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Editor's Note: Rich and Snooty

Jan 13, 2006, 23:30 (17 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

When my first-born was about seven, she attended a day camp at the YMCA during her summer vacation. For this particular camp, she and her fellow campers would take a bus out into the wilds of Indiana and spend most of the day tromping about in the majestic woods and prairies of the Hoosier State. The best part was she would come home really tired so she would get to be early and leave her mother and I with some private time of our own.

One day after picking her up at the Y, she announced to us that she'd won a contest from a candy bar we'd packed in her lunch. Now, I'd happened to notice that the candy bar manufacturer was apparently running a contest for a $20,000 prize at that time. (Why a candy bar manufacturer has to run a contest to attract customers in the United States is beyond me.) Thinking she was probably mistaken, we asked our daughter where the wrapper was (just in case). She informed us that she'd thrown it away.

But, we asked in our sweet-yet-befuddled tone, if you thought we'd won, why did you toss it in the trash?

"Because," she replied, "I didn't want us to be rich and snooty."

After we finished laughing, we politely informed her that if we were to ever receive a large amount of money, Mommy and Daddy would be more than willing to take the risk of becoming snooty.

Becoming rich is not something I have given a lot of thought, my daughter's anti-wealth stance not withstanding. You don't, I fear, make lots of money as a technology writer. But I do keep an eye on the bank book, because I do live in a consumerist, capitalist society and needs have to be met. The same, I'm pretty sure, will hold true for a programmer living in such a society. They are doing what they like to do, for the most part, but at the end of the day they still want to get paid.

This is why I am always befuddled when pundits come out of the woodwork and start taking whacks at the GNU GPL as some sort of communist manifesto. I think on many levels this is simply a specious argument.

On the money/capital level, this is simply not applicable. I suppose, in some nations, there are communists who use the GPL, but using the GPL does not automatically make you a communist. The GPL is geared to share knowledge and information, not capital. If I share code I have written, I still have to figure out a way to get paid. Maybe I will provide services, such as technical support and documentation. Maybe I will run a training program. Or maybe I will work in an unrelated field and share my code for the sharing's sake. I am still a capitalist on the level of money. Using the GPL just means I am not going to rely solely on intellectual property to rake in the bucks.

Personally, I think using the GPL makes you a better capitalist than those who don't. If you choose to use the GPL, then you have to get creative. Falling back on IP is lazy and potentially dangerous. Say I invent Program A.0 and sell it with a proprietary license. I make some money at it, enough to write some new features into A.1 and live comfortably. But then someone comes along and sells Program B.0 and it is a much better app than any of my A's. I now have to adapt quickly or die. And if I die, all of my A users are left out in the cold.

But if I create openA and use support as my primary revenue model, then I have more flexibility when someone comes along with Program B. I can actively recruit other programmers to add B's features into openA, I can just keep making a living off of the support and passively watch openA's community of users and developers add what features they want. Even better, if B is released as openB, then I have the option of merging projects, incorporating code, or supporting openB too. Yes, I still have to adapt or die, but because my code is open, I have a lot more options and potentially a lot more help.

You could make an argument that using the GPL is communist on the information level. After all, information is the commodity and is totally shared, right?

Not quite. I may share my code, but I can still hold the author rights to it. If I choose to pick up my code and take it to another license, I can do that. I could even be a sneaky so-and-so, add some slick code my former open source companions hadn't thought of yet, and sell the new proprietary version for big bucks. If I wanted to. Or I could stay in the open source model, add the same code, and sell box/support/consulting and make big bucks. The choice is mine, not the community's.

Because in a true communist society, all resources are shared and everyone gets a say on what to do with them. Ownership is not an option.

The simple truth here is: there is nothing in the GPL which precludes ownership, whether intellectual or captial.

The GPL should not need defending from labels like this, really. I would wager that a majority of Firefox users (especially those on Windows) are not even aware of the browser's license, much less what it means. The end-users are just happy to get a decent browser that doesn't blow huge security holes in their systems.

"Communism" is just a scary booga-booga to try to scare off users because certain products are having (or are about to have) problems matching the performance of their open source counterparts. because let's be honest--if Linux sucked, would anybody spend any effort denouncing its license? Much less with outdated Cold War labels? No, they would attack Linux for its suckiness. For instance, I have a whole laundry list of things I hate about Internet Explorer; frankly, its license is way, way down on that list.

So if the best its opponents can come up with is license FUD, doesn't that say something about how open source really compares to its proprietary counterparts?

Thought so. Next!