Microsoft CEO and incontinent over-stater of facts Steve Ballmer said that "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches," during a commercial spot masquerading as a interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on June 1, 2001.
Ballmer was trying to articulate his concern, whether real or imagined, that limited recourse to the GNU GPL requires that all software be made open source.
"The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source," Ballmer explained to an excessively credulous, un-named Sun-Times reporter who, predictably, neglected to question this bold assertion.
Perhaps Ballmer was thinking of this: "If identifiable sections of [a companion] work are not derived from the [open-source] Program, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works. But when you distribute the same sections as part of a whole which is a work based on the Program, the distribution of the whole must be on the terms of this License, whose permissions for other licensees extend to the entire whole, and thus to each and every part regardless of who wrote it."
The passage is hopelessly ill written. What on earth, we must wonder, can the authors mean by a companion work which can be 'reasonably considered' to be separate? Do they mean it should have been developed independently? Do they mean it should function independently? Do they mean both?
What if a secondary work were developed separately, and function separately, but remain inextricably integrated with the first, the way Internet Explorer is with Windows? Is that 'reasonably considered' to be a separate work?
What's 'reasonable' here, anyway? And 'considered' by whom? The average adult? The average programmer? It's vague, all right; we'll give old Steve that much.
But one thing we can depend on is that it definitely doesn't mean what Ballmer slickly tries to imply: that once you issue anything under the GPL, every other piece of software you have for sale is suddenly affected by it.
And yet this is the shaky basis on which Ballmer dismisses open source as anathema to all commercial software companies. It can't be used at all, he reasons, because even a tiny germ of it, like a metastasizing cancer, contaminates the entire body. Thus Microsoft 'has a problem' with government funding of open-source.
"Government funding should be for work that is available to everybody," he says patriotically. But "open source is not available to commercial companies," and should therefore be regarded as a violation of the public trust.
Ballmer touches on a few other items, including Microsoft's new product activation and licensing schemes, which, it is hoped, will pave the way for a thriving software rental business and its subsequent endless revenue stream.
"Our goal is to try to educate people on what it means to protect intellectual property and pay for it properly" (read 'eternally'), Ballmer says.
If by 'educate' he means punish with higher costs those who fail to appreciate the wisdom of volume software leases, and inconvenience Win-XP users who like to re-format on a regular basis with a limit of two clean installs, then perhaps he might have chosen different wording.
'Train' or 'housebreak' strike us as somewhat more in tune with the subtext. ®
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