Saturday, November 26, 2005

Melanie Wyne makes no sense

Melanie Wyne's recent editorial on open source for CNet is a cornucopia of hackish distortions, falsehoods, and ridiculous non sequiturs.

The backstory: Massachusetts recently proposed that all government executive agencies should standardize on the OpenDocument format for office files, plus PDF for document interchange. The OpenDocument format's been independently implemented in at least two office suites, and it's backed by OASIS, a consortium of people and companies (including IBM, Sun, Adobe, Corel, and many others) that are trying to do for office formats what the W3C did for the web: make it so that everybody in the world can view every document reasonably well, regardless of what software you use. The W3C's efforts are at least partly responsible for the fact that you can choose to use whatever software you want --- Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, or whatever --- to browse the web, and expect that most pages will basically work. This will be especially true if the website developer follows W3C guidelines, and writes clean standards-compliant code.

The State of Massachusetts would like this to be true for all government-related office documents too, not just web pages. It would be really nice if, in five years, citizens of the State of Massachusetts could open any electronic documents they get from the State of Massachusetts using the software of their choice, and if government contractors could submit electronic documents to the State of Massachusetts that were created using the software of their choice. Therefore, they are electing to have all executive agencies switch over to OpenDocument. It's important to realize, here, that any company is absolutely free to build office software that reads and writes OpenDocument file formats, without asking permission, and to license that software however they choose. And because the specification's publicly available, there's actually some faint chance that this might actually happen, with less of the random brokenness that happens today when you open a PowerPoint presentation in Impress.

Now, according to Wyne, for Massacusetts to contemplate standardizing on OASIS formats is cause for "IP owners" to "worry". Wyne can't back up this statement with anything more than a vague haze of innuendo and guilt-by-association. Her argument is essentially:

  1. Open source software developers participated in the design of OpenDocument.
  2. Some open source software developers have allegedly goofy ideas (like the principle that a nation ought to set its own IP laws, a principle that I suspect most members of the U.S. Congress would agree with).
  3. Therefore, OpenDocument is a step down a slippery slope towards rampant government confiscation of intellectual property, and the end of innovation.

This argument's pretty self-evidently ridiculous, so ridiculous that it's hard to debunk, simply because it's hard to pull apart the logic of an argument that simply has no logic. However, here's a shot. There are roughly three kinds of intellectual property: copyright, patents, and trademarks. To illustrate the absurdity of Wyne's claim that standardizing on an office format amounts to intellectual property confiscation, consider the following three hypothetical conversations between Melanie Wyne and the State of Massachusetts:

State of Massachusetts: Thank you for calling, how may I help you?

Melanie Wyne: Hi, I'm opening a restaurant and I'd like to submit a liquor license application online.

State of Massachusetts: OK, you can submit it in OpenDocument or PDF format at the following website---


State of Massachusetts: Uh, excuse me?

Melanie Wyne: You're infringing on my copyright!

State of Massachusetts: In what work?

Melanie Wyne: Uh... All of it!

State of Massachusetts: Okay. If you'll hold just a second, I'll transfer you to State Services for the Mentally Ill...

A couple of minutes later...

Melanie Wyne: Oh, hello, I was wondering where I can get a pamphlet on coping with mental illness.

State of Massachusetts: OK, you can visit our website, or we can mail it to you if you provide a postal address, or we can email it to you in OpenDocument or PDF format---

Melanie Wyne: HOLD IT! You're a clever bastard, but you won't infringe on my patent that easily!

State of Massachusetts: (silence)

Melanie Wyne: I hold a patent on batshit insanity, and if you email me a document in OpenDocument or PDF format, then I will lose my rights to that patent!

State of Massachusetts: Riiiiggghhht. OK, so, I've traced your phone number to an address and I'm going to initiate an intervention here. Some nice men and women in white coats are going to knock on your door shortly. Do not be alarmed. They are there to help.

A few weeks later...

State of Massachusetts: Ms. Wyne, you've been making super progress! Look at how little of your applesauce you spilled this morning. You barely even need that bib!

Melanie Wyne: Agagooga! Me like applesauce!

State of Massachusetts: That's right, Ms. Wyne, you do! You like applesauce. Now, we'd like to talk about enrolling you in an outpatient program... (Pulls out Tablet PC running Windows and document detailing plan).

Melanie Wyne: WAWAWAWAWAWA!! You infringing my trademark!

State of Massachusetts: ...

Melanie Wyne: Put it away! Put it away! Aaaaah! My precious trademark!

State of Massachusetts: (Puts tablet away) Now Ms. Wyne, you know --- you know, that really doesn't make any sense. You're going to have a lot of trouble integrating into broader society if you throw a nonsensical hissyfit every time you see anything related to open source software. If you keep doing this, then we'll have to stop giving you the applesauce.

Melanie Wyne: HA! I KNEW you wanted to infringe my property rights! Communists!

But, of course, Wyne's motivation for slamming OpenDocument need not make any sense. Wyne works for the "Initiative for Software Choice", a partly Microsoft-funded group whose Orwellian name belies their mission to advocate for competitive advantage for proprietary software. Wyne's dinner depends on her ability to shill for pro-Microsoft (and anti-open source) positions regardless of principle; in a very real way, Microsoft ideology is wired up to Melanie Wyne's limbic system. I have to say, though, that Microsoft's not getting a very good deal for its money. It's possible to shill for somebody while still making some semblance of sense. You'd think that with all their billions, Microsoft would be able to buy a higher grade of hack.

p.s. The Open Data Format Initiative has interesting notes comparing the "Initiative for Software Choice" with its opposite, the Sincere Choice project led by Bruce Perens.

p.p.s. For what it's worth, I got the Wyne article link via Symbolic Order, whose blog came up in referers but whose analysis of the situation is (alas) no better than Wyne's.

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