Don Marti

Sun 19 Dec 2010 12:47:52 PM PST

Still two separate conversations on software ethics

Good essay from Benjamin Mako Hill: When Free Software Isn't Better. (Google says tl;dr: beats RTWT by 4,500,000 to 41,900, but RTWT anyway.) Naturally it provoked some immediate responses, but as usual, the real problem is that FSF and the people who talk about it are having two different conversations.

There are a couple of reasons why communication between FSF and its supporters on one side, and pretty much all of the IT Media on the other side, has trouble getting anywhere.

The biggest fallacy would have to be something like, "The Free Software Foundation does a terrible job of advocating to home infotainment customers and IT professionals in the USA. Therefore applying ethical thinking to the terms on which people agree to provide or use software is counterproductive or wrong."

That's clearly too big of a leap. There are no ethics-free zones in business or personal life. Turning on the word processor to write a software license does not give you a vacation from your situation as a human being. The problems of setting the terms on which you use software or make it available is similar to many other problems of dealing with other people. Is this coffee fair trade? How about the working conditions for the people who sewed my shirt? If Arianna Huffington and Rob Johnson can say, "Move Your Money" because they don't like the terms on which big banks take advantage of them as US taxpayers, it's just as reasonable to decide that you're going to use one program over another because you prefer the terms under which you can use it. Yes, even if CorporateWelfareBank has an ATM closer to your favorite restaurant, or the unreasonably licensed program has better CMYK support.

The other problem is the two-category system for software licenses. Somehow there's Free software on one side, and Proprietary software on the other side. Richard Stallman is a man of great energy, insight, and persistence, so he's managed to take his line of what he believes is and isn't right, and turned it into what people treat as the one true line: there's Free Software and Proprietary Software. (Or there's Open Source and Closed Source, which is essentially the same line with a different marketing plan.)

In the area of food, people are all over the map in what they will and won't eat. No animal products at all, eggs and milk, eggs, milk and fish, any animal but swine, and so on, all the way up to anything goes. And before FSF established the bright line of "Free"/"Non-Free", and before proprietary software lawyers started shoveling the "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" language in licenses, there were approaches in between. The most promising was probably the "Just Like a Book" license, which I believe Brøderbund Software used in the 1980s. It took the "copyright bargain" that you're used to for a book, and applied it to software.

Personally, I don't believe that copyright as applied to a book is unethical, so I'll buy books. The "bargain" gives me important rights such as Fair Use and First Sale, and the copyright doesn't cover how I use any information I get from reading the book. If I'd buy a book with computer code in it, I'd be willing to use the code under the same terms.

Besides just "free/proprietary," there are really at least four categories of terms under which you can use software: Free, Just Like a Book, No Reverse Engineering, and No Independent Implementation.

I start getting the heebie-jeebies around the no reverse engineering level (I'd accept this level of proprietaryness for a game, but not for a tool I'm going to spend time learning and intergrating with) but using the legal system to attack totally independent implementations of something is too far out there for me.

So it's possible to have beliefs about the ethics of software licensing without having the same beliefs about the ethics of software licensing that RMS does. For example, you can decide that you're willing to license the Humble Indie Bundle but not willing to click through on the BonziBUDDY license. The simple Free/Proprietary line is like saying, "you won't eat live monkey brains? OK, we'll serve you the macrobiotic meal."