I read an article at Ars Technica quoting a comment Bill Gates gave to a question during a speech he gave on pharmaceutical research. The answer shows that he is both badly informed and he’s got a very elitist point of view regarding Free Software and Open Source.
His first mistake was making the statement that there’s a difference between “free software” and “open source.” For those of us that know the history of what is most commonly called “Open Source” today was originally called “Free Software” and this “Free” was advertised using the motto: “Free as in speech. Not free as in beer.” Gates mistakenly uses the term “Free Software” to refer to software given away gratis, specifically dropping that they give away their software in developing countries. Of course, he wasn’t referring to “Free Software” as Richard Stallman coined the phrase, but since he mentions Stallman’s license, the GPL, shortly afterwards, it seems awkward that he would do this. This was a mistake and shows that he’s somewhat misinformed on the topic.
Second, he states that the GPL prevents anyone from improving the software. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, Microsoft’s own proprietary EULAs are the licenses that prevent improvement. The whole reason Stallman began the Free Software crusade is because he was tired of finding bugs in proprietary software that he wasn’t permitted to fix because the license forbade it. Any software written in the GPL can be fixed by anyone, anytime. Software under a Microsoft-style EULA may only be fixed by Microsoft or a licensed partner.
Now, what Bill Gates really objects to is the fact that software written under the GPL doesn’t grant him the kind of flexibility he wants to exploit the profits of his software. By holding a lock grip on who may and may not modify the software people depend upon, he’s guaranteeing that everyone has to pay him money to do anything: monopoly.
The GPL allows businesses to compete not only to produce the same piece of software, but to improve it and support it. You can’t get that from Microsoft’s proprietary software. If there’s a bug in the software itself, you have to pay Microsoft to fix the problem. If you don’t want to pay Microsoft, you have to find another solution or workaround the issue, which is what is usually done instead.
Bill Gates might argue, then, that he still isn’t reaping the full benefits of the innovation his company produced. However, I would argue back that if his company still manages to provide the very best support for your software, then that’s who the folks that want the best support will talk to. Plus, his company has the opportunity to benefit from the work of others at very low (i.e., free as in beer) rates. Opening up forces his company to be good at what it does, not just be the sole gatekeeper that we all have to bow to in order to get our work done whether they’re any good at it or not. That’s reality, Mr. Gates.