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Response to a Libre Software Skeptic

Posted by donp On January - 10 - 20123 COMMENTS

Someone I know well and admire greatly recently sent me a question about the premise of my book, Penguin in the Pew.  His question, I think, reflects the mindset of many who remain outside the realm of the libre software domain.  It has taken me some time to get around to answering his question, but I thought I would expand on my response to him here on my blog.

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty, shall we?  Here is the question.

I hate to open a can of worms, but I’m curious your thoughts on the following:
I recall the point of Penguin in the Pew was essentially that charging someone to use a patented technology, restricting their rights, or excluding them from use of a technology is immoral because it is not loving your neighbor. Hopefully I’m starting from the right premise there, but I think that was the gist.

If I spend my time; my knowledge; my mental, emotional, and physical energy; and my financial resources to invent something, and my neighbor covets it/wants it, how are they loving their neighbor by NOT paying for it or abiding by the restrictions I place on it? Isn’t that at best covetousness and at worst stealing (if I don’t pay for it)?

It’s not that your idea isn’t interesting to me, I’ve just never been convinced of the logic or that it isn’t too simplistic. I think when you think more broadly about who these neighbors are and what their motivations are, you see that each loving the neighbor is complex.

First of all, the point of Penguin in the Pew was to introduce Christian churches and other religious organizations and non-profits to a whole approach to technology that would fit the tight budgets of most such organizations.  It was an effort to help people realize that all this “Linux” stuff wasn’t necessarily so scary after all.  It is even less scary now.  Penguin in the Pew clearly presents a case study in Chapter 2, referencing a church that was potentially violating software copyright law.  Chapter 4 addresses the issue Richard Stallman has long been shouting about – whether there is any moral imperative to develop and use libre software.  But the point of the book was really to offer churches and non-profit organizations an opportunity to steer clear of potential legal problems, while simultaneously taking advantage of what I have long considered to be better technology.

The question began with what he thought was the premise of my book, and then changed the premise to phrase his question.  This is actually very much the problem.  People who are so stuck on per-copy royalties are still thinking about software as if it was a book or a magazine.  They cannot get past the old, damn-near dead business model of selling stuff on a per-copy basis.  That works great for books and magazines and records and cars.  But the model sucks when trying to apply it to software.  There are two different premises in play now.  Let’s look briefly at the first one.

If I object to restricting users’ freedoms, and thus release my software under a libre license, that negates the whole point of the question.  In this case, there is nothing to covet, no way to ‘steal’ (even if that is a forced analogy) that which is freely given.  There is nothing to violate in terms of using my software, and little to violate in terms of distributing it.  Remember that using and distributing are 2 different things – most libre licenses offer unrestricted use and in-house modification, and some place restrictions on the distribution, such as ensuring that the software is distributed under the same terms and making the source code available (copyleft).

That may not fully address the first premise, but it certainly helps differentiate between the two.  I did not get into a discussion of the GNU GPL’s Section 4 that allows one to charge a fee, or not for distributing of the software.  We can discuss that another time.  In addressing the second premise, I offered this point.

But addressing your question more directly, I do not, generally speaking, advocate using non-libre software without paying for it (freeware excepted), or violating the terms of use.  I became aware of a Christian church here in Charlotte using un-licensed copies of MS Windows.  I actually proposed to solve the problem of potential legal liabilities by suggesting they (a) buy licensed copies or (b) switch to libre software. I saw 2 major issues at the time that I wrote Penguin in the Pew:

  • a church possibly putting itself in legal jeopardy by using non-libre software in violation of its terms (and knowing many churches probably did/do the same)
  • the ability to help far more people with libre software than I could possibly help with non-libre software.  This was a quote attributed to me in an article in The Economist not too long ago.

On the first issue, I felt it was (a) unnecessary and (b) a poor witness to the membership and general community to conduct God’s business that way. On the second issue, if I wanted to help my neighbors with an office suite, a full-blown copy of MS Office generally costs hundreds of dollars.  LibreOffice, on the other hand, I can download and burn a CD and pass that onto my neighbor, either for free or at a nominal cost (depending on the license terms – the GPL generally allows a nominal fee).  If I want to, I can donate some or all of that fee to the community, but I am not required to do so.

I also felt it important to address the issue of so-called ‘stealing’.

Stealing as an analogy sucks in the software world.  Why?  Because, even though one may be ‘robbed’ of per-copy royalties, nothing has actually been stolen.  One still has the original copy (typically).  Software is a different medium than books or paper or wood or other materials.  A different medium means we need to adapt new ways of thinking about the problem.  It’s like trying to repair computers with spare typewriter parts or something.

Ok, well it’s really not like trying to repair computers with spare typewriter parts.  But forcing software into a book copy model is  trying to solve New World problems with Old World methods.  Software distribution is a new world problem because it exists in a medium that never existed before.  The per-copy model worked – to a point – when companies were offering floppy discs on store shelves, in the era before the Internet grew into it’s current form.  That’s because they could package and ship it just like books or records.  But that model is effectively dead and gone.  I haven’t bought packaged software in at least 7 years.

This brought me to what I think is the real question in his mind.  I might be wrong, but I think this is it.

I think this brings us to your real question.  How do you solve the problem of generating a profit from software, if not by charging per-copy royalties and placing other restrictions?  Well, some provide developer services, others become technicians, and others provide documentation.  Some provide hosted services, rather than trying to ‘sell copies’.  One of the most popular approaches these days is to offer a ‘community’ edition at no cost, while also offering special editions and other services for a fee.  Not that this is the best or only answer, but it is one solution.  Incidentally, you might be surprised to know that Wall Street runs on libre software.  It’s a well-known fact that Linux is the key OS technology behind Wall Street.  So some folks have obviously figured out some ways to make money on libre software.

There is also the support license model, of course.  There are probably business models  I have passed over, but the point is that some have found ways to profit without impeding the freedom of their users to use, copy and modify the software.  One of the major ideas in Penguin in the Pew is that the person who owns the computer or other device should be free to control/modify the software that runs on that device, regardless of their ability to actually do so.  Having the freedom to do so can be empowering.  It can be scary, too.  But it is a fundamental freedom that applies to everything else we own.  It should apply to computers, whatever they may look like.

Part of the question surely lies in wondering where is the love from the users?  Penguin in the Pew explains this in great detail how the users frequently return the love in many ways – not always monetarily.  Users contribute improvements to the program, contribute documentation, do your marketing for you (frequently encouraging others to use your software). There is money, too, of course.  There are foundations to which people donate.  People buy gear related to their software package to support the developers.  People help new comers, thus providing a strong technical support community.  Users frequently become part of a virtual family, and even foster local user groups.

The economics plays out differently, but it must be working fairly well.  Someone please, explain why libre software is not practical if it is still here and still growing after some thirty years.  Explain to me why Ubuntu is not practical, while they are announcing at the CES their new Ubuntu TV.  Explain to me why Red Hat is not practical, why Debian and Fedora and OpenSUSE are not practical.  Indeed, explain why there are dozens (hundreds? of GNU/Linux distributions.  Explain why impractical GNU/Linux systems run Wall Street.  Explain how it is that impractical AdaCore develops Gnu Ada that controls aircraft and safety-critical applications,.  Show me where LibreOffice and Mozilla Firefox are such big failures.  Even with disruptions in its evolution, LibreOffice remains a great office suite.

It doesn’t seem practical?  It seems overly simplistic?  If it seems that way to you, I encourage you to look beyond the surface to the real and very practical business world that has evolved around libre software.  If you still think it’s impractical, I can’t help you – you’re just refusing to open your eyes.

3 Responses to “Response to a Libre Software Skeptic”

  1. donp says:

    In Chapter 14 of Penguin in the Pew, I point out that prohibiting sharing is a greater wrong than sharing illegally. I nevertheless argue that it is better for Christians to “avoid using software tainted by a license that criminalizes sharing.” (p.156) In other words, given that alternatives to non-libre software exist, use the alternatives.

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