Microsoft versus Free Software

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Last month I wrote that Microsoft doesn’t understand the GPL. But there’s more where that came from. Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative website also includes a page on Basic Principles of Software Source Code Licensing, which attempts to debunk other open source licensing practices in favour of their own.

“Intellectual property (IP) rights” are ownership rights to property that is intangible (lacking any physical form), such as ideas, artistic concepts, and inventions. IP rights include such things as patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. Other than the fact that it has no tangible form, IP is much like any other property. The author of source code owns the original ideas expressed in that code, just like a book author owns the original ideas expressed in that book, and can sell that ownership to someone else.

Of course, IP is actually not at all “like any other property”. If I give you my sandwich, then you have a sandwich and I don’t. But if I give you my recipe, then we both have it. This is a fundamental point, and colours all arguments about intellectual property — or at least it should.

Towards the bottom of the page, there’s an uncharacteristically spiteful swipe at (presumably) the Free Software Foundation:

‘Free’ Software and the GPL

A faction within the OSS community believes that commercial software is immoral and that nobody should hold IP rights in source code. This faction espouses the use of the GNU General Public License (GPL) to discriminate against all CSD.

This is blatantly unfair, especially in the context of the bland corporatese of most of Microsoft’s site. Some of the FSF’s views can seem a bit extreme — though the same can be said of Microsoft — but it’s unfair to dismiss the FSF as a “faction” discriminating against “immoral” commercial software development. That’s just as bad as characterising Microsoft as an amoral corporate behemoth, spreading misinformation to protect its own interests at everyone else’s expense. And that would be unfair indeed, wouldn’t it?

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