It’s now the middle of December, which signals the end of my first semester of
grad school. I took two classes, both focused on HCI: cognitive psychology and
social implications. The paper I just finished writing for the social
implications course was about answering the question of whether all software
should be free, and required a lot of research into open source, the Free
Software Foundation, and a lot of deep thinking about what I felt was right.
The definitions of freedom offered by the Free Software Foundation act on the
assumption that computers are central to a persons well being, and that the
user of a computer should have full and complete access to the source code of
the computer based on a natural right of well being. However, it is my
position that computers, or any other form of technology, only serve to
increase personal freedom of the user in proportion to the increase in
overall quality of life of the user of the technology.
Richard Stallman, in his essay entitled “Why Software Should Not Have
Owners” claims that authors of
software can claim no natural right to their work, citing the difference
between physical products and software, and rejecting the concept of a
tradition of copyright. Stallman uses an example of cooking a plate of
spaghetti to explain the difference between software and physical products:
When I cook spaghetti, I do object if someone else eats it, because then I
cannot eat it. His action hurts me exactly as much as it benefits him; only
one of us can eat the spaghetti, so the question is, which one? The smallest
distinction between us is enough to tip the ethical balance. But whether you
run or change a program I wrote affects you directly and me only indirectly.
Whether you give a copy to your friend affects you and your friend much more
than it affects me. I shouldn’t have the power to tell you not to do these
things. No one should.
However, what Stallman does not address what gives the second person who
receives the software the right to benefit from the authors work without
giving something in return.
Before the industrial revolution, most people learned a skill and worked for
themselves in small communities. A single village would have all of the skill
sets necessary to sustain itself, and each member of the community would
apprentice into a particular skill set to contribute and earn a living. The
industrial revolution pushed skilled workers into factories and assembly
lines, work that was both distasteful and disdainful to an artisan in the
craft. However, corporations were able to reduce cost and increase profits,
and the platform has persisted into current work environments.
In the information age, the assembly line mindset has created oceans of
cubicles filled with programmers who use their skills in small parts of large
software projects, sometimes to great success, but far too often to failure.
The Internet and popularity of lower priced computers has created a market for
high quality third party software, the kind that is created by someone with a
passion for what they are doing. This passion
comes from learning a craft, and using that skill to earn a living, just like
the workers from before the industrial revolution. Instead of living
physically in small villages, these new age artisans live online and create
communities built around social networking.
In many ways, this is a return to a more natural way of life, and a simple
form of commerce. One person can create an application and sell it, and
another person can buy it from him. The person selling the software benefits
from being able to purchase shelter, food, and clothing for his family, and
the person who buys the software benefits from the use of the software. It is
a very simple transaction, and a model that is not adequately explained in the
GNU essays. If all proprietary software is wrong, then an independent
developer who sells software as his only job is also wrong. GNU supporters
could argue that there is nothing stopping the programmer from selling his
software, but he should give away the source code under a license that permits
redistribution along with the software once it is sold. At this point, selling
the original program no longer becomes a viable business model. A programmer
can not continue to sell his software when the user can, and is encouraged to,
download his software from somewhere else for free.
While it may be the ethically right thing to do to purchase the software if
you intend to use it, ethics alone are often insignificant motivation to
encourage people to spend their money. If the choice of supporting the
development of the software or not is entirely up to the user of the software,
then purchasing the software becomes a choice that the user can make on a
whim, with no real implications on the conscience of the user with either
decision. GNU and the GPL place this decision squarely on the user, and
encourage the users to not feel in any way obligated to pay.
The ethics of open source come into question when the requirement of adhering
to the free software philosophies result in an independent developer not being
able to support a moderate, middle-class lifestyle by developing a relatively
popular application. Kant’s first formulation asks what would happen if all
developers gave away the source of their code for free. In this imaginary
world where all developers did this, the quality of software would go down to
the lowest common denominator of acceptability. Each developers motivation
would be to develop for himself, and since he would need to find a source of
income elsewhere, only in the free time allotted to him. This would result in
a wide variety of software availability, with very little integration or
testing, mirroring the current state of GNU/Linux based desktop operating
systems. Current software companies would move to a business model arranged
around providing support to customers of their software. Competition, and
therefore innovation, based on pure software features would decrease, since
the source code of any feature another group could develop would be easily
copied and integrated into competitors products.
A second implication of business providing support as their primary source of
income is that the support becomes the product, not the software itself.
Businesses then have a vested interest in creating software that requires
support, resulting in intentionally complicated user interfaces.
From a utilitarian point of view, the outcome of proprietary software has
clearly been to produce more pleasure for more people than open source has up
to this point. Open source software is often more complicated, difficult to
learn and maintain, and harder for the average computer user to use. Apple
produces proprietary software and hardware, and states their mission to “make
the best stuff”. Using their position as a leading software company, and
leveraging their control over their computing environment, including iPads,
iPods, iPhones, and Mac computers, Apple has been able to successfully
negotiate deals with entertainment companies. The deals Apple has made allow
the consumer to download music, television shows, and movies off of the
Internet and watch them on any Apple branded device, and output the media to
their televisions or home stereo systems. Because of the limits of Digital
Rights Management, open source or free systems have not been able to provide
this level of entertainment.
Free software enables the user to learn the intricacies of how the software
works, and modify the software to suit his needs. Free software also provides
a legal and ethical alternative to expensive proprietary software in
developing nations or areas where the cost of obtaining a license for legal
use of the software is prohibitive. Public institutions, like schools and
government offices, where the focus of the organization is the public good,
have the option to use software that is in the public domain and is not
controlled by any one company.
However, proprietary software is also beneficial to the public, as well as
respectful of the original authors rights regarding their creative work.
Software is the result of a person’s labor; it does not matter how easy it is
to copy that work, the author still retains a natural right of ownership,
according to John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government. Proprietary
software enables products like the iPad, which is being used to enable elderly
people, nearly blind with cataracts, to create creative works of their own.
The iPad is also being used by caretakers of severely disabled
enable them to communicate and express themselves. It is possible that the
iPad would have been created if the software used to power it had been free,
but that is unknown. What is known is that the net result of the device is to
better peoples lives, which is the true purpose of technology. Any technology
is merely an enabler to get more satisfaction and enjoyment out of life. What
the free software movement does is exaggerate the importance of a specific
type of freedom, without addressing the proper place of technology in our
However, the existence of free and open source software alongside proprietary
software creates a mutually beneficial loop, wherein consumers and developers
are able to reap the rewards of constant innovation and competition. There is
a place for both proprietary and free software, and it is the authors natural
right to their creative work that gives them the freedom to choose how and why
their software will be distributed.