Life, liberty and the pursuit of free software

Microsoft says open-source software is un-American. Has the company completely lost its mind?

Published February 15, 2001 11:12PM (EST)

Once upon a time, Microsoft executives confined their criticism of Linux and free software to old-fashioned FUD -- fear, uncertainty and doubt. Linux wasn't good enough for enterprise-class systems, they declared. You couldn't get quality support, and it was too hard and clunky for average users.

Fair enough. But now, judging by comments made Wednesday by Microsoft's operating systems chief Jim Allchin (and reported by Bloomberg News), it turns out that free and open-source software is something far worse than anyone could possibly have imagined. It is nothing less than a threat to the American way of life!

According to Allchin, "Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer ... I can't imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual-property business."

"I'm an American; I believe in the American way," continued Allchin. "I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat."

The first reaction a listener might have to these words, after guffawing in dumbfounded amazement, might be, "Wow, that Linux stuff must be pretty good, if it is scaring Microsoft so much that the company has started redbaiting and agitating for government action."

But after a little reflection, we might ask: Just what is the American way?

Back when Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence, he made an important tweak to the classic Lockean formulation on inalienable human rights: "Life, liberty, and property." Jefferson changed it to "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Open-source software is becoming big business these days -- Microsoft's gibbering fear is clear evidence of that. But originally, free software grew out of individual passion. Richard Stallman, who worked on the GNU project, and Linus Torvalds and the thousands of other developers who created Linux, did it not to make a buck, but because they wanted to. They were pursuing their own happiness without regard to revenue generation or market share.

What could be more American than that?

And shame on Microsoft, for asking the government to bail it out of a situation in which it suddenly seems unable to compete.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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