as I have argued elsewhere, is radical and wrong. But it is amazing (given how radical and wrong it is) that it still survived his staffs’ check. Corporate Smith’s argument is familiar and also wrong, but it has the appeal of centrism that corporate types and government’s like.

Our strategy here should be Msft’s: We need to “embrace and extend” Msft’s message. As Brad Smith persuasively argued, the world needs a broad “ecosystem” of software. True enough, and we should agree, because the more the world agrees that a healthy “ecosystem” is needed, the harder it will be to argue that one species in that healthy ecosystem (GPL) needs to be extinguished. GPLd code may not make sense for all projects, but we need to push the idea that that market has shown that it makes plenty of sense for many projects, including many commercial projects. The choice within this ecosystem is not between commercial and noncommercial. The real choice is between business models that benefit Msft, and those that do not.

And more importantly in the short term, we need to get the Democrats to address Congressman Smith’s mistake. He went too far. They need to correct him. In their correction, the Democrats have a chance to say something useful and principled about the importance of choice in the software market. It is one good thing about being out of power: You can afford to speak the truth.

There is obviously a well-funded campaign underway to make the world believe GPL is not safe or effective. Whether you call the operating system Torvalds helped build GNU/Linux or just Linux, it is critical that we support those fighting to defend the GPL. Eric’s optimism reflects the good news about the spread of Open Source and Free Software. But this feels a bit about like the crowing around DR-DOS. The war here has just begun. The course we must “stay” must include the defense of a core part of the Free and Open Source software ecosystem: GPL.