Why Software Should Not Have Owners
Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us.
Not everyone wants it to be easier. The system of copyright gives software programs “owners”, most of whom aim to withhold software's potential benefit from the rest of the public. They would like to be the only ones who can copy and modify the software that we use.
The copyright system grew up with printing—a technology for mass-production copying. Copyright fit in well with this technology because it restricted only the mass producers of copies. It did not take freedom away from readers of books. An ordinary reader, who did not own a printing press, could copy books only with pen and ink, and few readers were sued for that.
Digital technology is more flexible than the printing press: when information has digital form, you can easily copy it to share it with others. This very flexibility makes a bad fit with a system like copyright. That's the reason for the increasingly nasty and draconian measures now used to enforce software copyright. Consider these four practices of the Software Publishers Association (SPA):
- Massive propaganda saying it is wrong to disobey the owners to help your friend.
- Solicitation for stool pigeons to inform on their coworkers and colleagues.
- Raids (with police help) on offices and schools, in which people are told they must prove they are innocent of illegal copying.
- Prosecution (by the US government, at the SPA's request) of people such as MIT's David LaMacchia, not for copying software (he is not accused of copying any), but merely for leaving copying facilities unguarded and failing to censor their use.
All four practices resemble those used in the former Soviet Union, where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying, and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it from hand to hand as samizdat. There is of course a difference: the motive for information control in the Soviet Union was political; in the US the motive is profit. But it is the actions that affect us, not the motive. Any attempt to block the sharing of information, no matter why, leads to the same methods and the same harshness.
Owners make several kinds of arguments for giving them the power to control how we use information:
- Name calling.
Owners use smear words such as “piracy” and “theft”, as well as expert terminology such as “intellectual property” and “damage”, to suggest a certain line of thinking to the public—a simplistic analogy between programs and physical objects.
Our ideas and intuitions about property for material objects are about whether it is right to take an object away from someone else. They don't directly apply to making a copy of something. But the owners ask us to apply them anyway.
Owners say that they suffer “harm” or “economic loss” when users copy programs themselves. But the copying has no direct effect on the owner, and it harms no one. The owner can lose only if the person who made the copy would otherwise have paid for one from the owner.
A little thought shows that most such people would not have bought copies. Yet the owners compute their “losses” as if each and every one would have bought a copy. That is exaggeration—to put it kindly.
- The law.
Owners often describe the current state of the law, and the harsh penalties they can threaten us with. Implicit in this approach is the suggestion that today's law reflects an unquestionable view of morality—yet at the same time, we are urged to regard these penalties as facts of nature that can't be blamed on anyone.
This line of persuasion isn't designed to stand up to critical thinking; it's intended to reinforce a habitual mental pathway.
It's elementary that laws don't decide right and wrong. Every American should know that, in the 1950s, it was against the law in many states for a black person to sit in the front of a bus; but only racists would say sitting there was wrong.
- Natural rights.
Authors often claim a special connection with programs they have written, and go on to assert that, as a result, their desires and interests concerning the program simply outweigh those of anyone else—or even those of the whole rest of the world. (Typically companies, not authors, hold the copyrights on software, but we are expected to ignore this discrepancy.)
To those who propose this as an ethical axiom—the author is more important than you—I can only say that I, a notable software author myself, call it bunk.
But people in general are only likely to feel any sympathy with the natural rights claims for two reasons.
One reason is an overstretched analogy with material objects. 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.
The second reason is that people have been told that natural rights for authors is the accepted and unquestioned tradition of our society.
As a matter of history, the opposite is true. The idea of natural rights of authors was proposed and decisively rejected when the US Constitution was drawn up. That's why the Constitution only permits a system of copyright and does not require one; that's why it says that copyright must be temporary. It also states that the purpose of copyright is to promote progress—not to reward authors. Copyright does reward authors somewhat, and publishers more, but that is intended as a means of modifying their behavior.
The real established tradition of our society is that copyright cuts into the natural rights of the public—and that this can only be justified for the public's sake.
The final argument made for having owners of software is that this leads to production of more software.
Unlike the others, this argument at least takes a legitimate approach to the subject. It is based on a valid goal—satisfying the users of software. And it is empirically clear that people will produce more of something if they are well paid for doing so.
But the economic argument has a flaw: it is based on the assumption that the difference is only a matter of how much money we have to pay. It assumes that production of software is what we want, whether the software has owners or not.
People readily accept this assumption because it accords with our experiences with material objects. Consider a sandwich, for instance. You might well be able to get an equivalent sandwich either gratis or for a price. If so, the amount you pay is the only difference. Whether or not you have to buy it, the sandwich has the same taste, the same nutritional value, and in either case you can only eat it once. Whether you get the sandwich from an owner or not cannot directly affect anything but the amount of money you have afterwards.
This is true for any kind of material object—whether or not it has an owner does not directly affect what it is, or what you can do with it if you acquire it.
But if a program has an owner, this very much affects what it is, and what you can do with a copy if you buy one. The difference is not just a matter of money. The system of owners of software encourages software owners to produce something—but not what society really needs. And it causes intangible ethical pollution that affects us all.
What does society need? It needs information that is truly available to its citizens—for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate. But what software owners typically deliver is a black box that we can't study or change.
Society also needs freedom. When a program has an owner, the users lose freedom to control part of their own lives.
And, above all, society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary cooperation in its citizens. When software owners tell us that helping our neighbors in a natural way is “piracy”, they pollute our society's civic spirit.
This is why we say that free software is a matter of freedom, not price.
The economic argument for owners is erroneous, but the economic issue is real. Some people write useful software for the pleasure of writing it or for admiration and love; but if we want more software than those people write, we need to raise funds.
Since the 1980s, free software developers have tried various methods of finding funds, with some success. There's no need to make anyone rich; a typical income is plenty of incentive to do many jobs that are less satisfying than programming.
For years, until a fellowship made it unnecessary, I made a living from custom enhancements of the free software I had written. Each enhancement was added to the standard released version and thus eventually became available to the general public. Clients paid me so that I would work on the enhancements they wanted, rather than on the features I would otherwise have considered highest priority.
Some free software developers make money by selling support services. In 1994, Cygnus Support, with around 50 employees, estimated that about 15 percent of its staff activity was free software development—a respectable percentage for a software company.
In the early 1990s, companies including Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Analog Devices combined to fund the continued development of the GNU C compiler. Most GCC development is still done by paid developers. The GNU compiler for the Ada language was funded in the 90s by the US Air Force, and continued since then by a company formed specifically for the purpose.
The free software movement is still small, but the example of listener-supported radio in the US shows it's possible to support a large activity without forcing each user to pay.
As a computer user today, you may find yourself using a proprietary program. If your friend asks to make a copy, it would be wrong to refuse. Cooperation is more important than copyright. But underground, closet cooperation does not make for a good society. A person should aspire to live an upright life openly with pride, and this means saying no to proprietary software.
You deserve to be able to cooperate openly and freely with other people who use software. You deserve to be able to learn how the software works, and to teach your students with it. You deserve to be able to hire your favorite programmer to fix it when it breaks.
You deserve free software.
- The charges were subsequently dismissed.
This essay is published in Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.