Subject: Re: law from the bottom up
From: shapj@us.ibm.com
Date: Mon, 27 Sep 1999 13:33:58 -0400

The problem with fighting over the meaning of words is that in the end you
cannot win.  The great unwashed has latched on to the term "viral" in the
context of GPL, and is unlikely to let go.

And in one sense I think that both the term and its "pejorative" connotations
are fairly applied.  Viruses aren't scary because people die of them (though
that's certainly scary). Viruses are scary because the ones with
disproportionate impact threaten to alter the fundamental conditions under which
society operates.  What makes them scary is that they are harbingers of changes
that people cannot understand.

GPL is like that too.  It is clearly making headway in many circles, and it has
come a long way from its early days. It is now far enough along that even the
most conservative companies begin to feel that they have to play, but it is
still unclear where/how it will all end.  Programmers wonder what their jobs
will look like.  Software companies wonder how they will transition.  Users
wonder who will support them and what recourse for critical failures they will
have.  A few random outliers wonder which rock the communists crawled back out
from under.

All of these uncertaintees are rational (maybe even the last one -- substitute
"socialist").  The people on this list have plausible stories for how the
incentive structure works, but our audience is limited.  Even if we could get
the front page on the Wall Street Journal to spread those beliefs, it's worth
noting that incentive structures change drastically as the balance of investment
in the market shifts.  There will, in the limit, be a few proprietary outliers
who will maintain even *greater* value in a mostly free software industry.

Suggestion to Richard: Forget about whether people are insulting you.  A few
certainly are. More are adopting the rhetoric without thinking about it much.
Any insult they offer, intentionally or otherwise, reflects their shortcomings
rather than yours.  Ask instead what term will best encourage them to *think*
about the issues.

My personal opinion is that "viral" in this context is a good term.  As an
analogy it isn't bad -- it illicits reasonably good intuitions about choosing
GPL.  As a value word it is highly loaded.  It makes people sit up and pay
attention. Heck, it got some of them engaged enough to insult you. At this
stage, controversy is *good* for free software -- it's free advertising.

Perhaps some other word would be better, but not if it fails the test of
attention raising and reasonable analogy.  I'll leave it to others to continue
the debate on what word fits best.


Jonathan S. Shapiro