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On the Microsoft Verdict

Many GNU/Linux users think of the system as competition for Microsoft. But the Free Software Movement aims to solve a problem that is much bigger than Microsoft: proprietary, nonfree software, designed to keep users helpless and prohibit cooperation. Microsoft is the largest developer of such software, but many other companies treat the users' freedom just as badly; if they have not shackled as many users as Microsoft, it is not for lack of trying.

Since Microsoft is just a part of the problem, its defeat in the anti-trust lawsuit is not necessarily a victory for free software. Whether the outcome of this suit helps free software and promotes users' freedom depends of the specific remedies imposed on Microsoft by the judge.

If the remedies are designed to enable other companies compete in offering proprietary, nonfree software, that will do the Free World no particular good. Alternative possible masters is not freedom. And competition could lead them to do a “better” job, better in a narrow technical sense; then it could be harder for us to “compete” with them technically. We will continue to offer the user one thing those companies do not—freedom—and users who value freedom will continue to choose free software for that reason. But users who do not value freedom, and choose a system based on mere convenience, might be enticed away to “improved” proprietary systems.

Splitting Microsoft into separate companies could also endanger free software, because these smaller companies, no longer held in check by the public readiness to condemn Microsoft, might see fit to attack free software more harshly than the present unified Microsoft does.

I've proposed remedies for this case that would help free software compete with Microsoft: for example, requiring Microsoft to publish documentation for all interfaces, and to use patents only for defense, not for aggression. These remedies would block the use of the weapons that Microsoft plans to use against us (according to the “Halloween documents” leaked from within Microsoft which spelled out how they plan to impede development of the GNU/Linux system).

When we see what remedies the judge chooses, we will get an idea of whether the case has been helpful or harmful to the Free Software Movement.

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