While most everyone is familiar with or has at least heard of the concept of “open source software”, many may not realize that open source software is really just a watering down and rebranding of a concept called “Free Software”. Created by individuals who will undoubtedly prove even less humorless than open source advocates, the free software movement actually considers non-free software a “social problem” with the solution being, well; you guessed it, free software. Unfortunately, while the concept of “free software” sounds all peachy keen in theory, in practice it has a number of problems; problems that start with its actual definition and end with its untenable stance on creative works.
Free software proponents have struggled for over two decades to convey the proper definition of the term “free software” with what appears to be relatively little success. Even with catchy phrases such as free speech, not free beer most people still tend to equate “free software” with zero cost, which apparently is not what is intended. The rest of this essay will explain why this is the case, but the short answer is that the average individual generally has vastly greater reasoning capacity than the typical mangy wildebeest.
Two distinct but somewhat related “proper” definitions exist for “free software” according to the individuals who purport to know such things. The first definition of “free software” is generally summed up in the phrase “freedom of choice”. The actual “choice” involved is always rather nebulous but typically refers to the freedom to choose to modify a program or the freedom to choose a program, such as one of the roughly 400 text editors available for Unix/Linux systems, called “*nix” systems if you are in the biz. Personally, I’d choose to have just one that doesn’t royally suck but apparently I am not entitled to the freedom of that particular choice. And yes, I have used vi, pico, emacs and a whole host of other junk text editors on “*nix” systems, thanks for asking.
As a side note and by way of explaining the “*nix” moniker, an asterisk is generally used in computers as a multi-symbol wildcard matching character, hence the substitution of “*” for the “U” in Unix or “Li” in Linux. Apparently, the creative geniuses who came up with the “abbreviation” do not actually care that it should technically be something like “*n?x” or “*x” or even more accurately just “*” considering systems like Solaris and BSD. So, at least you get some sense of the level of intellect and creative capacity we are dealing with here; back to the topic at hand.
Now, this concept of “freedom of choice” is really quite silly. Choice has ALWAYS existed in the computer industry with or without “free” software. To point, even prior to 1990, nearly 100 different operating systems existed, most of which were proprietary. Similarly, today nearly 40 different databases exist as well as almost 20 different office suites. Again, the majority of these database and office suite choices are proprietary. For almost every other class of software, it is the same story, lots of different products, mostly proprietary. Thus, it is nonsensical to claim that free software is about choice since there has always been choice. With or without free software, consumers have always had a choice of what software to use. The fact that the majority of them tend to choose a particular software vendor who will remain nameless, [cough] Microsoft, is beside the point. As for the freedom to choose to extend or change the software, that really applies to the relatively few individuals who can program and the even fewer individuals that can read someone else’s complex code, make appropriate modifications and successfully recompile the code. Furthermore, that freedom to modify comes at a cost, the cost of infringing upon the rights of others. While it may not seem like it at the moment, this then brings us to the more popular definition of “free software” which is generally summed up in the phrase “free speech, not free beer”.
The “free speech, not free beer” definition holds that software users have “rights” and that those rights include the ability to use, copy, distribute and change software as one sees fit. However, these freedoms are not absolute. Proponents of this definition also impose limitations to these freedoms in the form of “copyleft” restrictions, a term that is apparently used to distinguish the restrictions from the more traditional “copyright” restrictions. “Copyleft” restrictions essentially mean that in your freedom to use and modify the software as you see fit, you cannot impose additional restrictions on your modified or redistributed “pretty close to ‘free’ software except for the pesky copyleft stuff”. This focus on “freedom” not “free” is hollow however as you cannot really have the “freedom” without the “free”. The reason this is true is exactly because of the free software movements disdain for “copyright” with respect to software programs. If you do not believe me, keep reading.
Copyright regulation is intended to promote the progress of knowledge. It does this by rewarding a temporary monopoly on original, creative works of a fixed nature (read, seen or heard) to the creator of such works. This monopoly effectively allows the author to monetize their creation and thus copyright law, for all practical purposes, essentially protects the interest of the author or creator to charge for and profit from their work or derivatives of their work. Thus, the logical and objective individual must ask oneself…in a digital world, what is it about software that distinguishes itself as special from other copyright protected works such as books, symphonies, recipes, plays, movies, pantomimes, choreographies, maps, sculptures, paintings, songs and drawings, to name just a few. In a digital world, what is there to prevent the mass copying, modification and redistribution of other creative works? Certainly, if freedom is good enough for software then should not users of other normally copyrightable works also be entitled to similar freedoms?
If the free software and open source software positions are correct, then books should be digitally available and readers should be allowed to change the author’s words and meanings and freely redistribute the modified books. Obviously, this is only making the books “better”, right? Similarly, individuals should be allowed to take digital photos of artwork, modify it in photo editing software and freely redistribute the result. Same with movies, right? Sitting in a theatre, filming a movie and burning it to DVD for redistribution…that’s not piracy, that’s simply invoking your God given right to use, modify and redistribute digital media for cryin’ out loud. Plagiarism? Bah… “Honestly teach, I was just invoking my right to improve upon and redistribute the author’s work.” Where o’ where are the “free recipe” chefs who follow real chefs around and create imitation recipes that taste and digest similarly but are free from all those pesky licensing and copyright restrictions? Proprietary recipes are a social problem and the solution is free recipes, right? And what about musical songs? Oh wait, that’s right, file sharing systems have shown what happens when users completely disregard copyright restrictions; the proprietary work, even if it was originally charged for becomes, what? Say it with me…FREE!
Herein then is the reason why it is effectively impossible to draw the distinction between free software as defined by the “Free Software” and open source software movements and free, as in beer, software. Once copyright is eliminated, the creative work effectively becomes zero cost. Thus, it is idiotic to attempt to draw distinctions between one or the other. Freedom of use and thus freedom from copyright really DOES mean free. This is the real world we live in folks, not some idealistic dreamland. One cannot simply ignore the practicalities involved and practically speaking, in today’s digital world freedom from copyright effectively means “free as in beer”.
Now, let’s back up and think about this with respect to the original reason for copyright law, a reason so important that the authority to create copyright and patent law (different sides of the same coin) was specifically called out in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S Constitution and thus was granted as one of the original, extremely limited powers of the Federal government. Yes, Virginia, we really did have a limited Federal government once. The reason copyright and patent laws exist and are so important is because they promote the progress of knowledge by protecting the rights of authors and inventors. By protecting these rights, authors and inventors can profit from their work and thereby are encouraged to author and invent in the first place. Now, these protections come at a certain cost to the public which is why there is the concept of fair use, which allows limited use of creative works without prior permission in certain circumstances.
Free and open source software advocates instead see copyrights as limiting creativity, versus promoting creativity, but this is a rather naïve and short-sighted perspective. Certainly, in the short term, eliminating copyright will tend to increase creativity and production of knowledge but it is exactly opposite the case over the long term. By seeking to undermine copyright protections, free software and open source advocates severely damage the promotion and creation of knowledge and art over the long term and thus ultimately reduce and hamper true choice because authors and inventors are no longer incented to continue to create. While it is certainly idealistic to believe that individuals will create simply out of a sense of social duty, it is most certainly not realistic.
None of this is difficult to understand. If software copyrights are bad, then all copyrights are bad because there is nothing truly unique about software versus any other creative work. If all copyrights are bad, then all patents are bad. If all copyrights and patents are bad and eliminated then there is nothing to incent authors, inventors and other creators other than social duty which we all know does not work on a large scale. Certainly there will always be those individuals incented by social duty, but they will be so incented regardless of the existence of copyrights and patents since copyrights and patents specifically ALLOW authors and inventors to release their creations to the public domain. But not having copyrights and patents ultimately dissuades creative, money motivated individuals that desire food and a roof over their heads. Let’s face it, not everyone can simply squat on a college campus.
Thus, it is free software that is the social problem, not proprietary software because over the long term, free software damages the incentive for authors and inventors to create new knowledge and impairing the creation of new knowledge damages society. This may all certainly seem counter intuitive and wrong to the idealist or to the individual or corporation that is benefiting from using free, as in beer, software, but as any real engineer knows; to optimize the whole, it is generally necessary to sub-optimize the parts. The promotion of the creation of new knowledge is the goal and thus it should not be surprising to find suboptimal solutions, such as copyright, as a supporting component of that goal.
For society as a whole, not incenting knowledge creation is a social problem and copyrighted software is the solution.
Originally Published April 2008