Open Source Software Up the Stack

Dennis Byron

Eben Moglen's Microbashing Makes News; Real Agenda Makes No Sense

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I've posted here and here about the difference between the terms "free software" as defined by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and "open source software" (OSS) as the term is used generically and defined by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). A recent Computerworld interview of law professor Eben Moglen (founder, president and executive director of the Software Freedom Law Center and former director of the FSF) lays it out from the FSF point of view better than I can. And I find it chilling. Despite signs that court action will actually finally be taken by his center for the first time after a decade of talking the talk about the FSF's GNU General Public License (GPL), Moglen's and the FSF's position is really philosophical and not law-based.

Moglen says that in 1980 he began believing "that the linguistic interaction between human beings and computers afford human beings better ways of knowing and solving problems." He continues according to Computerworld, "The issues about software were then as they are now, merely one layer in a layer cake. They are a crucial layer because the network that we live in is made out of software."

Thankfully my "network" consists of my wife, kids and grandkids, siblings and parents, friends and associates. I agree with software's problem-solving ability and the layer cake analogy (that is, software is pretty much of no value without some kind of hardware). But I get lost with the FSF worldview that seems to look at software as a living thing, which leads to Moglen's logic that because software is somehow almost alive, it then needs to be free (as in air, or trees, or fish--his analogies not mine). Come on, software programs are just tools, like hammers and screwdrivers, pretty much useless without nails and screws.

Then the interview morphs to FSF Microbashing as such interviews always do. To be fair, the reporter wouldn't have ended the interview until he got some red meat from Moglen. According to Computerworld, Moglen says, "Microsoft still maintains strongly the view that its business model, which depends upon concealing source code from users, is a viable and important and necessary model." He compares Microsoft to the Soviet Union and its intellectual property relationships (and threatened but never taken legal actions) to intercontinental ballistic missiles. I doubt if Microsoft's past business plans care one iota whether its source code was concealed; more important, I am pretty certain from doing information technology market research for 20 years that over 99% of Microsoft's near billion customers didn't care. But for Moglen to make those two analogies demonstrates what you're dealing with if you simply want "open choice."

And even if concealing source code was a past Microsoft tactic, the company is changing tactics quickly in reaction to the OSS software development model because the model potentially saves Microsoft (and Oracle and IBM and Google) billions in R&D expense.

Moglen goes on to say, "because of GPL... you can't own it (software now and content next); it's a commons... and you need commons management." Translation: And we--the true believers--will be the managers of that commune. This is another probably unintended analogy with the Soviet Union. I certainly have no problem with the FSF members thinking this way. That's its members' right. I do object to them working to take away my right to open choice, through support of anti-open-choice legislation/regulation and outright politicization (that is, the cronyism, kickbacks and so forth that we witnessed here in Massachusetts a few years ago in the name of OSS).

And even if you don't care about Moglen's opinion about software as logic, Moglen wants to now move on and "free" software as content. He says, "the Disneys and the other major movie studios... have a great deal of image-making authority in the world -- and a great deal to lose from the obliteration of their distribution mechanisms."

This is where the FSF philosophy really gets problematic for me because Moglen is saying that not only should the tools be free (and you must use "free tools" to build things, not "closed tools") but that the resultant things you build with the tools (your house) is free as in air also. In the FSF/Moglen view, your house can be a commune whether you want it to be a commune or not. I have nothing against communes but I don't choose to live as if the house I built is a commune (except for weeknds in the summer when the grandkids show up).

Dennis Byron’s blog on open source software: A longtime market research analyst follows what “the movement? means to business integration—in applications, infrastructure, as services, as architecture and as functionality.

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