Metcalfe's column: Without the Government, Gates would need F-16s

Bill Gates and Richard Stallman are at war, but they have two things in common: I owe each an apology for my sarcastic punditry, and they are both still wrong.

You know Gates. He thinks I want him in jail. Stallman, in case you don't know, is founder of the Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org). He thinks I've called him a Communist. Bill and Richard, I'm sorry, just kidding.

I recently got a chance to apologise to Stallman in person. We were backstage in Boston for a panel about intellectual property. When I introduced myself, Stallman asked, "Aren't you the guy who's been calling me a Communist?"

Well, as you can see in my June 21 column, not exactly, but close enough. So, I answered, "Yes."

Stallman shot back that calling him a Communist was red-baiting and offensive. So I apologised. We shook hands. It impressed me that Stallman has the good sense to take Communist as an insult.

I asked Stallman whether he gives the finger to the Gates Building at Stanford University. He said it was a joke. OK, a joke -- like comparing the Free Software Foundation to Communism, like accusing Gates of violating the Sherman, Clayton, and Mann Acts, as well as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act.

When the panel began, Stallman stood bravely alone, attacking "intellectual property." He started badly by likening people who enforce copyrights to the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency. He recounted how Soviet Communists tried to control information that disagreed with their propaganda. He listed recent proposals to enforce software copyrights in the United States. And, yes, they sounded similar.

But the KGB was not trying to profit from promoting the creation and distribution of intellectual property. This, I think, unhinges Stallman's analogy. And hadn't I just apologised for my red-baiting?

Stallman ended strongly by arguing that, although our Constitution encourages bargaining, copyright owners have gotten too much -- they have overreached. What a pleasure to agree with Stallman at last.

If Microsoft asked governments to catch software pirates with routine airport strip searches, you'd agree they'd overreached. You'd probably also agree, unless you're a lawyer, that the US Patent and Trademark Office now routinely issues overreaching software patents.

So, the granting of private property rights can be abused. Stallman says Gates is among many such abusers.

But, as everyone is asking about Microsoft's antitrust case, what's the remedy?

To my attacks on its anticompetitive abuses, Microsoft's 10,000 millionaires throw free-market arguments back in my face. They say, "Let's keep the government out of this."

Trouble is, unless Gates buys F-16s, there is nobody to defend Microsoft's copyrights, which are government-granted monopolies.

Getting no antitrust enforcement for no copyright enforcement is not a remedy Gates would accept. Stallman's remedy is to keep Microsoft from owning software under copyright law. Trouble is, unlike Communism, copyright and antitrust laws work.

I say, let the best software win, copyright vs., as Stallman calls it, "copyleft."

Now consider this other remedy for the Gates vs. Stallman battle, a remedy that probably peaked during the Ottoman Empire.

In the year 260, legions of the elderly Roman Emperor Valerian lost in battles against King Shapur of Persia, and Valerian was forced to negotiate a truce.

To Valerian's surprise, Shapur didn't give him the finger. To Shapur's credit, he didn't kill Valerian, but instead captured him. And even when Shapur's harem was seized, he wouldn't trade Valerian back.

So, for the rest of the old emperor's life, whenever Shapur mounted his horse, Valerian hobbled out and stooped over to serve as, yes, Shapur's personal footstool.

And now I probably owe Gates and Stallman another apology.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe stoops to offer his copyrighted intellectual property free at http://www.infoworld.com/metcalfe.

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