Tim O'Reilly Responds to "Freedom or Power?"
Subject:   Divisive Licenses Harm Users?
Date:   2001-08-15 22:57:35
From:   hpoole
Tim states: "I believe that Bradley goes too far when he identifies any proprietary software as 'harming users by denying their freedom.'"

Correct, everyone is bound to some degree by software that they choose to use. But it's not that simple, because we are all increasingly bound by software that our employers and governments choose for us. We should all accept that the developers choice of a license does have a great impact on society. Once people begin using software, they develop a certain symbiosis with it. Like learning to speak a language, they can have a hard time switching from one sytem of interaction to another. So, they are effectively locked in by the natural human aversion to change.

Brad's point that propriety software "harms users by denying their freedom" is still true. When we, as developers, choose a license that doesn't protect freedom, then we affect more than ourselves. Not just users either. Proprietary software also harms developers by denying their freedom unless they are the sole copyright holder (which is rare). Most of the developers must agree to whatever terms the owner dictates, even if they don't want to. The developers and users become locked in to these terms, which by nature create groups with power and those without (when the license limits freedom). The owners of the code get to dictate the law. Unless the license protects freedoms, it is harmful to the majority of developers and users.

In short, the license restrictions that we choose as developers can effect generations to come...not just our current users and ourselves. We have an important role in shaping the future of these new laws that we are creating by the code we write...we should seriously consider how we would like our future to unfold.

"The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves." - William Hazlitt

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  • Tim O'Reilly photo Divisive Licenses Harm Users?
    2001-08-16 16:06:45  Tim O'Reilly | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

    I very much agree with the idea that software gains power by its pervasiveness, such that users no longer have the freedom to choose their own software. As Henri says, it may be chosen by their employers, or even just by the force of the marketplace. As economists have pointed out, there's a natural tendency to monopoly in software, because once it reaches critical mass, you tend to need the same software that others are using. But note that this is only true if the software uses proprietary data formats! If the software is "open" as to its data formats and interfaces, the user is not locked in.

    To me, this very argument points out that the problem is abuse of monopoly power, not the intrinsic nature of software distributed without source code. Software distributed with source code frees me from a certain kind of lock in, but this is less of an imperative if the vendor isn't trying for lock in in the first place.

    I'm mindful of the wonderful old Usenet .sig quote from Doug Gwyn, which went something like this: "If UNIX didn't let you do stupid things, it wouldn't let you do smart things either." One of the problems I have with the GPL is that it tries to correct for abuses by proprietary vendors ("stupid things") by making them impossible. But this cuts off various business models that, if done properly ("smart things"), provide huge benefits to users and other developers. Not all software (or other work products, such as books) are done for the love of it, or to "scratch the creator's own itch." A lot are done to put food on the table and a roof over someone's head. And so we have to make room for models that provide a richer spectrum of incentives for the work to be done. I believe in marketplaces -- a willing seller and a willing buyer, with a range of currencies (from dollars to the esteem of peers) as the exchange -- and trust that over time, any abuses can be corrected by education and advocacy.

    I'd rather leave people the freedom to do stupid things, while encouraging them to do smart things.

    These issues are really worth thinking about very deeply, because the ground is changing under our feet. If we don't separate out the real goals (deep freedom of choice) from more superficial freedoms (e.g. the ability to change the source code), we might find ourselves in a world, where, for instance, source code is always redistributable but vendors have found other forms of lock-in (patents, for instance, or just monopoly market power that allows them to keep changing a data format faster than competitors can keep up.) The fundamental freedom is the freedom of choice, not the freedom to have source code. Having source code is a step towards that freedom, but not the first freedom in and of itself.