TCS Daily

The Free Software Lunch

By David R. Henderson - September 16, 2002 12:00 AM

Socialism is dead and buried, right?

Well, not quite. Utopian communes are actually thriving in cyberspace, designing software that is sometimes as good as the best from Silicon Valley. And market economists like me are scrambling to understand how unpaid volunteers working through the Internet can possibly compete with some of the most successful software companies in the world.

But the "free software" movement isn't as benign a phenomenon as its proponents suggest. And one might well ask whether Washington should be encouraging the distribution of software under license terms that make it virtually impossible for for-profit software makers to incorporate government research in their own products.

Commercial developers live in fear that the intellectual property embodied in their software will be stolen. Hence software that comes on disks or preinstalled in a new PC is usually delivered in binary code - a gibberish of ones and zeros that can be deciphered only by a machine. The underlying "source code," written in widely understood programming languages, is typically revealed only on a need-to-know basis to commercial partners and major customers.

But some programmers with a taste for the counterculture or an aversion to corporate life have gone their own way. They have chosen to write software collectively for no pay and then publish the source code and allow anyone to use and modify it for free. In some cases, altruism meshes neatly with more self-interested motives - the wish to impress fellow geeks and maybe even win a great consulting job with a Silicon Valley behemoth.

Equally important, open source software often fits the needs of information technology departments at businesses and universities, who value the ability to modify and debug standard software on their own. Free, open source software such as Apache and Linux is widely used by sophisticated professionals, who in turn contribute to its ongoing improvement.

So far, so good. Adam Smith would never have complained about alternatives to conventional market solutions that withstood the market test. But there's the rub. Well, several rubs. For one thing, some governments (Taiwan) openly favor open source software in their procurement policies as a means of distancing themselves from giant (usually American) software makers. Others (Singapore, China, the European Community) are making noises to the same effect.

More surprising, perhaps, the United States Government has gotten into the act. The Pentagon is flirting with open source, justifying its infatuation by the as-yet-unproved assertion that open source software is less vulnerable to hackers because responsible volunteers correct errors before the cyber-vandals find them. Most significant, Washington is allowing federal agencies and government-subsidized university researchers to distribute the software they produce under licenses that undermine for-profit software development.

This requires a bit of explanation. Uncle Sam has long had a hand in making open source software available for all to use. What is different here is the terms of the distribution agreement, called the General Public License.

Under the GPL, created by the non-profit Free Software Foundation, anyone is free to use and to modify software. But unlike other open source licenses, any modifications must also be licensed under the GPL. Thus if Sun Microsystems were to borrow a bit of code from a GPL program developed under a government grant for its proprietary Solaris computer operating system, Sun would have to distribute Solaris under the GPL or stop using the "borrowed" code.

This "viral" property effectively bars commercial software makers from incorporating ideas from GPL software - which is precisely what the ideologues at the Free Software Foundation had in mind. And while it seems a foolish idea to me, it is surely up to the creator of intellectual property to decree the terms of the license under which his property is used.

But allowing taxpayers' money to be used to promote the GPL through NASA or the Sandia National Laboratories - both of which have developed software licensed under the GPL - is another story entirely. Building a wall between open-source and commercial software is bad public policy because it artificially reduces the potential return to government investment in research. Imagine where we'd be if pharmaceutical companies had not been allowed to use government research, and the development of drugs based on that research had been left to non-profits or government agencies. Thousands of people would be dead who are now alive, courtesy of some of today's "miracle" drugs.

It's not Uncle Sam's job to manage the evolution of information technology. But laissez-faire does not mean leaving it to individual government agencies or researchers to decide the terms under which government-funded software will be distributed. The General Public License amounts to an insidious attack on a hybrid system of public and private enterprise for developing software that has served us well. Washington has no business joining the free software conspiracy.

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and a former senior economist with President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. He recently wrote The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002). He is a consultant to Microsoft.

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