Subject: Copyleft
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2000 17:00:56 -0800

"Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com> wrote:

>This intrigues me, because most of the companies we work for
don't have good
>arguments for not distributing free doc, especially online.

Strangely enough, companies that are distributing software under
the GPL have a greater reason not to release free documentation
than traditional companies. While most companies make their money
by owning software, companies with GPL products are supposed to
make their money in services, such as education and support. Up
until now, these services have included the documentation. If
both your software and documentation is open source, then where
does your profit come from?

>But for most of us, I can't imagine why we'd argue about a GNU
license, especially considering >the greater simplicity and
wealth of PR we could generate.

One reason is that the PR can be deadly, just as easily as it can
be good. The GPL has never been legally tested, and most lawyers
are unfamiliar with it, so navigating through its provisions can
be very tricky. Corel, for example, made a couple of serious
blunders in the fall of 1999 about licensing issues; you can find
some of the controversy by searching Slashdot.

Another problem arises when your company is producing a software
package that contains both open and proprietary material, and you
have to write a license that makes clear that copying of
proprietary material isn't allowed, but which doesn't violate the
spirit of the GNU Public Licence and create a publicity
nightmare. For example, one company that I know of uses separate
licenses for the GPL software and the boxed product that mixes
GPL and proprietary software.

Also, an open licence may be appropriate for software, but not
necessarily for documentation. the GPL works with software
because coders often work in their spare time. But who writes
documentation for fun? The quick improvements in GPL software
might not materialize in GPL documentation.

Finally, while I admire the idealism of the open source movement,
and don't doubt for a moment the sincerity and dedication of
people like Eric Raymond or Richard Stallman, in a capitalist
society, what is free tends not to be valued. This attitude
causes some problems for the people who generate free software or
documentation. Specifically, if what they do isn't valued, how
can they hope to make a living?

It's important to note that no company that follows the open
source business model has managed to be profitable yet. Red Hat
made its money solely from its IPO, not its services or software.
Similarly, Caldera, which is also about to go public, made about
half a million in sales in 1998 while incurring expenses of about
900,000. In 1999, the sales were similar to 1998, but the
expenses were 5.5 million. That's not to say that the open source
business model can't work - just that it hasn't yet.

Personally, I'd like to succeed. The open source movement is much
more in keeping with the realities of the Internet Age than
copyright law, and it could revolutionize not only how companies
do business, but also their relation with their customers (when
the customers can help you improve your product, the relation is
much more equal). All the same, I have a few qualms, and a lot of
the details still need to be worked out.

Bruce Byfield, Outlaw Communications
Vancouver, BC, Canada
bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com (604.421.7189)

"But the backdrops peel and the sets give way,
And the cast gets eaten by the play....
And the patrons and actors too are uncertain if the show is
And with sidelong looks await their cue."
- Alan Moore, "V for Vendetta"

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