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March 24, 2005

A theory about extreme fear of the GPL

One thing that has always puzzled me was why companies have such a strong fear that the GPL could cause them to inadvertently "taint" all of their code and be "forced" to "give it all away". My reading of the GPL and commentary about it and discussions with many others doesn't make it sound so extreme or automatic. That's one of the things I cover in my video. You have problems if you inadvertently release your proprietary code along with a piece of GPL code, but often not insurmountable, draconian ones.

I think I have an idea where some of the false "deadly, contagious jungle virus with no cure" image may have come from.

It is clear from my research and experience that people who aren't steeped in copyright law and Open Source licensing and terminology frequently get confused between "Open Source" and "Open Standards". This was one of the things I learned when working with the Massachusetts State IT people and their initiatives. Explicitly breaking apart "Source" and "Standards" helped clarify things to outsiders, and calmed people down. This word "Open" seems to throw them off. Remember, most regular people don't know what "software" is, let alone the line between a standard like XML and code like an XML parser.

I attended a seminar a couple of weeks ago at MIT on "Best Practices in Standards Setting" put on by the law firm of Preston Gates & Ellis and Kavi Corporation. There was a lot of the nitty-gritty of running a standards organization. There was a lot of discussion about patents. I learned an awful lot about the politics and business competition aspects of standard settings. Very eye opening, but not the subject of this post.

The thing that struck me was the discussion of the RAMBUS case, and also Dell's experience with the VESA VL-bus. In those cases, as I understand it, participating in a setting of a standard could automatically cause the patent holder to lose the ability to enforce their patent (and did in Dell's case as the FTC press release linked above explains). A third party could bring suit (unlike the GPL where the copyright holder has to assert their rights against you). It was explained to me that there is a trumping of patent rights (a "legally granted monopoly" as set forth in the U.S. Constitution) by anti-trust law (for misusing a monopoly or something).

Ah, ha! Here was a case where being involved with something "Open" caused you to lose your rights and you are forced to "give it away". Maybe some people were mixing the two up in their head? At a senior level in a big company, the distinctions between different types of IP like patents and copyright and the different types of "Open" get lost. There's just "Open" along with "lose rights". Then you add the reciprocally of the GPL and, voila!: Fear. Don't laugh, saying people can't think this simply (well, do laugh): Yesterday's Dilbert comic confused copyright, patent, and trademark into something wrong, but I bet most readers don't know it.

I wonder, is there anything to this observation about Dell/RAMBUS and the GPL fear?

Posted by danb at March 24, 2005 04:00 PM