It's a Wonderful FLOSS!

Wednesday 24 December 2008 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I suppose it's time for me to confess. For a regular humbug who was actually memory-leak-hunting libxml2 at the office until 21:30 on December 24th, I'm still quite a sucker for Frank Capra movies. Most people haven't seen any of them except It's a Wonderful Life. Like a lot of people, I see that film annually one way or the other, too.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a college paper on Capra's vision and worldview; it's not surprising someone who has devoted his life to Free Software might find resonance in it. Capra's core theme is simple (some even call it simplistic): An honest, hard-working idealist will always overcome if he never loses sight of community and simply refuses any temptation of corruption.

I don't miss the opportunity to watch It's a Wonderful Life when it inevitably airs each year. (Meet John Doe sometimes can be found as well around this time of year — catch that one too if you can.) I usually perceive something new in each viewing.

(There are It's a Wonderful Life spoilers below here; if you actually haven't seen it, stop here.)

This year, what jumped out at me was the second of the three key speeches that George Bailey gives in the film. This occurs during the bank run, when Building and Loan investors are going to give up on the organization and sell their shares immediately at half their worth. I quote the speech in its entirety:

You're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house; that's right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?

[Shareholders decide to go to Potter and sell. Bailey stops the mob.]

Now wait; now listen. Now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there'll never be another decent house built in this town. He's already got charge of the bank. He's got the bus line. He got the department stores. And now he's after us. Why?

Well, it's very simple. Because we're cutting in on his business, that's why, and because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn't you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack?

Ed, you know! You remember last year when things weren't going so well, and you couldn't make your payments? You didn't lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it?

Can't you understand what's happening here? Don't you see what's happening? Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicking and he's not. That's why. He's picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other.

Perhaps this quote jumped out on me because all the bank run jokes made this year. However, that wasn't the first thing that came to mind. Instead, I thought immediately of Microsoft's presence at OSCON this year and the launch of their campaign to pretend they haven't spent the last ten years trying destroy all of Free Software and Open Source.

In the film, Potter eventually convinces George to come by his office for a meeting, offers him some fine cigars, and tells him that George's ship has come in because Potter is ready to give him a high paying job. George worries that the Building and Loan will fail if he takes the job. Potter's (non)response is: Confounded, man, are you afraid of success!?

It's going to get more tempting to make deals with Microsoft. We're going to feel like their sudden (seemingly) positive interest in us — like Potter's sudden interest in George — is something to make us proud. It is, actually, but not for the obvious reason. We're finally a viable threat to the future of proprietary software. They've reached the stage where they know they can't kill us. They are going to try to buy us, try to corrupt us, try to do anything they can to convince us to give up our principles just to make our software a little better or a little more successful. But we can do those things anyway, on our own, in the fullness of time.

Never forget why they are making the offer. Microsoft is unique among proprietary software companies: they are the only ones who have actively tried to kill Open Source and Free Software. It's not often someone wants to be your friend after trying to kill you for ten years, but such change is cause for suspicion. George was smart enough to see this and storm out of Potter's office, saying: You sit around here and spin your little webs and think the whole world revolves around you and your money! Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter!. To Microsoft, I'd say: and that goes for you, too!

Posted on Wednesday 24 December 2008 at 23:58 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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#include <std/disclaimer.h>
use Standard::Disclaimer;
from standard import disclaimer
SELECT full_text FROM standard WHERE type = 'disclaimer';

Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

— bkuhn


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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>