13 June 2006

The Great IP FUD

As if further proof were needed what a slippery and dangerous concept "intellectual property" - "IP" - is, read this article. Under the innocuous - and misleading - headline "Can Windows and Linux Learn to Play Nice?", Bob Muglia, the senior vice president of Microsoft's server and tools business, serves up the following choice Microsoftian views:

"Open source is a way of building software and, in its most basic sense, there is nothing incompatible [between] the concept of open source and commercial software. But the GPL has an inherent incompatibility that is, to my knowledge, impossible to overcome..."

A commercial company has to build intellectual property, while the GPL, by its very nature, does not allow intellectual property to be built, making the two approaches fundamentally incompatible, Muglia said.

Well, no, Bob, I think you're a little confused here.

A commercial company doesn't have to build intellectual property: it may choose to, it may not. It may choose to sell services, for example, and be jolly successful at that: IBM derives around $40 billion a year from services, and IP doesn't enter it (although it does elsewhere in the company's activities).

And the GPL, "by its very nature" not only allows intellectual property to be built, but actually depends on it: as I've written before, the GPL works thanks to copyright. In other words, the GPL depends on what is called "IP" (though neither I nor RMS like the term).

So, I'm afraid, Bob, that you are wrong on both counts. Your argument falls to pieces, and the whole eWeek interview emerges as yet another attempt to FUD-muddy the waters - to portray the GPL as that big, bad IP wolf driven to eat up all the innocent little commercial Red Riding Hoods.

Oh, and by the way, notice the subtle trick in the generous concession that "there is nothing incompatible [between] the concept of open source and commercial software" - as if open source and commercial software were somehow on different planets. Well, what about Red Hat's products, or SuSE's: are they commercial or are they open source? Answer: they're both. It's a false opposition that Muglia is trying to set up.

Amusingly, this was an approach that one of the top Microsoft bods in the UK tried with me a few years back, when I was "invited in" to "chat" about open source (i.e. have my brain picked for any useful ploys that might be used against open source). One of the first phrases that came out of the Microsoftie's mouth was something about "non-commercial" software - by which he meant open source. So, I was naturally forced to give him a hard time and point out that the implicit distinction he was making was false, and that our conversation would be a short one if we couldn't clear that up.

Unfortunately, it looks like Microsoft is still peddling this particular sophistry.

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