Microsoft and the GPL

This letter to the editor of Linux Weekly News was published in their 7-Mar-2002 issue.
From: Eric Smith <>
Subject: Microsoft is afraid of the GPL
Date: 28 Feb 2002 20:42:05 -0000


On 28-Feb-2002, daily updates referenced an article in ZDNet News which quoted Craig Mundie of Microsoft as saying "The problem with General Public License advocates is that they don't understand that people need the opportunity to commercialize software."

As usual Microsoft tries to divert attention from the real issue.

Suppose for a moment that Microsoft was right, and that the GPL did somehow deny them "the opportunity to commercialize software". Why would this be a problem? Microsoft isn't exactly well-known for allowing other people the opportunity to commercialize the software which Microsoft has written. Surely it is not anyone else's responsiblity to provide Microsoft with "the opportunity..." when they themselves don't provide that opportunity to others?

However, in point of fact the GPL does not deny anyone the opportunity to commercialize software. A number of companies have been successful doing so; one of the most visible is Red Hat.

What Microsoft really means is that they're afraid of having to compete on a level playing field. They're perfectly happy to take advantage of software written by outsiders; they've been doing that for years with such things as the BSD TCP/IP networking software. But when they look at software which is GPL'd, they realize that they can't use it and still keep their participation strictly in the "only benefits Microsoft" direction that they like. It's fine for volunteers to slave away for months and years writing code, but if Microsoft would be forced to contribute back a few minor changes and improvements to that code, they don't want it. They want to reap the benefits of free software, while not contributing to the process themselves.

Note that even for non-GPL'd free software that Microsoft uses, such as the aforementioned TCP/IP software, which was distributed under the BSD license, Microsoft has not done a good job of complying with the relatively minimal license requirements. In particular, for many years the BSD license required acknowledgement of the use of their code in product documentation, which Microsoft never did. This particular instance is no longer an issue because BSD has since dropped the advertising clause, but it does demonstrate that Microsoft has no willingness to cooperate with the developers of free software to even the most minimal extent.

When you look at just how loudly Microsoft decries the GPL, you can see how scared they are. After all, why should they be so vocal about it? No one is forcing them to use GPL'd software. It's simply another choice. Of course, Microsoft doesn't want people to have choices, but isn't it strange that they complain that choices are available to them?

To illustrate just how ridiculous it is for Microsoft to devote so much effort complaining about the GPL, imagine instead that they were complaining about something other than software. Suppose that they needed to buy cardboard boxes for their products. Perhaps one vendor of cardboard boxes, MegaBoxCo, would only provide them to Microsoft under the Public Box License, with terms Microsoft didn't like. Would Microsoft devote all this effort to convincing the world that the Public Box License was bad and that people who offered boxes under the PBL were Unamerican? Of course not. They'd just buy their cardboard boxes from another vendor. There's no monopoly on cardboard boxes, so there are plenty of vendors to choose from. Similarly, there is no monopoly on the GPL'd software Microsoft is complaining about, and there is absolutely NOTHING that prevents Microsoft from simply ignoring the GPL'd software and instead using non-GPL'd software from other authors. Or writing software themselves -- Microsoft is after all a software company, isn't it? Surely they have at least a few programmers on staff?

Eric Smith

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Last updated February 19, 2003

Copyright 2002, 2003 Eric Smith

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