The Flip Side of 'Shared Source'

Last week, Microsoft announced a collaboration with Corel aimed at developing C# and Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) tools for the FreeBSD operating system. Upon release, this software will be made available to academic institutions and researchers, but access is limited by the company's conditions. Touted as a sensible alternative to GPL licensing, Microsoft's "shared source" program is intended to create a model for software development that the company hopes will counteract the popularity of the GPL.

GPL was first utilized by the free software movement for the free distribution of software, but later was adopted by the open source movement – which Microsoft has had considerable disagreement with. Described by Microsoft as being "viral" in nature, the GPL has come under intense scrutiny by the media.

But not everyone has warmly embraced Microsoft's initiative to "share" its source code. The Free Software Foundation/GNU’s Bradley M. Kuhn views Redmond’s steps to reveal the secrets of its proprietary source code with cautious optimism, and offers up some scrutiny of his own.

In an interview with BetaNews, Mr. Kuhn details what he believes to be Microsoft's limited commitment towards providing free software. Recalling past experiences the Redmond giant has had with open source and free software projects, he accuses Microsoft of being more than willing to benefit but unwilling to contribute. According to Kuhn, a smear campaign is being waged against the GPL that is intended to confuse its purpose and damage its reputation. Clearly not in agreement with Microsoft's depiction of a viral licensing scheme, he offers his own analogy, that "Speading freedom doesn't make people sick; it makes them better off than they were before."

Bradley M. Kuhn's responses are outlined below.

BetaNews: When asked about the Microsoft/Corel partnership, Mr. Kuhn revealed his hesitation regarding Microsoft's step to open up its source code to outsiders.

Kuhn: Microsoft's Shared Source Program *might* provide software users with some essential software freedoms, but it will surely not provide all of those freedoms.

BN: He goes on to describe what he considers to be the four freedoms of software users.

Kuhn: The four freedoms are the freedoms to (a) run the program for any purpose, (b) to study the program (via the source code), (c) redistribute copies, in both source and binary, to others and (d) modify the software's source, and redistribute those modifications. See for details.

BN: Kuhn questions the commitment of Microsoft to the ideals of distributing what the FSF/GNU considers to be free software, pointing out that the company has benefited from access to freely distributed programs in the past. Even still, he considers the Washington based company to have taken a step in the right direction.

Kuhn: Based on what I have read about Microsoft's intentions, it sounds like
they will grant the first two freedoms, but not the others.
That's a small step in the right direction, but still very far from true freedom. (I should note that the last two freedoms are more important, so they are not really going half way there.)

Meanwhile, Microsoft has chosen to port to FreeBSD, but not GNU/Linux. This is not surprising. Microsoft prefers FreeBSD because its license, while granting freedom, doesn't try to defend freedom. This means that while FreeBSD from its original source (the FreeBSD team) is Free Software, Microsoft can still take code from FreeBSD, and make that code into proprietary software.

Microsoft is happy to get benefits from Free Software without contributing. The GPL, used for much of GNU/Linux, is what defends these freedoms, and Microsoft doesn't want anyone to have these freedoms. Thus, they spread misconceptions about the GPL, and refuse to deal with GNU/Linux.

BN: When asked if he believed that Microsoft harbored intentions to develop tools compatible with Linux/GNU as well, Kuhn refused to predict the software giant's intentions.

Kuhn: I can't speculate on Microsoft's intentions; I have no idea what they might do in the future.

I can tell you that in the past, they have used Free Software licensed under a FreeBSD-style license in their own proprietary software. Two examples are the BSD TCP/IP networking code, and the Kerberos security protocol code. There are likely other examples, too.

As I said, Microsoft would surely be happy to benefit from the Free Software, as long as they are not required to contribute back.

I am glad that much of the GNU/Linux code is GPL'ed, so I know that Microsoft won't be able to take away my freedom.

BN: By mentioning "viral" and GPL in the same context, Kuhn believes that Microsoft intends to spread fear and confusion in order to destroy the legitimacy of GPL.

Kuhn: Please note that calling the GPL "viral in nature" is a not-so-subtle way of attacking it and spreading confusion about the GPL. Viruses make people and computers sick, and usually harm them. The GPL does precisely the opposite: freedom is spread to all who receive software covered by the GPL. Spreading freedom doesn't make people sick; it makes them better off than they were before.

So, to say the GPL is "viral" is a way to bias the discussion in favor of those who dislike the GPL. I hope you'll make this point in your article.

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