by Victor Stone
June 11, 2001
In a recent tit-for-tat the "free" software guys boo-bashed the "intellectual property" guys and old wounds were reopened one more time. I understand you've had your head down for quite a while, slacking away in your cubicle, so to protect you from any more heavy lifting than you need to do I will give you a quick synopsis of all the players and their materiel in this soap opera. This is not imply that I've read the necessary documentation, know any of the people involved or understand all the issues. In fact, most of my opinions were formed before I ever looked into this whole thing. Still, there was plenty of circumstantial evidence to back up my prejudices and that's as far as I had to go. That plus $29.95 a month for a site, not to mention the fact that you are reading this, qualifies me, just like that, to make the case. (Ain't the Web great?!)
Linus ("pronounce it however you want, just pronounce it") Torvalds : Son of a an Finnish Communist sits down and writes some software he thinks is cool. Instead of finishing it, he delegates that job to literally anyone in the world. (Already at this point of the story I'm jealous on four separate counts.) Instead of selling it outright, he lets people buy it (even though it's free) but only if they promise to change it! Wacky, for sure, but not when put in a context where "money didn't come first." Speaking of which, out of spite for his pedantic pinko father, Linus clears a few cool million from a Linux service org, goes to work for (I'm guessing) big bucks at a bitchin Valley mobile computing firm and oh, by the way, is now on a book tour touting his revolutionary, if accidental and commoditized, life story. This guy has got the system wired inside and out. Remember this well: no one gets America better than a snow-bound math geek watching the whole thing on TV.
Eric Raymond: I dare you to not love this guy. Agree with him or not on any given issue - he is too cuddly for words. He's a killer coder, a loving, considerate husband, a humanitarian, an impassioned, unbelievably well researched and articulate voice for a culture of hackers that had me, after twenty minutes at his web site, turning into a gun totin', "Fountainhead" packin', wife-cheatin' Libertarian!! He mixes adorable and savvy better than that girl in the Pepsi ads. He's got the media and the marketplace by the balls and they're crying for more. Sure he gets a little churlishly emotional, especially when he stoops to publishing other people's private internal memos on the Web, but whatever; he's so damn cute! And smart? I must have started reading that "Cathedral and Bazaar" paper four separate times in the last five years and damn, but I never got through it. I have no idea what this guy is talking about and I doubt many of his underwriters do either and you know what? None of us care because Everybody Loves Eric Raymond. Love him, love him, love him.
Richard Stallman: Rounding out the trinity is a maverick only a mother, a very compassionate, understanding, patient and well-balanced mother on lots of good medication could love. This guy screeches louder than my brakes. (Richard and Eric are so inextricably intertwined in their respective public pursuits that poor Ray-ray has a clothespin affixed to his nose for the times he has to "[lead] a standing ovation" for Stallman.) Dicky founded GNU which he constantly reminds you is the real operating system when you get a "Linux" system. Linux, he shouts from the rooftops, is a tiny part ("3%") of a GNU/Linux installation. (This alone must be one hell of a battle considering the opening line of linux.org reads: "Linux is a free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus ...") But I get ahead of myself: First Stallman wrote Emacs, a text editor he managed to turn into a religious movement, then he did a compiler, then GNU. Have you got all that? Well, we doubt it so let's review: he wrote Emacs, a compiler and GNU. In case you blinked: he wrote Emacs, a compiler then GNU. And don't you ever let him forget to let you forget that!
Bill Gates: I'd be willing to bet that line-for-line Linus has made more money on his software than Bill. It will be a very, very long time before anyone will ever give away more software for free than Microsoft. In fact, according to a law suit brought by the Justice Dept. (and vouched for by a delightfully pissy tobacco spitter named 'Penfield Jackson') they can't bring themselves to stop giving it away. Stallman, however, in true wanna-be radical form uses the term "free software" in a dual context of "extremely inexpensive" and "lacking in tyranny" and it's the latter that puts Bill on the spot. Anyone who has ever looked at their registry after installing any SKU of Visual Studio knows what it is to live under tyrannical software domination. Using an upside-down Nixonesque brand of patriotic loyalty (i.e. what's good for the company is good the customer) Microsoft gives software away like the white settlers gave pox-ridden blankets, guns and liquor to the natives, claiming, "Who doesn't want to be warm, protected and a little tight?" If you show up when they're dying, armed and drunk to offer an upgrade you're doing it the American Way. Forget karmic retribution, Gates and Stallman have probably done enough in this lifetime to deserve each other.
GNU GPL: The best I can glean from skimming all the various manifestos parading as licensing agreements is that if software doesn't really cost anything to make, it shouldn't really cost anything to use. Brilliant in its simplicity the practice of giving software away has caught fire with hardware companies. No shit. Remember, Linus works for a hardware company. Eric sits on the board of a hardware company and in fact OSDN (including SourceForge, SlashDot, Linux.org, and more) is wholly owned and operated by that same hardware company. A large part of the actual workings and leaders of the free software enterprise seems to be underwritten by hardware companies, many of whom (with the notable exception of VA Linux) are proud patent holders on down to the welds on the motherboard. Patent holders or not, they all figure it's more cost efficient to buy into this whole community thing than be beholden to Microsoft or Sun for Service Pack #42.
I don't want to leave out other would-be-philanthropists looking out for the "interests of the customers and developers" that adore free software as well. Let's not forget copyright-protected book publishers, one-click litigious dot-coms, firewall protected ISPs, etc.
Yet when it comes to renting Times Square to put up six story "Peace, Love and Linux" logos then it's time to bring out the big blue iron. I smell something but it's not quite altruism. (Not to mention we're just a wee outside the fairy tale of a band of merry hobbyists, building an OS in their spare time.) If the open/free guys and girls haven't been co-opted by the corporations selling hardware, books, bandwidth, buttons and T-shirts, they are certainly being used by them for less benevolent goals than "peace" and "love." If the open/free people know they are being used but allow it for the sake of "common goals" then what difference does it make? The relationship between the hardware companies and the open/free software communities goes something like: for the privilege of going to bed with me, I'll let you make me breakfast.
Feeling mightily threatened (that is to say: I'm assuming their sales field is reporting lost sales to "open" systems) Microsoft has "turned up the heat" in public assails against the entire idea of giving software away for free (er, that is, software that the hardware cat drags in the door as opposed to software that comes free with other software). Unlike the Java threat and response, however, they can't really find anybody to vilify quite as succinctly as Sun so their target is the GPL itself.
Some in the Linux community see this latest onslaught for what it is and have been calling for "the higher road" but in the process have been accused of laying down and worse, labeled censors by the more strident. But all within these ranks, to a man, cry foul that Microsoft is just using FUD to smoke up the real issues. As if fear isn't a major component of the battle-cry of the open/free community.
The "Rift" The big rift between the various anti-commercial-software camps is a matter of tactic, which literally comes down to a war of words: "open" vs. "free." Trust me it's too moronic to go into, even for me. Suffice it to say the "differences" in these virtual camps is the moral equivalent of splinter groups within Hamas fighting over whether they should drive the dirty Redmonites into Puget Sound while known as the "Jihad of Free and Open Coders" or the "Free and Open Coders Jihad." (Politics amongst radicals, even corporate funded ones on book tours, seems to be inescapable.)
[Your Name Here] Please don't accuse me of advocating censorship, complacency or anything else, but remember that tyranny has many faces, the most dangerous one being the one that smiles as it fucks you. For the life of me I can't figure out why any developer would take either side in any of this meaningless demagoguery. All these clowns would love nothing more than some sucker developer declaring allegiance in their feudal wars but otherwise, trust me, they don't give a shit about you. They will try to make you feel guilty for "not taking a stand." Ask them what they stand for: Getting billg? Protecting IP? That's it? Like all effective propaganda, there's probably a worthy grain of something buried in there but it's been pretty disfigured on both sides.
Take a step back to look around: on one side you have rich white pampered MIT/Harvard grads taking up the cudgels against, on the other side, rich white pampered Harvard drop outs who made it huge in business despite (or maybe because) they ignored the pedigree race and went straight for the pot of gold. ("Shit, Steve, check it out! Piles of cash! Zip up and c'mon already!")
If you've already "staked your claim" don't feel too bad. It happens. I remember the first time I was suckered into a fake war of words. Did you know that Stephen Douglas was making happy-happy with Mary Todd when Abe stumbled in mumbling, "May have the honor of the next dance?"
"Is it true what they say about men who work with logs?"
"You know that say... Big logs..."
"..big logs!! Oh my! They're playing my favorite tune."
That's when it dawned on me (150 years later) what the Lincoln/Douglas debates were really about. Slavery?? I don't think so. The debates between these two racist pricks contains dialog worthy of the Wannsee Conference. Unfortunately, two white guys would never go after each other for decades over the plight of African-Americans.
"You don't deserve her, you log humping ugly ass-face!"
"Yeah, well I got her and you don't, so why don't you shut up you colicky fartbag!"
"You know what? You can have her! She's fucking nuts!"
"You're just jealous!"
"Fine, just don't say I didn't warn you."
Now it's your turn to wake up and smell the beer and biscuits because this open/free/ip thing is just one big ivy league fraternity pissing contest.
Naive spoiled pinko cry-baby: "They have disgraced the integrity of my doctoral thesis on 'Software as Seen by a Wave Particle Passing Through a Coke Bottle.' Our whole way of life has been threatened by those... those... WHORES!"
Cynical capitalist imperialist pig: "They want to WHAT?? Give the damn thing away for free?? Fuck that! That would threaten our whole way of life for chrissake!! Wouldn't it? Yeah, I'm pretty sure it would!"
And so they stand over the valley, on opposite hills, one with a red banner and one with a blue banner, both with trumpets blaring, perched atop legions of sucker minions who have bought into their lame debate, hurling sticks and stones, breaking bones and bruising egos, shouting "Tastes great!" countered by "Less filling!!"
[My Name Here] Well, that's just my little, under-informed, over-opinioned take on things. My therapist thinks my motivations are based on feelings of inferiority instilled in me by over-critical parents who never gave me a sense of self-worth. Like that's a bad thing. "But your over-compensation for these feelings of deficiency is just reinforced by working with incredibly smart people." Again, I don't see what she's driving at. "You put yourself into impossibly challenging situations, with world class geniuses in an environment where all of you are trying to resolve a missing part of your inner hurt child by exaggerating the problem and the solution." Listen, I say, you've just described the process by which great software is made. So far it's worked pretty damn well, thank you very much. It doesn't even matter whether it's funded by corporate profits, government grants, military philandering, grad-school research trust funds, windfalls from dumb-struck stock profits, speaking engagements, books sales or checks from dad because it's all the same fuel in the jets of the neurosis-powered geek progress engine.
I showed her 'cause then I fired her. She didn't get me at all.
I hate it when I'm smarter than my therapist.