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Dean Pannell (aka Dinotrac): Milk, Magnets, MegaMarts and...Mundie?

May 17, 2001, 23:00 (10 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Dean Pannell)

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By Dean Pannell (a.k.a. Dinotrac)

I've been dreaming naked for the last week. There I am, accepting the Nobel Prize all bare skin and embarrassment. At least that's how it seems since Microsoft Muckety Craig Mundie preached a goofy little sermon on Microsoft=America, free software=barbarian invaders and the GPL will steals while you sleep.

I've seen responding dissertations on everything from Ayn Rand to Sun Tzu. The philosophical underpinnings of Capitalism vs the inevitable onslaught of the gift economy. Heavy thinkers thinking deep thoughts. Unfortunately, deep thought is not my thing. I like my thoughts nice and shallow, so I can keep an eye on them. Leave heavy philosophizing to the heavy philosophizers. They like it and it keeps them occupied.

Fortunately, the whole thing ain't that hard. In fact, it's really simple if you've ever lived in rural America. Part one is the Megamart Menace. When some big old "We do it all cheap" store moves into town, the local merchants try to block it, fearing for the cozy little businesses that they've built into a local monopoly. When the Mart starts Marting, some locals adapt and prosper, others complain as they put out their "Going out of business" signs.

This Mundie thing is a little weird, because it's MegaMart complaining about mom'n pop. Seems MegaMart's property value is dropping fast because mom'n pop are giving away the store. It's a fact of marketing we all understand: when folks can get a cheaper and better product than yours, your inventory ain't worth diddle. Ain't no two ways about it. Free software is real bad for Microsoft's IP inventory.

Old C.M. really screwed the pooch trying to paint free software as anti-business. Maybe you can't make money from the software. Maybe you can. But anti-business? Hah! Small town businessfolk know better than that. My refrigerator happily wears assorted flexi-magnet doodads from some of the most successful business people in town. They give 'em away. Seem to think it's good for business.

Little magnet doodads ain't like some product, just tacky marketing fooferaw. Let me tell you about the little fast-mart down the street. They sell the cheapest milk in town. Everybody buys it, store don't make a dime on milk. One time, they raised the price by 30 cents. Nobody bought milk there. Store didn't lose money on milk, but couldn't sell anything to people who didn't come inside. Milk price is back down now. Store's doing real well. Owners even popped for a nice overhaul. It seems that you don't have to make money on every item in the store. You do have to get people into the store.

C.M.'s shot another big blank. He tried to say that the GPL can steal your crown jewels while you're not looking. He must think people are too stupid to read. The GPL does have a neat little "share the wealth" provision built in, It says you can't stick GPL'd code into programs that you give away or sell unless you make those programs GPL'd too. This is the famous GPL "viral effect" we hear about. I don't think that can really be what he means, though. After all, it's just about the nicest virus you could ever hope to meet. It doesn't hide from you. It doesn't run off and "infect" anything without your permission. In fact, if you don't send it out into the world, it'll even do chores for you without making a single complaint. Don't want to GPL things you send into the world? Write your own code. No rocket science there. No, that's not what he wanted people to worry about.

C.M. mentioned "using" GPL'd software when he talked about that stuff, and I think he did it on purpose. I think he wants companies to worry that some programmer will see really neat stuff in a GPL'd program and use the same idea in the company's code. Ooh! Bad! You've just lost all your IP. Clue time: This is just another copyright case. A laundry list of remedies are available, but declaring the company code GPL'd ain't likely to be at the top. Unless, of course, it's all stolen. In that case, you deserve what you get.

This is another place where small business horse sense comes through. You see, in the same speech where C.M. said GPL bad, he said showing the code is good. He even talked about this strange "Shared Source" dealie that Microsoft has now.

Wait a minute!!

Shared Source good, Open Source bad? IF the GPL can steal your children in the night just because some programmer happens to see something nifty, then why can't Shared Source rob you blind? That don't make a lick of sense, friend. You can grab GPL'd stuff off the wire while nobody's looking. You can't get Shared Source unless you give Microsoft your name, address and first-born. Try asking your local insurance agent if she'd rather do cold calls or work qualified prospects. Believe me, I'd much rather worry about some hobby hackers who don't know I have their code that a big nasty, well-financed Microsoft with my name on its list. Especially since I don't plan to steal anything. Especially since everything I do is for my own use, which is OK with the GPL, anyway.

You see, kiddies, it really ain't that hard. Just common sense.

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