Dissecting Proprietary Doublespeak–ISC Letter Criticism Part 1

What would we do if George Orwell hadn’t enabled us to come up with doublespeak neologisms? Matthew Broersma of Techworld.com wrote about a “leaked” letter (PDF) from the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC) regarding a UNU-MERIT study on FLOSS in the economy. Broersma describes the ISC as a “Microsoft-funded pressure group” which sounds like an appropriate description to me. Essentially the letter presents proprietarian interests as the software underdogs who will be cut from fair consideration in software purchasing and implementation choices. The reality is that FLOSS ecosystems are often a reaction to the unfair restrictions engendered by proprietary software. The ISC letter is a real piece of work. I’ll criticize it in the following.

In the interest of understanding what the letter was a reaction to, I tried to find a copy of the UNU-MERIT “Study on the Economic Impact of Open Source Software on Innovation and the Competitiveness of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Sectors in the EU” but was not successful. I did however, find the university’s policy brief (PDF) on a similar subject (Open Source and Open Standards: A New Frontier for Economic Development?), which I suppose would present a consistent point-of-view. I only mention that because it offers a few good points that I’ll bring up.

The author of the ISC letter, Hugo Leuders, says early in his mucking about, that

“FLOSS is merely a business model for distributing software, just like many other software business models including hybrid and proprietary software.”

Why would he say this? Strategically this is fantastic. He’s set the stage for his doublespeak by wresting control of the issue and taking ownership of it by phrasing it for his own goal rather than the actual situation. The real issues of FLOSS (free/libre and open source software) are multifold. But initially the point is either one of the freedom to copy, modify, study, and distribute software, or one of the pragmatic benefits to this manner of development (depends on whether you’re considering the Free Software Foundation’s philosophy or the Open Source Initiative’s). No doubt there are business models centered around FLOSS, but as I just stated, the FLOSS philosophies themselves are not business models. So in reading Leuders’s letter, we have no choice but to kick him off the stage right away. It’s hard to blame him though, he tells you shortly thereafter why the ISC proprietarians are worried in reiterating the report’s results:

“…open source software has been actively adopted by European firms over the last two years so that by the end of 2005 the overall share of companies using such systems amounted to 40 percent… the report predicts that the annual expansion of FLOSS participants will be around 20 percent per annum.”

Based on that success he argues that there is no need to offer further support to the FLOSS business model. The problem is that argument makes sense only if FLOSS is itself a business model, which I just pointed out, it is not.

Next, Leuders attacks the report for not acknowledging his proprietarian brethren. saying

“…it acknowledges other models in a denigrating manner, that they only contribute ‘headaches to FLOSS’ instead of informing the competitive dynamic.”

Hasn’t one of the more recent and notable impacts on the software industry been the loosening of proprietary monopolies by FLOSS movements? I’d argue FLOSS growth has done more to counteract the competition killing environment bolstered by proprietary vendor strategies than even government regulation has.

Today’s Market and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)
With the ISC stage for business models in place, Leuders presents a fable of today’s market. He claims (with his emphasis on proprietary software) that

“…the software market that exists today works extremely well in developing innovative solutions for all spheres of business and governmental operations.”

But is that true? If it was working so well, how can he reconcile that with the FLOSS growth statistics he stated at the beginning? Clearly something is changing and I’d suggest it’s because the model hasn’t been working very well. In particular I’d address the notion of government operations.

Shouldn’t government operations serve their people? After all in societies with democratically elected officials, the government is composed of its people and is, in principle, beholden to their goals. Thus supporting that, government processes and access to government information and services ought to be transparent to citizens. This is certainly a problem with proprietary software, which is solved via FLOSS. Handy real world examples are not difficult to find. Just search for the problems with proprietary voting machine software in the United States, review the way some governments make important bureaucratic forms available on-line yet require non-free third party software to be installed to access these forms. There is no shortage of examples. Even a report cited by UNU-MERIT from the UN Joint Inspection Unit on open source software, recommended:

“All Member States and other stake-holders should have the right to access public information made available in electronic format by the organizations and no one should be obliged to acquire a particular type of software in order to exercise such a right…”

Next, the ISC letter breaks into intellectual property rhetoric. Leuders assumes any change to the fundamentally problematic notion of IPR is negative. He says

“Many of the proposed policy recommendations as identified within the report [the UMU-MERIT report] could further weaken IPR throughout Europe, potentially deflating venture capital levels and EU innovation.”

Leuders and the ISC attempt to paint proprietary methods as the safeguard of innovation and technological progress with broad societal support. I’d reiterate the stats on FLOSS growth at the beginning and note that the wording of most FLOSS licensing practically guarantees innovation. Consider the possibilities FLOSS opens to a wide range of people, as stated in the UNU-MERIT policy brief.

“The opportunity to ‘create and add value’ provided by open source is particularly important for developing countries and other economically disadvantaged communities. Access alone limits them to the role of passive consumers in the knowledge economy; the ability to create transforms them into active participants.”

In the scheme of things, the proprietary software model has only existed as a brief blip in time. It took early advantage of a new industry at a time when few people knew how to adapt to and fewer still, understood the nature of what the industry could grow to offer. It’s unlikely that the proprietary software distribution business model (which I’d argue is flawed from conception, but that’s another article) can stand the test of time as the software industry continues to evolve and mature. The societal experiences that Leuders argues spawned IPR, is far too ambiguous a concept to actually pin to the value such rights might confer on innovation, much less support the questionable notion of proprietary software. Leuders has a lot more work to do in order to prove this value in combination with proprietary software models.

Enough for now. That covers about half of the ISC letter. I’ll comment on the other half tomorrow or the next day.

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