The Moral and the Legal

Every legal issue about free/libre software is at root a moral issue. Before we think about the legal level of the issue, we need to understand the moral level.

The legal level is about what current laws require. When we in the free software movement make a legal argument, that is what we are arguing about. However, the moral level is what matters most—it is where our goals come from. Liberty resides at that level, which is why we also call it “libre” software.

The two levels are not the same or even parallel. In general, that X is currently lawful says nothing about whether X is morally legitimate, and vice versa. We might propose to change some laws to better follow some of our moral ideas.

There is a pervasive tendency, especially in the US, to assume that laws dictate right and wrong. If we in the free software movement post articles or letters that discuss only the legal level, readers will tend to assume we agree with that assumption—that what we judge by is legality above all, so that if an action is lawful we are unable to criticize it.

Since our overall purpose is to end the lawful but unjust computing practices (nonfree software and SaaSS) because we judge morally that they are unjust, we must show we do not define morality as “not breaking any laws.” We need to keep reminding the public to pay attention to the deeper level, which is the moral level. If, in a communication, we focus on the shallow aspects alone, we miss an opportunity to show the public our deeper message. Because some readers are interested only in the legalities, we must show we don't consider those to be paramount.

In some cases, we contend, morality and legality say opposite things. In the US, distributing a program that can break DRM is illegal; the companies that implement DRM point to this, and hope you will confuse legality with morality. We are careful not to get confused that way. Breaking DRM is morally admirable; what's immoral is to implement DRM.

In anything we publish, and anything we send to strangers (they might redistribute it to the public), we have to show that our views about issues are primarily based on the moral level. Even when the immediately crucial part is at the legal level, we must show how we judge programs, and laws themselves, at the moral level. Thus, when people ask whether a program follows the XYZ law, we can say, “We believe it does—and, most importantly, it respects users' freedom.”

Presenting the two levels in relation to each other is a very good way of showing them both, and also showing how they are related. For instance, when speaking for the FSF, it can be useful to say, “Your program FOO contains part of the source code of GNU BAR” (a legal issue) “and fails to follow the GNU GPL rules” (a legal issue), “and that denies other users some of the rights they are entitled to” (the deeper moral issue). “To ensure all users of code from GNU BAR fully enjoy the four freedoms for it” (the goal at the moral level), “we invoke our copyright to require you to stop distributing the code that way” (using legal power as a tool to achieve the moral goal).

That is not the only way to present them both. In other contexts, not the FSF, you might need to say something very different. The main thing is to remember to talk about the moral level often, so readers realize it is the deeper and more important of the two levels.