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Prospect Magazine: Gift culture in cyberspace

Sep 27, 1999, 17:22 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Naughton)

"A spectre is haunting the software industry--or at least the part of it controlled by Bill Gates and his fellow moguls. It's called the Open Source movement; its basic proposition is that proprietary software (the kind created and sold by companies like Microsoft) is a flawed idea. For some Open Source activists this is about technology; they are convinced that proprietary programmes are less reliable, less stable and more bug-ridden than programmes which are communally owned and created through the cooperative efforts of hundreds, even thousands, of dedicated hackers. Other Open Source adherents believe that their software is not only technically better than anything produced by Gates & Co., but also that it is ethically superior. For them, the notion that programmes should be "owned" by individuals or corporations is as odious as the idea that humans could be owned and traded as slaves."

"The term "Open Source" is a recent euphemism, coined by the pragmatic wing of the movement to ease acceptance of their ideas by big business. They felt that "free software" sounded too frightening. In fact the movement dates back to the early 1980s when Richard Stallman, an MIT researcher, developed the idea of free software. "Think of free speech, not free beer," he says. Users ought to be free to modify programmes to meet their own needs. The only way to make that possible is to distribute programmes in their original code, rather than the binary form in which proprietary software comes. This is why my Microsoft Internet Explorer is not free in Stallman's sense: although Microsoft gave it to me gratis, I am not free to alter it, because I only have the binary code. The source code is locked in Bill Gates's safe..."

"Until recently, most people--even in the industry--knew little about the "free software" movement. Its adherents were regarded as pony-tailed relics of the pre-Microsoft era. The intellectual property rights embodied in proprietary programmes had created global corporations like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, and made huge personal fortunes. Free software belonged with caftans and the Grateful Dead on the scrapheap of history."

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