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The Disease Proprietary, Part I

Naming the Disease That Threatens All

  • May 12, 2000
  • By Paul Ferris

As we round out the last millennium and begin the new on we stand at a crossroads. It's one well defined and prophesied and evangelized by Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, and other Linux luminaries.

Will it be proprietary or free software? Will it have the GPL (the license that ensures the freedom of Linux) or the Sun community License, not quite so free? Will it be like software coming from the folks at Microsoft, which, without any exceptions that comes to mind, is always proprietary--you'll never have the slightest hope of ownership.

At least, not as the company sits today.

To be trivially nitpicky, the GPL doesn't exactly give us ownership, it just gives us insurance and a good vote. It's democracy as applied to software. It's no longer making many business people afraid, and that's a Good Thing(TM). But it's not total insurance.

As Richard Stallman is so fond of pointing out, lots of people really don't care about software licensing. These people just look at Linux as a low-cost alternative to Windows. They see a name brand, such as "Red Hat" Linux (I know, I know, I forgot the "GNU," Richard), and they buy. These people unknowingly give up freedom when they turn around and purchase another operating system like Windows, or proprietary software products that are additions to Linux, even.

I'm going to surprise some of you out there and say that I don't think that proprietary software is all that bad in certain areas. But for commodity items like Web browsers, operating systems, and the like, especially when the disease goes wildly unchecked, it's a disaster.

I'd like to dig a bit deeper and hit a buried artery in the software-naming cadaver. I'd like to examine the undercurrents of the disease proprietary with respect to the real disease, and the real transfer mechanism. That mechanism is immorality.

When Microsoft breaks a well-known protocol with their own version that's just not quite there, or when they don't publish all of an API (application programming interface), is what they are doing illegal? I don't see any laws on the books to stop it. It's tricky business, without a doubt. It's "dirty-pool" in some peoples' judgment.

But illegal? No.

Immoral? Without a doubt. It's a symptom of the disease proprietary. How many licenses, initiatives, and lines of code do we need to write before we kill the disease, or at least render it powerless over our lives? When does this stop?

What we are doing is providing shelters and mechanisms for people who wish to live their lives in an immoral world, yet in a moral way. These people want a fair chance at a living and they want their tools to be free of control by large corporate entities who refuse to give them a vote, otherwise.

What of the monopolies that Microsoft owns today? What if we left the company unchecked by the current vaccination? Let's imagine the scenario.

Imagine a Web owned by Microsoft. Imagine Web servers with less than abysmal quality (worse than Windows NT of today, because Linux isn't around to compete with it and force the stability to at least today's levels). Imagine Microsoft owning and taking over AOL. Imagine Microsoft eventually owning all of the ISP space.

Do you think things would be better than today? Do you think that the Internet would be less expensive? Do you think speech would be more free than now? Do you think I would be able to write this and be heard by anyone?

Imagine the disease proprietary going to its full potential in all directions. Imagine the banking industry being owned by Microsoft.

A horror movie could be made out of it. It reminds me a bit of Rollerball, without the various large corporations in charge, instead it would be one huge corporation--one that eventually becomes our government and/or church.

No, the disease proprietary would then be very easy for any layperson to spot. Today, it's just easy for us (the people in the Free Software movement) to see. Today, we see a lot of things that are clearly out of scale and overpriced, and with abysmal, unacceptable quality.

Today we fight the disease proprietary without naming it. Today we belong to the last hope for freedom--the Free Software Community.

Bill Gates would have us believe that his company has been responsible for the innovation of the Internet. He would defend his company and its immoral practices, and even say we should be thankful for what he has done. The truth of the matter is that the Internet has come about thanks to free software tools--it's mainly powered by them, and it's continuing to grow in that direction.

Perl, Apache, Linux, BSD--the list is long, the products practically indestructible, of a bulletproof quality. In short order, the tools that used to cost thousands of dollars became available for free to all.

I'll go beyond that--you can't buy software this good anymore. In short, despite Microsoft and all of their stammering about being regulated, what we have today is something to truly be thankful for, and it came about despite their efforts to squash it.

I postulate that if we need to be thankful to Microsoft for anything, it's for helping put a name on the problem. They have certainly provided examples of what happens when the disease runs wildly out of control.

A heart-felt thanks to the people in the Free Software and Open Source communities for trying to end the disease proprietary while it was still in incubation.

Vaccinate yourself against the disease proprietary--try Linux or one of the BSDs if you are in any way disturbed by the censorship and anti-anti-trust transactions of Microsoft. Become part of the solution, and stop spending money helping those who disseminate the disease.

The sooner they come to the realization that the public will no longer tolerate their illness, the sooner the rehabilitation can begin.


This is part I of a series of articles I will be writing on the disease proprietary, a malady of which Microsoft has so obliviously provided an example. As those of you in the medical and psychological communities know, it's hard to fight a disease without first naming it.

I wish to put a name to the disease. We have names for Free Software and Open Source initiatives, but we have no name for that which I feel we are truly fighting. It isn't Microsoft--they are just currently one of the most visible examples. IBM once suffered the same disease, and AOL appears to be just now coming down with some of the symptoms.

No, that which we fight is a process, and a malady that is very much power-centric. It is ageless and tireless, and mankind may have fought similar strains for years on different battlegrounds.

The new digital landscape has provided more than new opportunities. It has created a new strain of a familiar, yet dangerous, disease.

Paul Ferris, May 2000

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