Apr 262011

The following is an amalgam of several letters I sent to Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, expressing my concern about the direction GPL licensing is taking, and why I disagree with some of the objectives of the Free Software Foundation.

The following letter comes to you, Dr. Stallman, after twelve years of thinking about, and contributing to, free software. I hope you will recognize, from this, that I am writing solely out of my great love of programming and for no other reason.

I have had many years to consider the elements of your software philosophy. I think I understand the freedom you see missing in the world, and why you have chosen this particular path to seek it. I also think, now, that the means you have chosen will ultimately hurt the cause you champion, and this letter is my explanation why.

All productive effort begins with the mind. Thought is our resource against unreasoning nature. The thinker who makes his thoughts come alive in the world is mankind’s benefactor. Anything that would hamper or restrict his thought is man’s worst enemy. A world that does not think is only coasting on its past achievements; it has no future.

Every profession is but the technical side of making these thoughts a reality. Everyone, whether farmer or teacher or programmer, has an image in his mind of what he wants and uses his skills to make that image real. This trait is universal and is how mankind stays alive.

The great freedom you champion is the freedom of the mind to create. It must not be hampered or restricted — at the peril of life. However, there is a difference between the freedom of the mind and the freedom of the products of the mind. The one is alive and must be free to act; the other is inert and must be controlled to be useful, by the mind.

A pilot must have absolute control of his craft or else. The pilot is free, but his plane is not. If air traffic control, to do their job, thought they needed to control the pilot’s plane without his consent, they would quickly learn what a horrible mess results. But if each part is free, each in full control of its own part of the problem, even patterns of magnificent complexity are possible.

At one point, in your youth, you describe trying to fulfill your ideas in an atmosphere of incompetence and professional jealousy. You had good ideas, but they were hampered by the slowness of those around you and their unwillingness to make their work and ideas available to you. This is indeed a problem of today’s world: the lack of reasonable co-operation. I have also felt such frustrations.

When dealing with unskilled pilots, however, the answer is not to control their planes and what they do with them — it is to educate the pilots. Believing all companies to be unconcerned with co-operation, you have proposed a means, via the GNU Public License, to remove the software they write from their hands so that you may use it in yours. This is an attempt to shortcut the basic problem, but it will not lead to the world you want.

If you try to govern the fruits of another’s labor, it will initially increase the activity of those who know how to use those fruits; but in the end you will find the producers less and less willing to give you their products with nothing offered in return. Free software is in its heyday now, there is a lot to go around and a lot of people who know how to use it. Such energy surrounds every change, until the well its tapping from begins to run dry.

Free software benefits from the labor of a host of volunteers who believe in your vision: which is to turn the world of programming, and of programs, into their hands. That is the promise of all revolutions: To free the work of others from their owners’ control, in order to grant you the power to do what you want with it. It promises possession of the fruits of another’s mind without his consent, or else he must not produce at all.

Your mission began with a wish for freedom, but it will end with the minds of programmers yoked to the will of the majority. You will ultimately destroy the very freedom you are working toward.

In a society of free men, the programmer who writes code and the farmer who grows food must trade on equal terms in order for each to get what he wants from the other. Neither has any claim to fruits of the other’s work without trading for it. If the programmer had such a right, the farmer would be his slave; his love of farming abused by claiming a right its result without payment. The farmer, if he wants to go on farming, must do work on the side to continue providing for his master.

In your vision, a programmer is only paid for the ancillary work he does: training, customization, documentation. If eighty percent of his mind’s labor is spent making something complex enough that it needs training, why do you recognize only twenty percent of his work as valuable? You penalize him for his best thought. The more time he spends on his ideas, the less he deserves from society in return? There would be no reason for training or documentation if not for those ideas. They support the value of the rest; are you saying they have no value themselves worth paying for?

You encourage a society that feeds on the programmer’s mind without compensation, even forcing him to feed on himself — in the form of not programming some of the time — to continue his work. For the one who loathes programming, this is not so terrible, he wants to avoid it anyway; but it is an institutional prison for anyone who loves his work as a programmer and wants to do nothing but. You are working toward a society in which the one-hundred percent programmer cannot support his own life. The mind you wanted to free from incompetence will be sacrificed to it; the mind who loves his work will be unable to do it.

Your movement makes claims about reusability and sharing of ideas. You have nothing to reuse if I don’t write it for you. They talk about the freedom of ideas — at the cost of the mind who made them. They talk about the joy of programming in a free community. But it is a joy that cannot survive on its own, that must accept joyless things in order to provide that joy for others.

I think when you face a person who will not share his efforts with you on fair terms you must educate him. We must endeavor to educate society so that people realize the benefits of working together, trading effort for effort on equal terms. You cannot solve the problem by appropriating the products of one mind for the use of another. That is the dream of communism: To take money from the rich because the poor want to use it and don’t have any. For a programmer, the code he writes is his wealth, which he sells for currency in order to participate in society. Take that away from him and you force him either not to be a programmer or to die as one.

Without educating people, it is true that you will have to do everything by yourself. Not wage legal war and conquer others’ territories, but accept the fact that they will not co-operate with you and carry on without them. You may feel this is “hampering” your mind, but it is different. Your options may be restricted, but only by the limits of your own resources. Your choice of what to do with those resources is completely free. The world you propose, however, would remove even this choice, since the programmer would literally have to buy his time from society to do his job. And if he lacks the money and the willingness to live off his parents or anyone else? He will find that he has lost the choice to program, whatever his personal ability.

So let us do away with the GNU Public License. Let us realize the mistake, revert that code to the public domain, and set about teaching companies and programmers the benefits of co-operation under the terms of fair trade, and why they should not fear licensing their software at whatever value the market determines.

Fear of piracy, theft, deadly competition — these are the bugaboos responsible for your experiences of long ago. Companies hold their software and patents as if a monster were always lurking around the next corner. That is the war to fight: the war against ignorance. Education, not control. Show a man he has nothing to fear from you and he will help you; compel him to work for you without payment and you win only his body, not his mind. The mind is what you want freed. The road to its deliverance has always been through understanding.

To clarify, I want to program, not because another person wants me to and is willing to pay me, but because I love to program. When I use the word “programmer”, I refer to this kind of individual. And while it is true that I might accept a business proposal to write software, I am also willing to program in the absence of anyone’s personal interest in my idea. This has been my history.

So I enact my ideas in code, but now I need to live. I could go out and sell the idea, but you force me to do other work — perhaps related to the idea – until I’ve earned enough to pursue the next one. I disagree. If writing code is what I love, I should not be penalized by society for doing nothing but that — if I can find buyers afterwards willing to pay for the code I’ve written. I don’t want to train, write documentation, etc.; I am a programmer. The way I sell ideas is by contracting with interested parties via a software license; not a license on me and my future time, but on the results of the time I’ve already spent. Isn’t this what copyleft wants to prevent?

As I said before, you deny the 100% programmer — which is who I am. I don’t want to waste seven weeks of every year doing other things, whether you are willing to or not. I have the right to decide exactly how, and on what terms, to offer my code to the world, even if that means not offering it at all. Why is that once I’ve written it you should become part-owner? If I wrote it and deleted it the same night, would that be a crime? If you say copyleft only applies once I’ve published it, why? Why is there one point at which it leaves my ownership and becomes the possession of all? By your philosophy – and correct me if this is wrong — you want part title to my code the moment I type it out. Maybe I can charge if someone first asks me to do the typing, but if I type it for no other reason than wanting to see it done, I cannot charge for it later?

This is the freedom to create that you seem to want to deny. It would produce a world where a full-time programmer could only follow the paths dictated by his peers, because these are the only paths they’d be willing to pay him for. I could not, without turning to part-time work produce work that no one is presently asking for and then survive on its success — even if they all want it once I’m done and see how it works. Somehow, it’s supposed to be theirs now, and I’m the one responsible for defaulting on my electric bill?

The farmer analog is of course inaccurate. His produce can only feed a limited number of mouths. A programmer’s work, however, can potentially help all people who use computers at all times, far into the future. His works “keeps on giving” because he has sold the working form of an idea. How can you deny him the right to expect remuneration from society for this gift in equal measure? Where is the “poison” in that? I see only that you want the right to use something you did not create without rewarding its creator. Explain to me how this is not your purpose.

You might, in the end, denounce my argument as “the individual vs. the society”; and that private ownership of what one has done — whatever it is, in whatever form — is destructive to the good of society. I would say that society has always been a collection of individuals, and that if you denigrate the individual in favor of any conception of collective good, it will ultimately destroy to the very good you had hoped to achieve.

Yes, more and more free software is being written. That is not what I’m addressing. I refer to the pure programmer. If you push him out of the picture, the innovative quality of software — the range of scope of truly original ideas — will deteriorate. I don’t mean new ideas that come from teenagers avoiding their homework in college. I mean new ideas that come from experienced minds, deep and far-reaching ideas, that require months and years of labor without any interest from the public in the meantime. If you end the possibility of a financial payoff at the end of such an effort, you will end all such efforts.

Free software seems bright and rosy, but there are reasons, I believe, why there are few high-quality programs of an original character that have been developed at the expense of no one other than the programmer himself. Your “growing” free society is growing by feeding on the money and time of others: companies, parents paying for their children’s time, money earned by the programmer at another job, etc. It is parasitic, feeding off society’s wealth and unable to sustain itself. Look at your desktop offerings, the state of Guile, the lack of any modern build tools — all of these could be solved, easily. But until someone is willing to foot the bill, in advance, without payoff, they will not be written. Ever. Someone has to pay for your movement to continue; and if they are not willing to pay, the pure programmer cannot do what he loves to do.

Lastly, it is not copyleft I am arguing with. That is just another form of software license. You should have the freedom to license your software however you wish. If you decide not to charge, but instead ask others to make their changes public and available on the same terms — that’s just another form of payment. I can decide whether I want to add to your software on those terms or not — the terms you set in offering the software to me. I am still happy to contribute to Emacs on that basis, for example, because I consider Emacs enough of a joy that it is, to me, a fair trade.

What I object to is your desire to ultimately deny others the freedom to choose whatever license they wish. The GPL could not have existed in the first place if you yourself had not enjoyed such a freedom. But you don’t just use copyleft for yourself, you campaign that copyright is wrong, evil, “poison”. Your copyleft license can exist in my world, since you own what you do and can distribute it on whatever terms you wish; copyright cannot exist in yours. My policy is hands off; each to his own work, and let the market decide what society will pay for and what it won’t. I can survive on those terms.

But you want, if I understand you, to control the terms of licensing available to programmers. You said, “I am in favor of people’s freedom to control their own lives and to co-operate with others”; but your push for copyleft seems to say the opposite: You want to control their lives by dictating the available options for earning a livelihood, and by forcing them to co-operate with others at their own expense.

Can you explain to me how pushing copyleft, and removing my choice of licensing as a professional, increases rather than decreases my freedom to control my own life? You seem to me to be saying:

Software may be sold, but without restricting the right of the buyer to modify and redistribute the result — without having to pay his original distributor for the copies he makes.

Is this right? Or can I allow modification and redistribution, but at a charge, and it would still be free software?

If this is your basic position, you state that being able to sell software is evidence that it can be self-sustaining. From a strictly monetary standpoint, I cannot prove this to be wrong without making certain assumptions about the nature of society; just as you cannot prove it right without making the same kinds of assumptions.

I will continue the argument as though the right to modify and redistribute software cannot be charged for, since this would constitute a financial “restriction” of that right.

So, if a buyer exists who is willing to make the initial payment for a piece of software — or, if you are able to sell it multiple times before free distribution ends your customer base — you could, potentially, make as much money writing code as by proprietary software. Without buyers, you could not.

In other words, I could develop and sell software exactly as companies do now, but I would have no right to stop anyone from giving away copies of my software without paying me.

This means I could not rely on enough buyers, once the software had been published, to be certain the effort would pay for itself. Copyleft wipes out my potential customers by allowing distributors to give away my product — and charge for distributing it even — without paying me and without any development cost for them.

Thus shrink-wrapped distribution could not be relied on to pay for software development, as it does now. Selling licenses will not pay for it either – because I could only force payment for the first license. After the first, no one would be required to pay me.

The only thing that can reliably fund software development is something other than software. In other words:

Software cannot be guaranteed to pay for its development unless it is paid for up front.

There are a few implications of this I would like you to consider:

  1. Full-time programmers who are currently funded by the code they write will cease to exist. Once they run out of money in the bank, they will have to turn to other funding or do other work. They cannot, as they do now, rely on software sales to make their living. This implies that:

  2. Only software created by part-time programmers, or projects society is willing to pay for in advance, can exist. Since the people in category ‘a’ will die out, we fall on category ‘b’. Perhaps you see nothing wrong with this. Let’s carry it further:

  3. If part-time programmers do not have enough time left over to work on an idea, and if that idea cannot attract funding in advance, it will never exist.

Is this OK with you? Are you aware how many programs are out there that only exist because their authors made an investment in the hopes it would pay off? That, and the existence of a government that requires people to pay them for their work, and not make copies for everyone else?

Do you really want to restrict the development of complex, new ideas to what the public is willing to pay for in advance, and what part-time programmers have enough resources left over to create? If so, you have far more faith in humanity’s fore-sight than I do. Just look at our history.

The above explains my fear, and the situation I see resulting from copyleft. It leaves the future of programming at the mercy of altruism, public desire and free-time. I believe such a society cannot develop as freely as America has, on the principle of rewarding inventors for their effort, and their sacrifice in the face of public disapproval.

You mentioned that I might invent something no one is interested in, and still not be able to survive as a programmer. Well, of course. I have no problem with that. I’m not asking society to guarantee me payment for anything; I accept this as a risk I’m willing to take. What I object to is your desire to remove all chance of a pay-off that is not guaranteed, or funded by other efforts.

If I create a piece of software that revolutionizes the world, I deserve to be made rich. That would be an appropriate reward for the corresponding benefit offered to society. A fair trade. I wouldn’t even mind offering people the restricted right to modify and redistribute my idea — so long as they pay me for having such an idea to modify and redistribute!

What you want is that once I release my idea to the public, to becomes public property. Anyone can change and distribute it freely. I may have saved one hour of every computer user’s life on the whole planet, but I am not to be paid in equivalent man-hours to research more ideas. If I save millions of hours for other people, it would be right to reward me with the funds to pay for supporting millions of hours of mine. In your world, however, the only thanks I get — assuming no one paid me to write my software in the first place, and no one was willing to pay me after I’d written it to see me publish it — is a pat on the back and the necessity now to return to my other job so I can repeat the performance. Is this just?

If this is the society you want, I think you are shooting yourself in the foot. If one of society’s members contributes such good, he should be given every resource to keep doing it. That’s what becoming rich is supposed to mean: Society is rewarding you for the value they recognize. You may suggest that now that I’m famous, others will be willing to fund my future efforts. That’s a big assumption. I think your society wants to use inventors as mules, driving them in the direction of their preference by controlling the purse strings. If one programmer bucks the trend and develops a fantastic new idea — well, it sucks to be him. His thanks is to return to his real job while everyone else starts copying his idea.

You said my argument is like a gangster justifying the right to take your purse. But a gangster gives you no choice. The whole point of capitalism is that you get to choose what you pay for — or don’t buy it. I feel more like the lady with the purse — which represents the earning potential of selling my software — and you want to make that purse disappear. This works fine for you, in your position. But I don’t think you’ve considered how it will affect all parts of society — and how it will not work for you in the future should it take hold. Again, look at the free software community with a close eye. There are a lot of things missing, and, I believe, good reasons why it still does not seriously challenge the consumer market after twenty years. You could say “give it time”, but there is no arguing that; my position would end with the same remark. The question is, if we give it time, what really will be the result?

 Posted by at 3:24 pm

  27 Responses to “Letter to the Free Software Foundation”

  1. Without the GPL, free software wouldn’t be where it is today: everywhere. Greedy proprietary companies like Microsoft would grow unbounded into total monopolies without any competiton. THAT would (and has, and does, and will) hold back progress.

    You fail to understand several things:

    1. The distinction between physical goods and imaginary, “intellectual property.”. You yourself pointed out the necessity of the freedom of ideas, but you fail to understand that there is no fundamental difference between an idea and the expression of an idea. They are inextricably intertwined. To try to separate them is to pursue the madness of restricting freedom of speech and even thought, for that is where the path must ultimately lead. Only time holds back those who would do such evil things, for the technology simply doesn’t exist yet. Someday it probably will.

    2. No one is required to license their own software under the GPL. The original authors may license it however they wish. The GPL merely requires that recipients of the software receive the same rights as those the author has, when he chooses to use the GPL, and that they pass those rights on. This is a very, very good thing.

    3. Comparing farmers and programmers is a very, very poor analogy. Should I pay a farmer every day for the rest of my life because I ate some food he grew which contributed to my continued existence? No–he did his work and got paid for it. Now he does some more work and gets paid again. It’s ludicrous to expect to be paid in virtual perpetuity because one’s product is “intellectual property.” Copyright is entirely artificial–it has no basis in the natural world. It was devised for a specific, limited purpose, but it has been allowed to grow like a cancer and is now harmful to it’s host organism. It is simply enabling greater and greater greed at the expense of society, culture, and ultimately, individual human beings.

    4. Remember that all software boils down to math, and math cannot be copyrighted. Nor can it be created–it may only be discovered. Man did not create the universe nor the laws that govern it. Man did not create the fundamental ideas expressed in software, they simply exist. No one has (or should have) the right to “own” such ideas in any context. To even desire such is shameful, for it stems purely from greed, not concern for the well-being of others or for society as a whole.

    5. You ignore the fact that I have (or should have) the right to control my own computing devices to the fullest extent, just as I have the right to do whatever I wish with whatever else I may own insofar as it doesn’t harm others or their (real) property. You wouldn’t give me a book to keep but tell me I can’t write in the margins. You wouldn’t tell me how to solve a math problem but then tell me I can’t change the numbers. You wouldn’t sing me a song and then tell me I can’t whistle it or sing different words or different notes. Artificial restrictions on software deny me those rights. The threat of one day not even having the rights we currently have is very real: many corporations strongly desire the ability to exercise full control over our computing devices so they can continue to grow unchecked, making more and more money, squeezing every last cent out of everything we do. Such is purely evil, and the only way to prevent such an outcome is to preserve our rights and freedoms before they are taken away completely.

    Hey, you’re a programmer–you’re threatened by this more than the average user: just wait until you don’t have the ability or the “right” to run your own software on your own system. Oh, wait, in some cases you already don’t, and to try to assert that right is a crime (e.g. iPhone, iPad, PS3, the DMCA, etc). Where it’s not yet a crime it might as well be, for who can afford to defend oneself against an army of evil lawyers from a megacorp? Are you willing to give up your job, your house, have your future earnings garnished, and go live in the wilderness, growing your own food and foraging? Maybe that’s extreme, but if you get sued out of your future, what is left?

    What did GeoHot do wrong? He tried to run his own software on his own device, using an ability that was sold to him and then arbitrarily taken away by the power that be. His actions were morally sound, yet the evil corporation Sony is free to immorally stomp him out of existence because the laws protect the corporation, not the People. Remember that the laws are supposed to be of, by, and for the People–and corporations are not people. People can have their property confiscated just because a giant company sued them and claimed something that hasn’t been proven. People can be thrown in jail. People can have their lives and futures ruined. The people who run corporations are shielded by their roles in the corporation and can do many completely immoral things to individuals without breaking the letter of the law.

    No, the only answer to the growing evils is freedom: freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to write, freedom to express ideas and freedom to share such expressions–for expressions are nothing without ideas, and ideas are nothing without expressions. “Intellectual property” is truly an oxymoron–the idea of it only fuels greed. The provision for limited exclusivity can never be proven to be necessary for any desired outcome, because the alternative cannot be tested without access to an alternate universe. At this point the cancer has grown to the point that it is in danger of suffocating it’s host completely. Best would probably be a return to the very original terms, but it’s so bad now that outright abolishment–not that it will happen–would probably be better for society than the current situation.

    RMS may seem extreme at times, and his methods may be so at times–but he fundamentally understands the problem and the solution, and is willing to stand up for it, no matter what. We need people like him, we need the FSF, and we need the GPL.

  2. By the way, I neglected to address this part of your essay:

    If I create a piece of software that revolutionizes the world, I deserve to be made rich. That would be an appropriate reward for the corresponding benefit offered to society. A fair trade. I wouldn’t even mind offering people the restricted right to modify and redistribute my idea — so long as they pay me for having such an idea to modify and redistribute!

    That right there is exactly what is wrong with the idea of copyright today: the idea that anyone deserves anything, much less deserves “to be made rich”! I find that very statement appalling, for it smacks of nothing but greed.

    Software does not revolutionize the world, nor do ideas–people revolutionize the world.

    You do not deserve to be paid for the rest of your life, or the rest of your product’s life, for something you did once. If you make a contract with someone to compensate you for your services or time, you deserve such compensation as you agreed to, from the person you agreed with–that is all. And “your” ideas and “your” expressions of ideas do not–should not–”belong” to you. Ideas cannot be exclusively possessed, and attempts to do so are rooted in greed and evil.

    I also find such ideas to be hypocritical, for if ownership of ideas were taken to its logical conclusion, either we’d all still be living in caves, or we’d all be paying royalties to an extremely wealthy descendant of an ancient caveman for inventing the wheel and other basic things. Just think about it: how many of the things that you own, use, and build upon did you think of and create yourself, without any influence from others? Guess what? It’s not even possible to do so, for we are enveloped in society and culture from birth. Anyone who demands compensation for his ideas should compensate everyone else who ever had an idea that influences anything he does, else he’s a hypocrite.

    You may consider these ideas extreme, but they are merely the product of the idea of “intellectual property” being taken to its logical conclusion.

    Perhaps the world was better off before the idea of owning ideas existed. Here’s a challenge for you: imagine going back in time and peering inside the mind of the first man to conceive of owning the exclusive rights to an idea. What was his motivation? I submit that, were it possible to conduct such an experiment, it would be that of greed, of gaining an advantage over his fellow man in order to rise above him in stature and wealth. That is not a noble goal, it is a selfish one. And that’s ultimately the only reason to desire exclusive rights to an idea. And selfishness and greed are shameful.

    I could live with a few years of exclusive rights just so that one who, say, makes an expensive media production wouldn’t have it immediately copied and distributed for free. But after a few years that exclusivity should end, permanently, and the idea should pass into society, for its common good. Those producers/authors/whatevers should continue working for continued compensation.

    Boiled down to its roots, copyright is immoral. The present implementation of it is especially so–utterly detestable. It’s doing far more harm than good to our society and culture.

    • Your idea of a temporary time horizon, so that the original author may profit sufficiently from his idea to fund future work, is entirely acceptable to me. I think it represents a fair balance between our two positions.

      Before you wield the label of “greed” too easily, remember that I am the author of many free software products for which I receive no compensation at all, and that I continue to extend and support purely for the sake of my users. To categorize me or my argument thusly only demeans the point you’re trying to make.

  3. Sorry, I’m not aware of those products. Are they under the GPL, are they Free Software, or are they “free as in beer”?

    If they’re GPL/Free Software, then I don’t understand the point of your argument, since you freely chose to license them under the GPL.

    If they’re “free as in beer”, well, that’s generous of you to spend your time working on them for others’ benefit, but my points about the freedom of ideas, the ultimate mathematical nature of software, and the right to control all of the software on my own computer still stands.

    Regardless of the individuals in question and their attitudes in other areas of life, I think the desire to “own” ideas or to exercise control over how others use and share ideas is selfish and rooted in greed. The greatest benefit to society, culture, and one’s fellow man is attained through freedom and freely sharing ideas, not by controlling them for the benefit of one or a few.

  4. By the way, it’d be nice to be able to subscribe to comments on articles so I wouldn’t have to remember to keep checking back to continue the conversation. :)

  5. Hi Adam, I’ve added a plugin for comment subscriptions for you.

    My software is licensed under the BSD license, which means my ideas are free for you to use however you like.

  6. I think the basic difference is you have an individual view of the world rather than a communal view.

    A communal society promotes equal access to needs and wants for everyone, there is no such thing as being rich and famous because everyone has the same access to everything. Things are done for the community in which we live rather than for ourselves alone.

    An individualistic society promotes rich and poor. For you to be rich and famous someone else has to be poor. Only those with the great ideas you speak of can benefit financially, everyone else is enslaved to them.

    Can you see that a capitalist society will never ensure that *all* people are looked after because it rewards the people with intelligence, money, influence or opportunity. A socialist society is not “fair” in that someone with a bright idea can’t become rich for having that idea. But a capitalist society is not fair in that *only* those with bright ideas can become rich while others must remain poor to support that inequality. I know which “unfair” I would prefer.

    I think this is the basic difference between your thinking and RMS’s thinking.

    • I do not believe a society in which there is no reward for effort leads to fairness at all, no matter its specious claims. An ideal system should balance reward with equality. What if everyone in school received the same marks, regardless of effort? Would this create an environment of learning, or would it promote tyranny of the ignorant? Neither of us wants unfairness, but if it must lean one way or the other, I’d favor a tyranny of competence over the alternative.

      • I think you have missed a point. There is nothing in the GPL about not being paid – actually RMS did sell emacs on a floppy/CD for years, and manuals etc.

        The GPL does not even say you cannot sell the software. It does though specify that once the user has the software, since the software is a tool, that the user have all freedom as to what they do with the tool, including that of modifying it, sharing it, and sharing the modifications.

        A surprising fact is that even in such a model people and companies are still willing to pay when the product is valuable. Not all, but enough that some very rich companies exist around the concept

  7. I think it all goes back to idealism. Generally, the more right-wing you are, the more you value the ability to accumulate profit, and the more you’re willing to do to get there. Software differs from traditional property (as Adam said) because you can’t PHYSICALLY possess it. What is all the more curious, then, is how exchanging physical money for it does not give you ownership. Generally, if you buy a farmer’s product, you own it, and no one has any legal right to take it away from you. If you buy a Microsoft or Apple product, however, it is entirely at their discretion how you use it and how long. It’s not yours by any stretch, only the right to use it is.

    Now for me, that’s sad. I don’t like paying for the privilege of eating a company’s crumbs, and I certainly don’t like the fact that they have every right on earth to spy on me. It’s true that volunteer efforts aren’t usually money-makers… but that’s because they’re not designed to be. I think it’s fair to say that free software development speaks for itself. It’s gone from being a dream to being a complete set of operating systems, applications, and future development, all from the idea that this letter claims is doomed to fail.

    As for selling free software, RMS has said many times that you should charge the maximum reasonable price. Programmers have to eat, after all. The way I’ve always seen it is, in knowing you exchange one copy for one payment (as with a physical product), you need to be thinking about the next idea or improvement. That’s counter to the general Western way of thinking – aren’t you supposed to be knocking out your opponents any way you can? That’s one way, sure. The better way is to improve what you have designed in the first place and let others do the same for their own benefit. Not only do bugfixes happen more quickly (as has been shown to be true), you can also count on a continually expanding community, as well as an incentive to innovate more each time.

    I’m grateful that free software promotes competition in a much better sense. Your market may be threatened by another person as in pure capitalism. The difference is, neither of you will be trying to grind the other into submission, only to improve your own work. In my opinion, when this is money-driven, we forget we’re human and turn to the more animal desire to get ahead. If you’re comfortable with that change, go ahead. Realize, however, that a proprietary system would not guarantee profit, only give you an edge.

    Finally, there’s one thing that free software users and proprietary software users don’t have in common, and that’s a belief in something. That belief in freedom and its importance usually spells the difference between people who don’t know what their computers are running (I’ve known Windows users like this), and informed individuals who always know what’s available to them on their own hardware.

    Thanks for your time.

  8. In a society of free men, the programmer who writes code and the farmer who grows food must trade on equal terms in order for each to get what he wants from the other.

    Freedom is an illusion. No one is actually free. You can make decisions within your means, but you are ultimately artificially restricted based on a budget (personal or otherwise) that has no relevance to the real abundance or scarcity of a resource—a point I will touch on in a moment. Indeed, monetary systems and closed source licenses share a great deal in that neither has any inherent value. Patents and licenses have no bearing in a natural reality. Quantum physics has taught us that thoughts are things (a fact Intellectual Property Law heavily relies on), but it has also taught us that all of humanity shares a collective consciousness. Any variation of a non-open license assumes more than physical separation (i.e. a separation of the conscious experience) which is simply a falsehood.

    I’ll agree that GPL does not always appear relevant in our present societal structure, but there are other licenses to choose from if one insists on keeping the blinders on.
    Richard Stallman may be just a bit ahead of his time as we (humans in general) are still obsessed with currency, an invention that became obsolete with the advent of global communications. He does condone “coding for fun and profit” if one finds that to be necessary but primary purpose of the GPL license is to prevent monopolization of public information. We are a social species and isolation of any kind is harmful to our well-being, the adverse effects of which quickly become evident in our habitat.

    Admittedly, while the current paradigm reigns, a person needs to do what they think they must do so that his/her means provide what that individual considers acceptable ends. However, in the grand scheme of life, which is not at the fore of most people’s minds in spite of being the most significant of thought forms, which version of man-made dogma a person chooses is irrelevant.

    The Universe is a dictatorship whether we like it or not, and any idea that does not facilitate sustainability ultimately destroys itself or the ecosystem it inhabits. That Open Source software, particularly software licensed via a version of GPL, is part of an ecosystem that is not only sustainable but thriving, I am left with no other logical option but “It’s working.”

    I am far more concerned with the death and destruction caused by artificial scarcity (i.e. where more food is grown by a single nation than the entire planet’s human population can consume rendering it’s true “price” to $0) and forced poverty (why should any human die because someone else decides they cannot afford to be well) than I am with the miniscule particulars of a software license ahead of its time and ultimately unnecessary if we (as a species) are living up to our potential—but as long as a monetary paradigm is present, this is a reality (for about 85% of the Earth’s population).

    Truth be told, if I had my basic essentials (clean water, healthy food, safe shelter, and high speed Internet access) taken care of I’d work on just about any project at no additional cost simply for the sake of contributing to the well-being of the species and because it is something I genuinely enjoy doing.

  9. Wow, a well-articulated post, but especially really spot-on comments!

    You have good readers John ;-)

  10. Just 2 points to feed your considerations:
    A- free software is really gratis only when it was paid
    B- nothing in the copyleft prevents you from charging for access to free software

  11. Thank you your well thought article.

    am rather very disappointed by the comments you receive. Too young. But who can blame them. I was young too.

    • Claming one is “too young” is implying that you have gone through some experience that we will or have all go-though with age, as if it’s some inheret property all humans have via a thought-process and/or moral state, that we are bound to lose.

      I am probally “too young”, but I’m not so-to realize this is a stament that an individual typically makes when they’ve let society beat these views out of them, wheter they wanted them to or not (I’d wager the latter).

      It is the solem-few who relentlesly fight the wrongs in current society, reguardless of age, the ones the public often view as the “weirdos”, “oddballs”, “freaks”, and the “crazies” who prevail in the long-run.

      • I, too, do not believe that the validity or strength of one’s views is in any way age-related. Truth is truth. What youth sometimes cannot see is that the world is a very complex place, and some solutions are too blind to be effective in the long run. But one can always continue to refine and persue improvements upon those beliefs, so I do not think that enthusiasm is ever really misspent. It’s all a part of learning. We should be using the words wise and unwise, anyway, rather than young and old. There are plenty of unwise older people, and wise younger people. It’s the unwise who look at a problem they’ve never dealt with and instantly deal out judgment; and the wise who consider something they’ve studied for a very long time, and say, “I know there is still much improvement to be had”.

  12. I completely agree with you with your representation of the problem. I’ll do a postback when a more thorough answer will be available. You really do address the problem that’s hidden between the ignorance of well-fed programmers (maybe I’m one too) and the idealism of free software proponents working on their free time (which I am too).

    However, you reached for the root of the problem, and I think an easy approach like converting all GPL code to public domain won’t work. Society isn’t ready for such a change. This problem needs more thorough inspecting and work.

    I think we all agree that GPL was born when RMS tried to solve that problem too, and found one solution. That solution isn’t perfect, but it’s a start. GPL was, is, and will belong enough well ahead of it’s time. We are in RMS’s position now: we want to live off the software we write, but while (more importantly) not doing immoral things with our software licenses. The thing that needs changing is not software, not licenses, not distribution models. It’s society. Society needs changing, and neither we nor RMS is able (at least for now) to change all the individuals that form the society, make their ignorance disappear, make them grateful for the gifts they receive, teach them how to say thank you. It’s people. So, my answer is, for now, a now-working solution is GPL, but we should try to find better ways for the future (while remaining human and again, not doing immoral things to our terms of sharing).

  13. [...] I was reading through the comments of Johnw’s letters to the FSF and a comment by *Adam* got my attention: he said that in the essence of software lies math. I do [...]

  14. Great essay – thank you.

    One point that you do not address is that of future-proofing, or sustainability from the user perspective.

    For me, one of the most important things in my software usage choices – and one of the reasons I prefer free/libre software – is lock-in in its various forms.

    This takes two major forms. First, can I access my data in 50 years? Commercial and proprietary sotware can facilitate this by using standard, or at least well-defined and freely reimplementable, formats. I have little interest in storing data in a manner that will be inaccessible if the software developer goes out of business, or if I change platforms. This goal is therefore not incompatible with paid-for software.

    The other form is my ability to keep using some piece of software indefinitely. Why should I invest time in learning a piece of software, or adapting my workflow to it, if it is liable to go away? The first-order requirement for this is outright purchase – if I purchase a piece of software, I should retain the right to use it indefinitely, without need for activation or the ability for remote deactivation. (Note that this requirement does not require free updates, although those are nice.) Lots of software, fortunately, meets this requirement.

    Having access to the source code, with the right to modify it, further enhances this because I can adapt the software to future environments and platforms that I may move to. This allows my continued usage of the software to be dependent solely on my platform choices and my willingness to port software. Notably, it allows my continued usage to be independent of the whims and future desires of the software developer. This is my main problem with e.g. the proprietary nVidia drivers – my continued usage of a graphics card with modern kernels is dependent on nVidia’s willingness to keep support for that card in a driver that is updated to the latest kernel.

    FSF-free software is a sufficient – but not necessary – condition for these principles. I prefer free software so that, if for no other reason, my continued software usage is not intrinsicly subject to the good graces of specific venders whose interests, as often as not, are not aligned with mine.

    I do realize, of course, that this is a rather extreme argument, and in practice I’m not going to be able to realistically maintain my entire software stack ad infinitnum and port it to the new 67-core Leg 3000 architecture.

    The principles, however, stand in some measure or another, I think. It is fully possible to sell software that respects these principles to greater or lesser degree, by some combination of open formats, perpetual licenses, and ideally source code.

    As a user, free/libre software gives me a really easy way to know that my software will respect these principles. Sometimes, it is worthwhile to negotiate a non-hard-line stance on some of them or another; I am a Pinboard user, for example, and there are at least two commercial pieces of software I am considering purchasing where I am currently using free/libre solutions.

    I think, however, that it is foolish for users to completely ignore these considerations. Further, to license software under terms that require users to ignore these considerations — in the worst case, overpriced subscription-based locally-run software with remote deactivation capabilities and closed formats — is to encourage users to be foolish and to show disrespect for their best interest. I am in no way suggesting that you are doing or encouraging this; on the contrary, I think that avoiding such situations fits very well with your encouragement for users and programmers to find common ground and reasonable license terms. But in my opinion, this perspective is an important consideration in thinking about software licensing, and what kind of a software licensing world we want to live in.

    I fully support your right to license software under terms of your choosing, provided that you can actually find buyers. I may also be willing to limit that support to such terms being reasonable; I am not yet decided on how I feel about the ethics of demanding terms that seem far outside the pale of respecting user freedom. I’ll just likely exercise my right not to buy it, unless it is (A) quite compelling and (B) sufficiently respecting of my freedom.

    One final note on freedom: I don’t consider the right to redistribute your software an intrinsic freedom I ought to have, and that is unjustly denied me by “non-free” licenses. A nice freedom, to be sure, but not an intrinsic one. The freedom I am most concerned with respecting is the user’s freedom not to have access to their data, and secondarily usage of their software, dependent on the continued good graces of a third party.

    Thank you again for the article – a very thoughtful essay on the subject.

  15. The GPL has no legal standing. Affixing some text to the top of a text file asserting a “rider” on top of copyright has not been challenged in any serious court.

    Ill start putting at the top of my text files, if you use this code you have to let me date your sister.

    Its about as valid.

    Im sorry GPL is dungeons and dragons and I dont care how many people play it its just a silly game.

    • I think you’re sorely mistaken about what the GPL does and how it works.

      The GPL places no restrictions upon your use of the program, or any action that copyright law allows you, as the posessor of an authorized copy of a copyrighted work, to perform.

      What the GPL does is grant additional rights, normally reserved to the copyright holder, under the condition that those rights are in turn passed on to downstream recipients. It is not modifying copyright law; it is placing conditions upon your exercise of rights that you ordinarily wouldn’t even have, but that the author of the software has elected to give you in exchange for reciprocity.

  16. I agree with some aspects of what you are saying, but fundamentally for you it seems comes down to money being the motivation of programmers. People aren’t motivated by money, Daniel Pink has shown us that. The very existence of free software shows us that.

    You are arguing is that GPL will make programming a “spare time” activity only, but software is always used for a purpose, and the purpose is where the money comes from. Google use and contribute to free software to provide services and make money off advertising. They pay thousands of software developers, but make $0 by selling software (I think).

    Writing custom software for business is a major industry. I myself work in scientific analysis and environmental modelling. The value comes from the results of the analysis, not the software I used to generate it. The client could care less about that. To appropriate one of your tortured metaphors, the people buying apples from the farmer don’t care what crop rotation strategy the farmer employed, they just want their damn apples.

    • My motivation for programming is to obtain the freedom to do more fun programming than contracted programming. I need money to do this. And until I create something whose licensing fees becomes an income generator, I’ll have to always be running in the treadmill to keep up with my bills.

  17. @bobx, GPL has successfully won many lawsuits against violators, so what you say is false.

  18. One point, “copyright cannot exist in yours” his world relies heavily on copyright to protect and enforce the license. I believe he was fairly clear on that point, when he says in an interview “The GPL gets its legal force from copyright law, but that is not a source of moral authority, so none can come from there. “

  19. To answer the comment I saw as the most important:

    Why is there one point at which it leaves my ownership and becomes the possession of all? By your philosophy – and correct me if this is wrong — you want part title to my code the moment I type it out. Maybe I can charge if someone first asks me to do the typing, but if I type it for no other reason than wanting to see it done, I cannot charge for it later?

    That point is there, so you can charge people for your code. And the last few months we saw how something like that can work out really well: If you wrote some code which can revolutionarize the world, then you team up with someone who wants to start a kickstarter campaign with it. For that he creates some demos which only show some small parts of what your code can do (naturally under the GPL), and he asks for enough money to keep you fed long enough that you can create the next cool program and to keep him fed, so he can sell that next cool program through kickstarter.

    All that works without ever taking away the freedom of your users: Once they have the code, they are free to do with it what they want. But to get that, they have to collect enough money to pay for your living.

    Even better: You can now work on the next release of your code and run a kickstarter campaign for that, too. You can even start the kickstarter campaign before you finished your code. Your first projects will show people that you can deliver, so they will trust your claims for the next ones.

    In short: Free Software Licenses do not oppose making money from code. They just require different business models than the usual ones which use shackles on your buying customers to force other customers to pay.

  20. [...] Read more context for John Wiegley’s thoughts on the GPL. Note from Sacha: The WordPress folks seem to have figured out how to earn money with premium themes, plugins, and training, so it’s not incompatible with the GPL… =) [...]

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