“I have great, great confidence in our capital markets and in our financial institutions. Our financial institutions, banks and investment banks, are strong. Our capital markets are resilient. They’re efficient. They’re flexible.”— Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, March 16, 2008
“Our economy has continued growing, consumers are spending, business are investing, exports continue increasing and American productivity remains strong. We can have confidence in the long-term foundation of our economy…I think the system basically is sound. I truly do.”— President Bush, July 15, 2008
Twelve years ago, Bruce Perens, who was then leader of the Debian GNU/Linux project, drafted the Debian free software guidelines as part of the project’s social contract.
A year later, he proposed the same guidelines as the Open Source Definition (OSD), primarily meant to remove some ambiguity from the term free software and make it more understandable to the business community.
The confusion arose because people could not comprehend how something which was described as free could be sold. They interpreted the term free only in terms of price, not in terms of freedom.
Perens and Eric Raymond co-founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI), which was meant to help in building the community and education. The OSD was then made part of the OSI.
Open source was embraced by businesses as a development method which could lead to profit; the prime reason why such a term was embraced was because many people were frustrated by the inability to sell what was considered superior software.
Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, and creator of the General Public Licence, used the term free software to push his belief that software should give the user four rights: freedom to run the program for any purpose; to study the source code and then change it if one wishes; freedom to help one’s neighbour and freedom to re-distribute the software.
But these rights have often got in the way of businesses doing deals. The GPL has been the object of much fear, uncertainty and doubt, with people describing it as “viral”.
In what is reminiscent of what was gone through when the OSD was released 10 years go, Raymond has come out with a short article detailing why he thinks there is an economic case against the GPL.
I will just touch on one or two of the arguments he advances; you, dear reader, read his little article and conclude whether he is talking sense or not.
Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last three years is fully aware that the global economy is shot to pieces. The problems started in America because people were sold dodgy mortgages by hucksters masquerading as real estate brokers. A large number of banks have failed. People have lost their jobs by the million.
In the midst of such a situation, a man who advances an argument that the markets can seek efficiency and attain it is talking rubbish. The markets are controlled by human beings. And it is these flawed human beings who decide the direction things take by means of the crooked or straight tactics they use.
Thus, the most efficient system does not win. The system that is willing to bend the rules to its advantage, use its contacts to avoid prosecution and its money to lessen resistance and shape public opinion wins. Let me say just one word here: Microsoft.
If the markets were efficient, then companies like Citibank would have failed. The same goes for AIG, General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford - all companies where the management failed.
(This “markets are the most efficient” approach originated from the economist Friedrich von Hayek - BBC producer Adam Curtis’s wonderful three-part documentary, The Trap, discusses how his theories gained currency.)
Raymond can keep arguing that it’s political failure, not market failure, that has led to the current mess. But then he fails to realise that a perfect free-market system where nobody intervenes and everybody plays by the rules will never exist. We might as well believe in the unicorn.
People often complain that the GPL hinders business because of its viral nature. But they fail to realise that what they term “viral” is just meant to, as the Australian Democrats put it, “keep the bastards honest.”
Any software under the GPL can be used freely, modified and re-distributed. But if one has made changes, then the source for those changes must be included along with the re-distributed code. Else, it should be provided if the buyer asks for it.
This condition guards against the one thing that has led to the global financial crisis - human greed. Markets cannot regulate greed as they have just proved. People get in the way and subvert things.
The GPL also guards against companies stealing code that is released under free software licences and then refusing to pay the developer.
Open source is today a very marketable term. We have come to the stage where attaching the term to anything and everything is more of a marketing exercise - hell, I heard of an open source association hosting a talk on open source PR a few weeks back.
Given the existing world conditions, there are indications that companies may look to lessen the amount of money they spend on software. The obvious solution is free and open source software. And there are countless people around the fringes of FOSS who realise that this means one thing - money.
But advocating that the GPL be dropped in order to cash in is merely pushing for short-term gain - much like those who marketed and sold sub-prime mortgages. The GPL guards against that and provides long-term security. Advocating that it be junked is just plain silly.