White Paper Attacks GPL

Think tank's 17-page white paper rekindles debate over open source and the GNU General Public License.

The debate over open-source software and the commonly used GNU General Public License erupted again with Tuesdays release of a 17-page white paper from the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

The institution, a Washington think tank that is partly funded by Microsoft Corp., released the paper written by its president, Kenneth Brown, and titled "Opening the Open Source Debate."

The paper repeats many of Microsofts arguments around open source and the GPL, stating that while open source is helpful to the global software industry as a development model, the GPL holds many risks and threatens the cooperation between different parties collaborating to create new technologies.

While the paper noted that software distributed under the BSD license is very popular and enables companies, independent developers and the academic community to fluidly exchange software source code, it said the GPLs resistance to the commonplace exchange of open-source and proprietary code has the potential to negatively impact the research and development budgets of companies.

IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft alone spent more than $10 billion annually on research and development. "It stands to reason that if the ownership of intellectual property is affected, dollars spent on research and development would be at risk as well.

"Removing the economic incentive for firms to own the rights to products spawned from research and development programs is the surest way to end their existence. The GPL has many risks, but the greatest is its threat to the cooperation between different parties who collaborate and create new technologies," the paper said.

Today, government, commercial enterprises, academicians and others have a system to converge. "Conversely, the GPL represents divergence; proposing to remove the current infrastructure of intellectual property rights, enforceable protection and economic incentive," Brown wrote.

But Bradley Kuhn, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, the creator and advocate of the GPL, hit back, saying the paper is "nothing more than fear-mongering using the same tired, old misinformation.

"It is not surprising that companies like Microsoft and other corporate forces that want to see free software stopped funded this paper in part. The report is essentially a continuation of the rumors already out there for many months now," Kuhn told eWEEK.

The GNU GPL protects global cooperation and is designed specifically to make sure that those who benefit from the software are required to give back to the community, he said.

While the paper acknowledged that open source could coexist with the status quo, it made clear that "GPL cannot coexist with traditional open source or proprietary source code." As such, the continued use of GPL open source deserves further study and around certain considerations, the paper said. These include the following:

  • The fact that engineering software has become considerably complicated and rigorous. If the incentive to develop software were changed, "we can subsequently expect the quality and efficiency of software to change."
  • The fact that there remain considerable differences within the GPL open-source community and "it is questionable whether these groups will continue to be proponents of the GPL in its current form or opt for changes in the immediate future."
  • Open source has successfully been used in proprietary software, while academic and government projects have been successful particularly because of commercial interest. Private enterprise offers unique efficiencies for the success of government-funded research.
  • Open-source GPL use by government agencies could "easily become a national security concern. Government use of software in the public domain is exceptionally risky."
  • Reverse engineering, perpetuated by GPL proponents, threatens not only the owners of intellectual property, but also the software industry itself.
  • Use of GPL open source creates a number of economic concerns, including the fact that the evaluation of a software company could be significantly affected if it uses source code licensed under the GPL for the development of its products.
  • The courts have yet to weigh in on the GPL. Without legal interpretation, the use of the GPL could be perilous to users in a number of scenarios.
  • For each advantage that adoption of the GPL presents, there are considerable trade-offs that mandate further study of the issue.

The Free Software Foundations Kuhn said these points are nothing new and are typical criticisms of the GPL. "The GPL uses simple copyright law to create freedom and is legally very strong.

"To me, this white paper is nothing more than a group of large corporations who have a vested interest in seeing free software stopped funding a study of dubious scientific foundation in an effort to promote their own goals," he said.

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