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Monday, January 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Gates tugs "communist" thread again

E-conomy / Paul Andrews

Fan and foe alike expressed mystification at Bill Gates' reference to digital "communists" during an interview before the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises," Gates said, leaving observers to wonder what, and whom, he meant. But an abundance of historical clarification of the Gates lexicon exists. Although the context has changed, Gates has been markedly consistent in his use of the term over the years.

His first reference to gain widespread public attention came from news reports of 1993 antitrust negotiations with the Federal Trade Commission. When commissioners asked if Microsoft might be willing to disclose unreleased Windows upgrades early to software-applications developers, Gates erupted with the "communistic" accusation.

Giving competitors inside looks at software under development, in other words, would pretty much eliminate any incentive for Microsoft's own team to do its best.

Internally, Gates played the communist card in meetings and memos whenever the issue of software giveaways came up. So closely identified was he with the concept that Microsoft managers, in the safety of their office or a Thursday night poker game, would leap up, begin gesticulating wildly and start shouting "Communism! Communism!" in a high-pitched squeak at the mere mention of Linux or other freely distributed open-source software.

But Gates' use also has been carefully selective. By bundling products together, most notably in Office, Microsoft itself "removed the incentive" for competing programs in the marketplace. Seattle-based Aldus stopped making its superior Persuasion slide software after Gates began "giving away" PowerPoint in Office. "I can't compete with free," Aldus chief Paul Brainerd acknowledged.

Faced with Netscape's early browser success and the possibility of a browser-based assault on the Windows platform, Gates famously decided to give away Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The decision shocked browser managers at Microsoft, who had assumed the communist argument held firm.

More recently, Microsoft agreed as part of its antitrust settlement with the Justice Department to give competitors limited peeks at Windows code to level the playing field. In certain instances, "partial communism" apparently is OK.

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Which brings us back to the CES comments. The context of Gates' observations was file-sharing, the notorious practice of posting and downloading music, movies and other copyrighted digital content on the Web.

The problem with pointing the finger in file-sharing lies in who is to blame.

Not I, say brilliant programmers like Bram Cohen (profiled last week by The Seattle Times), the Bellevue developer of the leading BitTorrent movie-sharing program.

Not us, say copyright crusaders like Creative Commons Chairman Lawrence Lessig, who argue that artists deserve to get paid during and even beyond their lifetimes — but that a cutoff should exist where content enters the public domain. "We're Creative Commonists," joked Lessig in response to Gates.

Not us, say the file-swapping multitudes, who argue that content providers are greedy overcharging robber barons who want a pound of flesh for an ounce of value. And certainly not I (despite the above examples), say Gates and Microsoft, who are wooing Hollywood to enter copy-protection deals.

Perhaps if the Microsoft chairman begins writing his long-promised blog, he can "name names" in true McCarthyite tradition. Or maybe, given the inside-joke baggage, Bill simply threw out the comment for a chuckle. It wouldn't be the first time he's enjoyed a laugh on himself.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

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