OK, so I admit: I can’t get enough news about SCO. It’s like the best and worst parts of a soap opera, train wreck, and slapstick comedy all rolled up into one big, sticky ball. This week’s entry into their history of shame is a claim to own the standard Unix executable file format, which is ridiculous for more reasons than I feel like going into right now. What I took away from the whole circus, though, is that you’re playing with fire if you entrust your company or personal computing to proprietary software vendors.
You can think of free software licenses as “default allow”. That is, they allow you to use software in any way you see fit, with certain exceptions. However, proprietary licenses are almost always the opposite—“default deny”—in that they only give you permission to use the software in the specific ways the vendor had in mind.
The free licenses, then, provide built-in protection against a would-be SCO who would want to sue their customers. In short, no judge is going to be sympathetic to a company who distributes software under such an explicitly liberal license as the GPL and then changes their mind. However, the only thing standing between any typical proprietary vendor and your name listed as “defendant” is their greed and desperation.
I find it endlessly ironic that the main criticism against RMS is that he’s too idealistic. People love to claim that he should relax and be more pragmatic. However, the next time you’re tempted to buy a system that will form the backbone of your company’s IT infrastructure, read its license and ask your lawyer to do the same. Consider how practical it really is to trust your information, your workflow, and your income to a “default deny” contract that won’t let you manage your business in your own best interest. Next, read the GPL (really—it’s not very long) and see if it’s not vastly more practical for you, the end user. If anything, RMS’s critics should be faulting him for being too practical and insisting on freedom over peril each and every time.
SCO’s fruitless meanderings are entertaining, if exasperating, but mainly because we have the privilege of being able to watch from a distance. They serve as a dark reminder, though, that therefore but by the grace of our proprietary vendors’ bottom lines go us. Laugh, smile, and enjoy the circus, but never forget the lessons it’s trying to teach.