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Bill Gates' letter to hobbyists (en Français, 2006)

Plus ça change

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EU vs MS Comment European Court justice Cooke gave Microsoft's lawyers a tonic yesterday, by raising concerns about the transfer of Microsoft's intellectual property.

But one shouldn't read too much into his intervention - the judge was playing devil's advocate. And the trouble for Microsoft is that it needs 12 more Cookes to spoil the European Commission's broth.

Nevertheless, Cooke's elevation of the intellectual property issue will trouble both proprietary rivals and free software advocates alike. Arguing the moral rights of a property holder is comfortable ground for Microsoft - it would rather be staked out here than be trumpeting its bold record of innovation, or its congenial and co-operative reputation in the technology business.

And the wholesale destruction of value caused by "volunteer" projects such as Craigslist, Wikipedia or "open source" software is certainly worthy of discussion, and should not be ducked. Craigslist is a business that poses as a non-profit, and by creaming off newspapers' classified profits, is hurting communities and shifting power to the middle-class and PC-literate by destroying what may be a community's only universally accessible media. Wikipedia is an ersatz "encyclopedia" that's industrialized the process of propagating unreliable information, and its only commercial value seems to be spammers, who scrape its keyword-rich content for junk websites. Free software doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these ventures. Not only is it a historical continuity of the way much of our software infrastructure has been developed, but it has encouraged commercial value to built through service models, or dual licensing.

It's a pity that open source and free software advocates, many of whom find such comparisons odious, haven't disowned them more strongly. For when an influential judge lumps free software in with hucksters and hooligans, he's only citing what's he's reading in the New York Times, or our best and brightest think-tanks. This is the price we pay for having a witless and inattentive press - and a punditocracy too eager to grasp shiny new shapes or diagrams.

The plot thickens, however.

Especially when one considers the little-known fact that Microsoft has already offered to give away the source code to the protocols free software developers wish to work with, then we can see Microsoft's true intentions rather more clearly. It's an offer too good to refuse. What on the face of it looks like the moral high ground based on a defense of property rights, is really an artful strategy to isolate and punish free software. And on that basis, you can't fault Microsoft for inconsistency - it's a strategy that hasn't changed since Bill Gates' "Letter to hobbyists" in 1976.

We'll explain. Microsoft's source code offer took place through back channels at the end of last year - but at least one document is on the public record - a strong and detailed rebuttal prepared by the Samba team. Samba is the long-running GPL project to create a set of interoperable Microsoft networking protocols. Samba includes proprietary operating systems as well as free and open systems, and forms the basis of embedded products.

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