Words by c.z.robertson

Microsoft and Open Source

2001-06-21 01:00:00 UTC

Sigh. Microsoft's latest PR campaign against open-source software is getting a lot of attention. So far, the reporting I've seen on the issue is either poor quality material from the mainstream computer press or, from the open source community web sites, it assumes knowledge of complex licensing issues. I'm going to try to write a simple summary of the issue that doesn't assume too much prior knowledge.

There are two basic styles of open-source license. "Viral" licenses, such as the GPL, require all derivative works to also be released under the same license. Non-viral licenses, such as the BSD and X Consortium licenses, are more similar to placing a work in the public domain; derivative works can be placed under any license, open-source or otherwise.

Microsoft are attacking open-source software in general, their main complaint being the viral nature of some of the licenses. They have so far attempted to tar all open-source software with the same brush, failing to make the necessary distinction between viral and non-viral licenses -- except when pressed to do so.

Microsoft protest that open-source software is only available with strings attached. However, Microsoft make closed-source software, and their own source code is not available at all. It is not possible to take it and use it in your own software, not even with strings attached.

Microsoft also use BSD licensed code in their own software, as well as running various parts of their Hotmail system on the FreeBSD operating system.

That much is factual, and is the reason why Microsoft are being called hypocritical.

There are a number of other issues here, not least of which is the actual set of arguments Microsoft use against open-source software. Without going into any detail, and at serious risk of losing my journalistic neutrality, their arguments are based on a set of half-truths and deliberate confusions designed to create an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt around the concept of open-source software. Essentially, I do not believe that these issues can be explained without recourse to opinion, and if you want to examine them you could do worse than starting with Eben Moglen's analysis of Microsoft's GPL FAQ.

It would also be instructive to take another look at the Halloween Documents. Interestingly, one of the key points raised in Halloween I was that FUD tactics would not work against open-source software, yet here we are, almost three years later with Microsoft spewing FUD at us. It's curious, and I don't know what to make of it.