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Eric S. Raymond: Who is "viral" now?

Jul 03, 2001, 13:39 (45 Talkback[s])

A Microsoft drone writes: "We are sincerely concerned about the GPL, and its impacts upon the ecology of the developer community."

The gravamen of Microsoft's argument against the GPL is that it is "viral"; that it can somewhow infect other peoples' software, effectively nullifying their intellectual-property rights and removing their ability to profit from their work.

This charge is full of logical and factual errors. It confuses three different issues: mere use of software, aggregation of software, and derivation of software. The best possible ilustration of its falsity and fundamental hypocrisy is that Microsoft has been shipping GPLed software aggregated with its Interix (aka OpenNT) product for years. Because the Interix software is not a derivative work of the GPLed code they ship with it, not a single line of Microsoft code has ever been "infected" by the allegedly "viral" GPL.

But the most interesting irony here comes from considering the terms of Microsoft's so-called "shared source" program. Microsoft assures us that its shared-source program will be deliberately constructed so that Microsoft retains all intellectual-property rights in the code it allows developers to see.

What does this mean? Well...suppose you are a developer. You register with Microsoft to get access to "shared source", or you work at a development shop that registers (giving you presumptive access to Microsoft's source code).

Congratulations. Your brain is now infected with the "I have seen shared source" virus. Are you prepared to bet your career, or your company's existence, that Microsoft will never sue if you write code that (a) behaviorally resembles a Microsoft product, (b) competes with a Microsoft product, or (c) clashes with the color of Bill Gates's underwear this week?

Bear in mind that Microsoft doesn't have to win such a lawsuit. It doesn't even have to overtly threaten one. The mere threat of the threat of being sued by a multibillion-dollar company is enough to scare the bejezus out of any entrepreneur or corporate legal department, and more than enough to exert a massive chilling effect on software-industry competition. How convenient for Microsoft!

`Shared source' is the ultimate virus. The GPL, which leaves your brain alone and can't "infect" your code unless you deliberately shoose to incorporate GPLed code or link to it, is an innocent symbiote by comparison. It actually protects you, because it guarantees your right to redistribute and re-use the code you see.

So...who is "viral" now?
Eric S. Raymond

"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action, according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." -- Thomas Jefferson

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