What do you see as the biggest danger to open-source software today?
On the one hand, there's still a locus of resistance. Microsoft still maintains strongly the view that its business model, which depends upon concealing source code from users, is a viable and important and indeed necessary model. And so as long as a company that sells a billion dollars a week in software is in that sense fundamentally still trying to [fight] the free way of doing things, Microsoft remains a very dangerous party.
But Microsoft, too, has now fundamentally recognized that there is not another generation left in the proprietary software idea, and they are trying to leverage the remaining value of their monopoly in a world of mixed free and unfree code.
As Microsoft begins to move itself away from being the primary partisan of unfreedom, the second most important partisans of unfreedom are the owners of culture -- the Disneys and the other major movie studios, who have a great deal of image-making authority in the world and a great deal to lose from the obliteration of their distribution mechanisms.
Proprietary software companies may not want to hear about such radical ideas that could put them out of business. How do you make anybody listen?
Possibly the difficulty you are having is too quick a diagnosis about what businesses need. The fundamental theory that I believe has to do with the benefits of what I think of as "copyleft capitalism" [the idea of making a program or other piece of work freely distributable, as opposed to restricting its use via a copyright].
The primary desire that businesses have is for control over their own destinies, for avoidance of autonomy bottlenecks which put the fate of their business into the hands of someone else. The difficulty that they experience -- that they call vendor lock-in, or non-interoperability -- is a difficulty which is really a businessman's equivalent of [Free Software Foundation President Richard] Stallman's frustration at unfreedom.
They are essentially the same recognition: In a world of complex, interdependent technology, if I don't control my technology, it will control me. Stallman's understanding of that proposition and Goldman Sachs' understanding [for example] needn't be as far apart as one might think. The desire to maintain autonomy -- the desire to avoid control of destiny by outside parties -- is as fierce in both cases as it can get.
The near death of IBM in the 1980s gave that organisation a clear understanding of how to avoid having its destiny controlled by somebody who made software. And as you look at the ripples of this idea through the economy, you begin to understand why lots of people are going to take up this call.
Each [IT vendor] is left in a different place because they are different entities. One of the things that everybody now understands is that you can treat software as a renewable natural resource -- like forest products or fish in the sea. If you build community, if you make broadly accessible the ability to create, then you can use your limited resources not on the creation or maintenance of anything, but on the editing of that which is already created elsewhere.
So you're saying that open source is basically changing the attitudes of traditional companies?
All of these companies are coming to depend heavily in profit-making business on nonprofit supply chain [the open-source software they are using]. They are each discovering that there are nonprofit supply-chain elements which are crucial to profit-making success. Now, in 20th century economic organizations, if you had discovered at General Motors that 30% of the value of each of your cars was coming from a non-profit down the street, you'd have gone and bought the nonprofit. [But] because of GPL and the copyleft, a large portion of that non-profit supply chain is unpurchaseable. You can't own it. It was designed to be a commons.
If you've become dependent on a commons for whatever role in your business, then what you need is commons management. You don't strip-mine the forest; you don't fish every fish out of the sea. And, in particular, you become interested in conservation and equality. You want the fish to remain in the sea, and you don't want anybody else overfishing. So you get interested in how the fisheries are protected.
I train forest rangers to work in a forest that some people love because it's free and other people love because it produces great trees cheaply. But both sides want the forest to exist pristine and undesecrated by greedy behavior by anybody else. Nobody wants to see the thing burn down for one group's profit. Everybody needs it.
So whether you are IBM, which has one strategy about the commoditization of software, or Hewlett-Packard, which has another -- whatever your particular relationship to that reality is -- everybody's beginning to get it. In the 21st century economy, it isn't factories and it isn't people that make things. It's communities.
Is Microsoft and its occasional patent threats to Linux something that keeps you awake at night?
I have spent more time studying that problem than Microsoft has spent creating that problem. It doesn't keep me awake at night, but it keeps me at work during the day. If in the process of irreversible change, Microsoft launches its missiles - which other dying empires, like the Soviet Union, have managed not to do - we will protect our clients. If they die without launching their missiles, it will be better for everyone.
Do you personally use much proprietary software today?
No, none. I have never been a Windows user. I have never used the Macintosh OS.