The Exigent Duality
The Question of Free Software - 04:16 CDT, 1/28/16 (Sniper)
Yesterday at work, I argued against using packages that utilize proprietary EULAs, in lieu of perfectly competent libre substitutes. It was a rational position, rationally stated.

Two things fascinated me about the reaction of the fellow to whom I was speaking: first, he became actively angry and hostile, declaring in no uncertain terms regarding the licensing: "I don't care." Second, he then proceeded to totally misstate my position by offhandedly claiming that he "didn't have any problem with them [companies] making money off of software."

That was when I decided that I should write this post, which I can just send to people so that they can better understand my point of view:

  • Joe writes computer instructions, and compiles them to a binary. Mark sees the binary, and exchanges money with Joe to get a copy of it. Neither party has acted immorally in this case.

  • At the same time, Joe has no moral claim to all future copies of the binary, in the same way that a chair maker has no moral claim to all future chairs.

  • So-called "copyright" laws are trying to enforce moral claims that do not exist. People are under no moral obligation to obey "copyright" laws.


The issue of libre software is not a moral issue to me. Nor do I care if people make money by selling other people copies of software; if both parties agree to those terms, then who am I to object, since no moral laws are being violated?

But morality encompasses only a small fragment of human interaction. There is also the important question of etiquette.

  • Mary is running to get to the door, which Joe then slams shut in her face. There is no moral law stating that Joe needs to hold the door open for Mary-- yet, it would be a nice gesture, conducive to the establishment of amicable and constructive future relationships.

  • Joe and Mark are singing together and gathering fruit from the near-by trees, under the strong contextual assumption that they are jointly collecting the food for jovial, cooperative, and friendly sharing. After the gathering is complete, Joe pulls all of the fruit that he personally had grabbed, and points a gun at Mark: "touch my apples and I'll shoot you." Joe is not violating a moral law by claiming the fruit in nature and using it for his own survival, and Mark still has plenty of apples for his own survival; yet, Mark is probably and rightfully going to be suspicious of working with the somewhat sleazy Joe in the future.

  • Mark takes libre-licensed software, which he and many others had been jointly creating and sharing. He suddenly decides to stop cooperating, and re-distributes copies of the code under his own license, while pointing a government gun: "copy this code and I'll shoot you." Mark has not violated a moral law, since he was under no moral obligation to follow the libre copyright notice in the first place, nor is he morally obligated to continue to cooperate with the others. Nonetheless, my reaction in that situation is going to be to roll my eyes at Mark, and probably try not to have any future dealings with him. Just like I roll my eyes at companies that do the same thing.


But then, shouldn't I take exception to Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen for using government guns to enforce their licenses? My answer to that comes from the Cicero quote "de duobus malis minus est semper eligendum"; "between two evils, choose the lesser one."

Richard Stallman didn't write the GPL because he loved copyright-- in fact, it was exactly the opposite; he was hoisting aggressive copyright enforcers on their own petard! If I had some similarly clever way of turning the IRS' own tax laws against them, I would do that in a heart beat. It's like short-circuiting a monster by causing it to attack itself.

The other reason why I choose libre software is that it protects my sovereignty. I, along with billions of other people around the world, use computers for the most personal things imaginable; the notion that I not know what instructions are being executed is a terrible prospect. One need look no further than the NSA data collection to see the risk. The idea that millions of people around the world are working together to share and improve computer instructions that can transparently be used by all is a super cool concept.

This is a point too that should interest business men, who claim to be so concerned about "protecting their 'trade secrets'", but who yet prefer the "homo economicus" choice of proprietary software when there are perfectly fine libre alternatives, and who are even now going so far as to shuttle all of their company's private data into remote databases-- a concept they euphemistically refer to as "cloud computing."

The more one can control exactly which instructions are processing his own data, the better off he is. It's sovereignty-- freedom.