Response to Richard Epstein Article

Created 2004-10-23 / Edited 2004-10-23

Response to Epstein, Richard: Why open source is unsustainable

This article had some misinformation which struck a bad cord in my head... for some reason I feel compelled to convince this guy that he is incorrect on many of his points. Hence this page. For now this will be random notes but it may eventually take the form of a full response.

"Rather, like the “copyleft” movement in general, the GPL often supplies, as with Linux, an all-enveloping ownership structure by which a central committee decides whether to incorporate proposed changes into the basic public program. (Anyone can keep whatever version he likes for personal use.)"

This is the first or second blatenly wrong and misleading thing which Epstein states. The GPL does not dictate the structure of a software development community, such as the Linux kernel developers. Ownership is a concept which becomes very difficult to follow in situations such as this, and using the term "leadership" here is a much more accurate view. Linus is the leader of kernel development, not the owner of the kernel. Certainly leadership does imply a degree of control, and control is indeed the central tennet of ownership. The degree of control in place when we discuss leadership is, however, less than that of actual ownership. Linus does not have the ability to suddenly stop all kernel development and distribution, as he would if he were the owner. In fact nobody has this ability, and hence nobody owns the linux kernel.

It is true that the leadership of a project get to decide what does and does not go into their shared version of the software. It is, on the other hand, misleading to say that "Anyone can keep whatever version he likes for personal use,". The statement taken alone is true, but in the larger context there is important inaccuracies... the scope of the statement can be modified. It can an should instead read: Anyone can keep, modify, ''and distribute as another project'' (ie, fork) whatever version he/she likes, period. This is the essense of competition in open source software development -- you must be competetive in leadership and code. If you are not doing a good job another can usurp you, becoming the new commonly used version of the software.

It is surprising that someone with as impressive credentials as Epstein could have such a strong misunderstanding of the GPL and the free software movement.

At points he nearly contradicts himself even, for example, "No cash compensation is paid to the self-selected improvers, who either work for the love of the game, or because they are supported by some third party payers, either in universities or industry, who want to keep this alternative platform alive." Certainly I can see that most people who do it for the love-of-the-game are not monetarily compensated, but money is the exact sort of support provided by "third party players, either in universities or industry."

Epstein claims that one weakness of the GPL is that "It does not in so many words specify the appropriate remedy when some portion of the open source code is incorporated into an otherwise proprietary program." This, again, is false. I hate to just say things are false, it is much more interesting to find flaws in nearly correct pieces of text, but alas. From the GPL: "If you cannot distribute so as to satisfy simultaneously your obligations under this License and any other pertinent obligations, then as a consequence you may not distribute the Program at all." This is a far cry from not specifying a remedy, rather the remedy is spelled out very clearly. You must comply either by altering the overall license or by removing the GPLed code from the product. It has been often said that the GPL is infectious, yet here it is clear that the default is to ''not'' "infect" other programs, but instead to leave them alone. It is much more of a defensive measure to make sure encumbered code does not infect the GPLed code.

I'm tired of this. I have only gotten about halfway through the article, and only cited every other blatently wrong item. It is bullshit. I'd love to hear a response on these topics, but don't expect one. Epstein, as I said, has a very impressive background... and it is very dissapointing that such an aweful piece could come out of such a person.