Open Source Software and the Free Software Foundation

I love free and open source software. In fact, I use open source software for database management, blogging, blog reading, web browsing, and doing dozens of other daily tasks. I love Linux, MySQL, PHP, and Firefox, in particular. Ocassionally, I even contribute some code – a script or function, usually – to the world, myself, without any licensing, whatsoever. I have a real problem with the core philosophy of the GNU project and Free Software Foundation, however, that software should not have owners and should always be “free” (in the sense that source code should always be available and users should always have the right to modify and redistribute it).

The FSF, of course, maintains that they are talking about “free as in speech, not free as in beer.” That is, “free software” refers to liberty, not price. You can even sell free software , they say. Of course, I want to know why in the world I would buy a product when I can legally get it for free and obtaining it for free is often faster, anyway; selling free software – unless you’re really selling support – is simply a losing proposition.

The problem with the GNU and FSF ideals of software development stems, I think, from a confusion about the nature of software. The members of these groups maintain that software is so different from other types of products – food, books, artwork, widgets – that it should never be proprietary. Certainly software is different, in the sense that software does something and in the sense that software is (theoretically) infinitely flexible. Let’s leave that for a moment, though, and consider the similarities software shares with other types of products.

Like a poem, book or play, software can be copied, modified (assuming source code is available), distributed, and translated (“ported” to other systems or languages). Now, imagine a world without the copyright protection afforded to authors or playwrights. Certainly, many people would still write poems, books, and plays, because they enjoy doing it, just like many programmers enjoy coding. However, making a living would be very, very hard to do. Anybody would be free to modify the writer’s output – let’s say, a screenplay – and reuse or even, possibly, sell it. So, if you don’t like the ending of “Cats,” just write your own, add a couple characters, eliminate your least favorite song, and see who will pay for your copy of the script. The original playwright and composer – who did nearly all the work – are now competing with you and everybody else for a living.

Free market economics at its best, or socialism at its most subtle?

No, that’s not really a fair comparison. It does bring out an important point, though. Imagine if Google, Microsoft, Adobe, IBM, Intuit, and all the other huge software companies had no patents or copyright protections. Every time Google put out a new tool it would have to be open source (they put out some, voluntarily, but nothing that counts as a trade secret). Where’s the revenue?

Or say that a programmer (ahem) decides he can’t stand a quirk in Microsoft Outlook. With a few hours work, he could fix the bugs and repackage the software. Maybe I – I mean, he – can’t command the same market price as Microsoft. Maybe he doesn’t care; he buys the original for $80 or so, rebuilds it with a couple new features and several fixed annoyances, and sells it for $20 (officially, maybe, he sells support for his version… whatever). Microsoft has to drop its prices; to stay competitive, so does our intrepid hacker, especially as more geeks get into the game. Before long, the product really is free. Writing software is no longer much of a way to make a living.

Now, here’s the problem: in a world like that, Microsoft Outlook would likely never have come to be, in the first place. Sure, some very advanced products are open source and free. Consider, though, how the programmers who built those products pay their bills. Nearly all of them work for [drumroll, please] software companies, selling proprietary software! Linux, MySQL, Firefox… much of the work on these products is done at night, by guys (not too many women) who need to get out more (yeah, I know), but the bills are paid by doing the same kind of work on proprietary projects.

Without patents, just as Edison, the Wright brothers, Ford, and Bell would have lacked financial incentives to do their work, so would Bill Gates. Many of the people who changed the world might have ended up doing drudge work at a local store and given up their inventing or creating – possibly at the urging of a spouse, after many years of lonely nights – to go fishing, instead. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that we might well still be using gas lamps and horses daily, without the profit motive, or at least a reasonable belief that one’s hard work will result in the ability to put food on the table.

I use free and open source software all the time. Still, I have to make a living, and much of the reason I can do that is because I don’t release as “free” or open source software every line of code I write; I make it proprietary. If I did, my competitors would multiply, my prices/rates would fall, and we would all go out of business, rapidly, together, before lining up to apply for work at McDonald’s.

Software patents, by the way, have certainly gone haywire and caused a lot of random damage. I don’t, however, believe that this is due to the nature of patents, but due to the reasons patents are issued. For example, to patent a widget, I need drawings and a prototype of the widget. Often, though, I can patent a software idea, like “method for embedding content in HTML,” without a context or working prototype, then sue for infringement later. This is like trying to patent, “method for establishing colony on Mars.” Sounds great, but can you do it? Ah, but this is a topic for another, long, rambling post.

I’m open to comments. I’m sure somebody out there can give a better defense of the GNU Project and FSF philosophy than I can think of. Comments are open; fire away!





7 responses to “Open Source Software and the Free Software Foundation”

  1. Steve Avatar

    Yes, Ed, I agree with you 100%. As a matter of fact, I agree with every point you made about economics. Like you, I agree that software is little different than other artistic works and that people need to be paid. HOWEVER, I STILL support also the philosophies and ideals behind the GNU/FSF. How? Because I have read almost every single word Richard Stallman has ever wrote and I am convinced that the major impression most people have of the logistics of the GPL and the GNU are incorrect, and mostly because of (in my opinion) unclear writing and rhetoric used by the FSF to defend themselves.

    The first common misconception is that software released under the GPL is always non-commercial. This stems from the fact that nearly all GPL software happens to be non-commercial, and the fact that the FSF insists that “Free Software” is the only canonical term. (I personally root for “Freedom software”, myself, but that is a debate for later)

    In reality, GPL software is expressly intended and encouraged to be Commercial Software. As a matter of fact, RMS himself made money during the beginning of the movement selling tapes of Emacs to customers all over the country. He rarely provided a service, nor did he provide support. He simply gave them a CD when they mailed him $150. This is 100% acceptable under the GPL, but unclear verbiage discussing “only for the cost of sending a copy” makes people often assume otherwise.

    By contrast, what the GPL DOES prevent is Proprietary Software. Proprietary software is software which, like you said earlier, is secretive, and licensed under threat of lawyers if one makes a copy or sells. This fact is completey independent of commercial vs noncommercial, in the same way that the y axis on a graph is independent of the x axis. Because of the fact that it has always been that commercial software is also Proprietary, and that the majority of Free software is non-commercial, it is often assumed that the terms are mutually exclusive. The fact of the matter is that they are totally different. There can easily be commercial free software (software sold for a price in a box but still released under the GPL) just as there can easily be non-commercial Proprietary software. (most freeware/shareware programs, especially aim and screensavers).

    It is extremely important to understand this distinction, because it is here that we start to see the same “I need to be Proprietary to get paid” argument begin to fall apart. While having a Proprietary monopoly is great for jacking up prices and treating users unfairly, a monopoly is not nessecary to achieve a profit over sold goods. Actually, a truely free market system must reject monopoly in order to encourage competition and innovation. A constant need to improve to get customers is what drives innovation. Let us use an example from the food industry. No food company has a guaranteed monopoly over the right to grow an apple, or the right to bottle water; yet produce companies and bottled water companies make a killing selling their goods, despite the fact that any person with sufficient skills or resources could do so; the key is that most people do not WANT to, and it is far more convinient to simply purchase it from the producer.
    Other companies are allowed to use seeds from a rival companies stock if they wish and grow a rival crop the next years. In response to this, both companies must focus on making their apples bigger, juicier, and more competitivly priced, knowing full well the other might simply steal them. In the end, however, the consumer benefits because there is a low price on apples, and both companies win because of profits. Furthermore, 3rd parties are allowed to hire scientists to cross-breed the seeds themselves and try to get a better crop. Either way, more farmers get paid. This is a free market.

    In the same sense, a monopoly is not required in order for a software company to make a profit. Much like the scenario above, when multiple companies have the legal rights to use each others products, instead of them both failing, the competition forces them to both share information and collaborate to remain competitive. If one does not market properly, one will fail.

    This is the way it is in most industries. However, with the software industry, there is an enforcable monopoly, called copyright. Supposedly, copyright is intended to encourage cooperation and innovation, soley for the benefit of the PUBLIC GOOD. This is repeatedly upheld in court judgements and rulings back to the founding fathers, but is widely misunderstood today because of the way the media treats copyrights.

    Let us start for one moment, with the alternative to the system you criticized earlier.

    Step 1: Microsoft sells a product, by taking from the public domain and from non-copyleft code liberally, after a considerable investment in it.
    Step 2: Because of marketing and other, ahem, business pratices, Microsoft holds a monopoly in the market and over their products.
    Step 3: Microsoft has such a stranglehold that it no longer is pressured to innovate, because it knows that its customer base has no real choice but to purchase it’s products.
    Step 4: Free market dies, and is buried next to innovation.

    Let us examine another alternative: What might happen if MS was forced to release their code under the MIT license instead.
    Step 1: Microsoft produces a product from considerable investment
    Step 2: Microsoft releases it, where it is taken and sold for 20$ by some random programmer who adds substantial improvements that the company is unable to see.
    Step 3: Unable to compete, Microsoft dies and the company falls upart, unable to regenerate sales.
    Step 4: Innovation and paid labor die.

    What if MS had to release their code under GPL?
    Step 1: Microsoft produces a product from considerable investment
    Step 2: joe hacker makes improvements, and sells his version for $20 on the internet.
    Step 3: Because of the GPL, Microsoft TAKES THE IMPROVEMENTS BACK and includes them in the canonical version they sell on store shelves. Microsoft now has the improvements and the shelf space they need to have a superior product, no lawsuits required.
    Step 4: Microsofts labor cheers, innovation cheers, free market cheers, and, in addition, 3rd Party programmers paid to improve microsoft products cheer because they now have jobs from making custom improvements previously only microsoft was allowed to make.

    This third scenario is the kind of innovation Copyright was supposed to encourage. This is a free market where copyrights serve the public good and promote the progress of science. The GPL’s version of copyright is clearly the only economic way to promote science and economy in my opinion.

    I would love to here a response! email to

  2. Ed Avatar

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the great (and thorough) comment. I agree with much of what you said; the big issue is that a world of open-source software (without proprietary licensing) tends only to work in the cases of extraordinarily demanding applications or established companies.

    Example: MySQL Server is great and the company, MySQL AB, makes money. However, this is because they are primarily selling support (not the software itself) and because the technical requirements of improving the software are far, far beyond the skills of most programmers. Likewise, the various Linux companies – they are largely able to see black on the books, when they do, not because they sell a great product, but because they establish relationships to package other, proprietary products, at a good price. It’s the organization (size, contracts, shelf space) that works, not the software, itself.

    In the case of something a bit less involved and business-critical (than a database server or an OS), such as, say, a news reader application, the programming is often easier and there are fewer opportunities for co-branding and bundling.

    OSS has its place – I love the open-source projects that are out there, and I believe in them – but it isn’t appropriate, everywhere. For there to continue to be great news readers, for example, there has to be somebody out there putting the time in. With the variety of potential applications that could be written, any particular one is only likely to get much attention if somebody – at least one somebody – makes a living at it. Perhaps one person writes a proprietary application and thousands more write competing, OSS apps; there still is that one person who is forced to push the quality higher and feature list longer.

    It seems to me that a world in which OSS projects and proprietary ones did not compete for users would be a world with very little real innovation; only the true geeks – heroes though they would be – would have time to spend on pushing the envelope on programs that don’t require support. MySQL, RedHat, etc, would still do well, selling support, but projects like POPFile might slowly wither and die. Worse still, programmer salaries would fall, anyway – after all, it doesn’t make sense to pay somebody full-rate for innovations that could, theoretically, be “taken back” from a competitor, next week, anyway.

    I love the free market emphasis you put in your comment. It just seems to me that free markets do best when they are really free (as in speech). You’re likely to have better options when you have products developed for pure profit (say, MS Office) competing against reactionary products (Open Office) developed in response – some developers find motivation in money, some in pride/ego/revenge or the love of competition, but it’s still a more diverse market. Plus, the big guys (MS, Oracle, etc.) cannot squash the little guys by “taking back” improvements, as in your third scenario, without giving away their own work. That is, MySQL may drive Oracle crazy, but Oracle can’t steal any of MySQL’s innovations without giving away their own. Of course, MySQL can’t steal Oracle’s strengths, but there is a nice big base of hackers to work around that.

    Maybe I’m wrong about how things would play out under your last scenario. Certainly, your first scenario is closest to reality, but at the same time, Microsoft is being forced to learn anew how to innovate, in order to stop the hemorraging that OSS projects are causing, so we’re moving (slowly) towards the third scenario, without legally limiting the market.

  3. Steve Avatar

    I used to see as you did, that an unregulated market was a free one. As a matter of fact, I still think that 99% of market regulations are awful for the economy and destroy the freedom of the market. However, I have now come to see that in order for a market to REMAIN free, certain regulations MUST be in place to make sure that the market is FREE (as in speech, of course :))

    I see it as a situation similar to the situation we have in government policy. It is difficult to defend the political position of anarchy, because although an unregulated society may work well on libertarian oriented economics and game theory papers, It is well known that anarchy is a temporary state. Someone will always build a power structure of some kind.

    Thus, to prevent this from occurring, a TRUELY free society is not one with zero regulations, but one with rules and laws that are geared towards providing the minimum structure required to maintain afforementioned minimum structure. The constitution of the United States does not say “In order to form a free society, we hereby invalidate all law” Rather, it says “In order to form a free society, we set up a power structure with dynamic law that cannot go beyond the restraints outlined in this document.” The U.S is not a completly free society, of course, there are many problems with our form of government when it comes to freedom as you no doubt know from the way things have been going in the past 50 years. Nevertheless, I use this example to illustrate the closest example to my point I have yet seen.

    To carry this onward to the situation of economics, it thereby seems clear to me that a free MARKET does not have to be unregulated to be free, because a complete deregulation would simply result in an alternate power structure forming in the private sector (Imagine a monopoly power setting all the trade rules). Instead, in order for a TRULY free market, we must call for the regulations required to ensure that all have an equal OPPORTUNITY for competition and innovation (notice I said opportunity. Not an equal share (which is otherwise known as communisim/socialism)). In economics, as well as in government, we must reject all regulations EXCEPT those to ensure that an environment of freedom remains.

    It is an interesting but unrelated point to consider that in the realm of copyright, the GPL does just this: It rejects regulation and monopoly as a harm to creativity, but USES those powers to ensure an environment of freedom in the software world. As I mentioned before, the right of an author to their work is not a natural right; legal tradition clearly dictates that the right to control ones own work is an ARTIFICIAL right given to authors to trump the NATURAL right of deriving from and copying anothers work. This regulation is given to authors by the framers for a secondary purpose of inspiring authors to innovate. In my opinion, this is similar to regulating univiersity admissions to inspire them to favor minority students to increase diversity; (For non-paleo-conservative standers-by, this does not make me a racist: mearly someone who believes that racism is best combated by fair standards and neutral opportunity)
    I have a feeling that Ed understands the point I am trying to make; but for everyone else, I will spell it out: I believe that the copyright clause in the constitution was the U.S. Government’s FIRST act of imposing unnessecary regulation to achieve a lobbied purpose, and I think that it was NOT a good thing for our country as a whole. Secondly, I believe that the first step to rejecting this mistake is to undo it in the private sector by using, creating and understanding Free (as in speech) media sources

    Hit me back: I dove a little more into the fringe elements of my philosophies on a free market and free society level here because I thought you might like it: I realize it is doubtful you will agree, but I have not put most of these Ideas on paper before, and I want to know what you think 🙂

    btw: Without looking at my website, take a stab at how old I am. For kicks.

  4. Ed Avatar

    Hi Steve,

    Very interesting analysis. I disagree strongly with your opinion that copyrights grant artificial rights, as opposed to guaranteeing natural ones (big surprise). That, of course, is a much more fundamental issue than whether or not the GPL, GNU, and FSF are good for society or correct in what they aim to do and why. I think RMS, in his article at, which you closely followed in part of your argument, is mistaken – the framers knew that progress could be fostered only if some form of copyright or patent protection was available to the creators of new “writings and discoveries.” The time limits are appropriate due to the different products of, say, writing and building, not because one right is natural and another artificial. That is, a tangible good (say, a building) can generally only be used by one or a very few owners or tenants, which creative products (like books and software) can be used or made available to literally everyone. Permanent rights of exclusive use make sense in the one case, but not so much in the other.

    Leaving software aside, for the moment, it would be very hard, indeed, for most creative individuals – writers, painters, composers, recording artists, architects, etc. – to make a living at what they do, if copyrights were abolished entirely. Indeed, it’s already extremely difficult to make a living in most creative fields. After all, any imitation or direct copy of their works could be sold or given away with impunity, so there would be no need to buy a CD, painting, or even building plans at full price. Likewise, many professionals in fields that might seem less creative (journalists, professors, lawyers, financial analysts, etc.) could be seriously harmed, if not destroyed, by a system that allowed their work to be reproduced in full with impunity. Result: academic innovation, the law, the access of normal people to financial advice, and more would be stifled.

    I certainly don’t see a right to copy another’s work freely, just as I would object to a “right” to harvest corn from another person’s field. The other person did the work and made any requisite investments; unless I have some agreement with him to that effect, I have no right to the fruit of his labors.

    I would actually argue that strong intellectual property (“IP”) rights, generally, are responsible for a great deal of the invention and innovation that have made the US and certain other countries excel. In some countries, these rights are not protected, so the entertainment and IT sectors, not to mention the press, are hindered from reaching their full potential. Yes, oppressive governments are also heavily responsible, but there’s no question that weak IP hurts free enterprise (even if it also helps in some ways, the overall effect, I believe, is negative).

    By the way, I don’t at all see how affirmative action programs connect – if anything, such programs are a hindrance to free market competition among students and schools. Whether or not they are appropriate is another question, of course, but I don’t see how it parallels the copyright provision.

    Anyway, very interesting comments.

    Before looking at your site, I was waffling between age guesses of 35 and 16. I see my second guess wasn’t far off. By the way, congrats on getting your Eagle project done; that’s something to be proud of for your whole life.

  5. Steve Avatar

    Thank you for the complement. Yes, I have read the GNU site on copyright, however I did not intend to echo it word for word, although now I see I may have done just that. Most of the fuel for the legal foundations of my argument come from Lawrence Lessig’s book: Free Culture. When I said that copying is a natural right versus the artificial one of protection, I was not stating an opinion; This is the way copyright has been defined in legal tradtion for a very long time.

    carries an interesting debate about this topic.

    The difference in copying someone freely versus taking their corn freely is clear to me: When I take your corn, you have less corn. When I take your idea and build upon it, we both have more ideas. As Jefferson put it: “… no one possesses the less because everyone possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.”

    I agree with you that affirmative action programs are a hindrance to free market and competition, and what I was trying to illustrate was this: In the same way most righties think that affirmative action is a socialist over-regulation policy that will harm free market and social freedom because it is useless regulation to fix a particular problem without truely addressing it’s root causes, I personally believe that the copyright clause is an improper law for precisly the same reasons. Beyond that, I was not trying to make any real connection between race and intellectual property. I apologize if I was confusing.

    I wanted to thank you for complementing me on my eagle project. I am very proud of being able to complete it. I also wanted to thank you for diatribing back and forth with me on these subjects. It was very interesting to discuss! I like your blog and the articles I have read so far are very interesting. Keep writing 🙂

  6. Ed Avatar

    Thanks for the dialogue, Steve. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my opinion, so far, is that the courts have had the wrong view of copyrights: it’s not that they were granted by Congress, but that they existed already and received protection. Of course, I start law school in less than 2 weeks, so we’ll see what I think, later.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. Steve Avatar

    Good luck at law school! Best wishes and I hope things go well!

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