Forbes Magazine Doesn't Understand Capitalism

by William Grosso

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We can agree, or disagree, on whether the GPL is a good idea, and whether viral software licenses are a good idea, and whether open source software, in general, is a good idea. There are legitimate points of disagreement with respect to all those questions.

I'm always surprised, however, to find people upset at the idea that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is actually attempting to enforce the GNU Public License (GPL). Of course the FSF is going to try and enforce the GPL-- there'd be no point to the license otherwise. And it's perfectly obvious and clear from the history of the FSF and the GPL that they expect you to live up to it.

Anyone who builds on top of GPL'd code and is surprised when the FSF comes knocking was, like Rick in Casablanca, misinformed.

In the story in question, the Free Software Foundation claims that Broadcom used GPL'd software in its devices, without following the provisions of the license (Broadcom didn't share changes, and didn't perform source-code level publication of derivative works). I don't know if the claim is true or not; it should be easy enough to determine. Forbes doesn't dispute it though; Forbes seems to grant that Broadcom is in violation of the GPL.

And hence, according to the story,

For several months, officials from the Free Software Foundation have been quietly pushing Cisco and Broadcom for a resolution. According to Free Software Foundation Executive Director Bradley Kuhn, the foundation is demanding that Cisco and Broadcom either a) rip out all the Linux code in the router and use some other operating system, or b) make their code available to the entire world.

In other words (e.g. when you remove biased terms like "rip out"), the FSF is asking that Broadcom either live up to the license or stop using GPL'd software. Which seems perfectly ordinary to me. In almost any other licensing dispute, it seems clear that Forbes would be on the side of the licensers. Indeed, it seems clear that a market economy (and Forbes likes market economies) relies on things like contracts and licenses being enforced (or, at least, being enforceable).

In this case, however, Forbes clearly sympathizes with the companies that are violating the GPL. Attempting to enforce a license is seen as an evil act, and open-source developers are viewed with scorn, as in the following paragraph:

The dispute, which was leaked to an Internet message board, offers a rare peek into the dark side of the free software movement--a view that contrasts with the movement's usual public image of happy software proles linking arms and singing the "Internationale" while freely sharing the fruits of their code-writing labor.

Leaked? Dark side? Happy proles singing the "Internationale" ? Can you count the ways in which that paragraph is an offense to journalism?

Is Forbes going to go around making excuses for other companies that violate the provisions of their licenses (more rabidly: Has Forbes made a conscious decision to approve of theft)? Why does Forbes refer to fairly routine attempts to enforce software licenses as "the dark side" of the open source movement? Isn't it more reasonable to refer to the people who violate licenses they've agreed to as "the dark side of commercial software"?

This article raises many questions, none of them complimentary to Forbes. Somehow, I expected better of them.