[CS-FSLUG] TD: (Im)morality of (non)free software

Don Parris gnumathetes at gmail.com
Mon Feb 28 00:34:02 CST 2005

On Sun, 27 Feb 2005 23:08:25 -0500, Aaron Lehmann
<lehmanap at lehmanap.dyndns.org> wrote:
> I've started this thread so that Don can talk about the immorality of
> closed-source software, and so I can talk about the immorality of the
> GPL.
> The GPL is immoral, because it forces those who extend the author's code
> to use the GPL (or compatible?) if they decide to release their code.
> This seems to me to be the height of arrogance.  It is essentially
> saying, "I wrote the base for your work, so you must not close your
> extension of it.  Further, you must put the same restrictions on anyone
> who might extend YOUR code."  I recognize that this protects the
> so-called rights of users to information, but at the expense of the
> rights of developers and maintainers to make use of their own labor for
> their own ends.  It is essentially muzzling the ox as he treads the
> grain.  It results in people needlessly duplicating code (anathema to
> developers) so that they won't be bound by a hypocritical and
> restrictive liscense.  The fruit of my labor is MINE.  If I wish to
> release it into the common domain, or otherwise allow others to profit
> from my labor, that is my privelage.  I don't have the right to force
> others to give away their labor, anymore than anyone has the right to
> force me to give up mine.
NOTICE: Very Lengthy monologue follows:

Again, you seem to be equating libre with gratis - a notion which I
have tried time and again to help you and others to realize is simply
unfounded.  Based on the pictures I've seen of RMS, he doesn't strike
me as a starving, needy person.  He appears to be quite well-fed. 
Given the fact that he manages to travel to places like Australia, I
suppose he manages to scrape by somehow.  I know he does consulting
and gets speaker fees, etc.  Still, he doesn't strike me as a hungry

While it is true that I prefer free software over open source, I also
consider open source to be a better alternative than proprietary.  I
will not support proprietary extensions of OSS, whether they be gratis
or commercial.  However, the choice between free or open source, as I
said, is more denominational in nature (kind of like being a baptist
or a Methodist - once saved, always saved vs backsliding). ;)

Your characterization of the GPL as being somehow hypocritical could
use some explanation.  If I release software under the terms of the
GPL, then I am actually setting the example - not being hypocritical. 
Even the OSI folks argue that there is little business sense in
developing software under proprietary terms.  In essence, they argue
for free software.  Even so, they do argue in favor of developers, as
opposed to users.  Still, the GPL is meant to perpetuate freedom -
which you have acknowledged.

One has to remember that Stallman views proprietary software as
downright evil.  Free software is intended to benefit the whole
community, as did most or all software prior to the application of
copyright law to software.  Can OSS guarantee that the whole community
will benefit perpetually? No.  When Stallman established the GPL, what
license offered, never mind guaranteed, such freedom?  None.

I gather that, by "hypocracy", you refer to the fact that users
benefit, but developers do not.  As a developer, you may consider it
restrictive or unfair.  But, as a guarantor of freedom, it is
certainly not hypocritical.  However, I disagree that developers are
forced to not benefit from developing free software.  The real problem
for free software developers is that they do not follow the FSF's
example of "selling" free software.  Few developers/vendors, other
than MySQL, have pursued a remotely serious commercial distribution. 
I refer to MySQL, which is one of the few companies I know of that
sells a single free software application commercially.

Even so, a fair number of businesses have managed to make a little bit
of dough selling free software.  I realize many of these simply sell
technical support.  Even RMS suggests that many developers should
expect not to make as much money - the GPL is designed to offset the
greed involved in most commercial proprietary licenses.  Consider that
once upon a time, users could run a copy of their software on their
desktop and their laptop.  Those days are over, not because M$ and
other vendors are starving to death, but because of greed.

Here's an example of the moral issue, given RMS' own perspective.  You
write a word processor and release it as free software.  I (barely
scraping by), download and use the word processor to start and run a
freelance writing business.  Aside from my skills, your WP makes this
possible.  As my business grows, I begin to contribute more money in
church and/or donate more to local charities.

Now let's assume you don't live too far from me.  You may have saved
me from starvation, so you won't see me out panhandling for your
hard-earned dollars - I'm able to earn it.  I should contribute
something to your cause, and maybe I do.  Even if I don't, it may be
that my extra money down at the local shelter kept someone from
robbing you at gunpoint, because they had a free option for food.  It
doesn't always work out this way, nor will it.

Now assume you release that WP as OSS.  Then you die in a car
accident.  The only people who take up your WP turn it proprietary &
charge hefty fees.  Maybe my business doesn't make quite enough income
to support the new versions.  That would leave me stuck with the
current version.  So if I cannot move forward, maybe my business
begins to stagnate because I can no longer work with the software my
clients use.  Before long, I'm out panhandling.  Maybe I'm the one who
(unknowingly) robs you at gunpoint, out of frustration from
unsuccessfully struggling with trying to earn a decent living.

Obviously, the situation here is a what-if.  There are thousands of
what-ifs.  But it demonstrates the kind of reasoning that drives RMS &
free software.  The point is that developers can benefit directly and
indirectly from developing free software.  Yet, it also demonstrates
why free software is a moral imperative.  Sure, you could make
$100,000/year from selling your WP.  You would contribute to various
charitable causes as well.  And you would be the arrogant one.  You
would be arrogant in saying, "see, I give to charity".

There is absolutely nothing arrogant about seeking to benefit the
whole community.  There is nothing arrogant about trying to take care
of others.  After all, I am most safe when my neighbors are housed and
fed and able to care for themselves.  In a very sincere way, RMS has
demonstrated a love toward his fellow man that many believers fail to
grasp.  Were it not for his utter rejection of Jesus Christ, I would
swear we will see him in Heaven - not that the guy is dead yet, he's
still got a little time. There's always hope as long as he's living.

FOSS empowers people to "walk" on their own, as opposed to having to
continue begging for money/software.  Consider Peter & John in Acts
3:1-10.  They did not give the man money, but the ability to walk. 
You can give to a charity that offers computer software training.  But
if the people who take the classes cannot afford to buy the
proprietary software they are trained on, they will have little
opportunity to benefit from it.  However, if the people have access to
FOSS applications that are equivalent to what they learned, they have
the ability to practice at home, and to make use of the tools

I consider this an act of grace.  While you are not necessarily
robbing your neighbors of opportunities by not developing FOSS, you
are providing those opportunities by doing so.  Thus free software is
a gift of grace.  Proprietary software - most of it, anyway - offers
little grace at all.  Had proprietary software developers not been so
greedy as to eliminate grace altogether, RMS would likely have had
little reason to start the GNU project.

I do have an issue (if I understand correctly) with the idea that
proprietary software cannot be distributed with free software -
something OSS allegedly addresses better.  While I need to look at
this issue closer, I do hope this will be improved in v. 3.0 of the

As always, I look forward to the responses this discussion is sure to draw. :)

DC Parris GNU Evangelist
gnumathetes at gmail.com
Free software is like God's love - 
you can share it with anyone anywhere anytime!

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