by Richard Stallman (Version of April 24, 1992)
The existence of software inevitably raises the question of how decisions about its use should be made. For example, suppose one individual who has a copy of a program meets another who would like a copy. It is possible for them to copy the program; who should decide whether this is done? The individuals involved? Or another party, called the ``owner''? Software developers typically consider these questions on the assumption that the criterion for the answer is to maximize developers' profits. The political power of business has led to the government adoption of both this criterion and the answer proposed by the developers: that the program has an owner, typically a corporation associated with its development. I would like to consider the same question using a different criterion: the prosperity and freedom of the public in general. This answer cannot be decided by current law--the law should conform to ethics, not the other way around. Nor does current practice decide this question, although it may suggest possible answers. The only way to judge is to see who is helped and who is hurt by recognizing owners of software, why, and how much. In other words, we should perform a cost-benefit analysis on behalf of society as a whole, taking account of individual freedom as well as production of material goods. In this essay, I will describe the effects of having owners, and show that the results are detrimental. My conclusion is that programmers have the duty to encourage others to share, redistribute, study, and improve the software we write: in other words, to write ``free'' software.(1)
How Owners Justify Their Power
Those who benefit from the current system where programs are property offer two arguments in support of their claims to own programs: the emotional argument and the economic argument. The emotional argument goes like this: ``I put my sweat, my heart, my soul into this program. It comes from me, it's mine!'' This argument does not require serious refutation. The feeling of attachment is one that programmers can cultivate when it suits them; it is not inevitable. Consider, for example, how willingly the same programmers usually sign over all rights to a large corporation for a salary; the emotional attachment mysteriously vanishes. By contrast, consider the great artists and artisans of medieval times, who didn't even sign their names to their work. To them, the name of the artist was not important.
What mattered was that the work was done--and the purpose it would serve. This view prevailed for hundreds of years. The economic argument goes like this: ``I want to get rich (usually described inaccurately as `making a living'), and if you don't allow me to get rich by programming, then I won't program. Everyone else is like me, so nobody will ever program. And then you'll be stuck with no programs at all!'' This threat is usually veiled as friendly advice from the wise. I'll explain later why this threat is a bluff. First I want to address an implicit assumption that is more visible in another formulation of the argument. This formulation starts by comparing the social utility of a proprietary program with that of no program, and then concludes that proprietary software development is, on the whole, beneficial, and should be encouraged. The fallacy here is in comparing only two outcomes--proprietary software vs. no software--and assuming there are no other possibilities. Given a system of software copyright, software development is usually linked with the existence of an owner who controls the software's use. As long as this linkage exists, we are often faced with the choice of proprietary software or none. However, this linkage is not inherent or inevitable; it is a consequence of the specific social/legal policy decision that we are questioning: the decision to have owners. To formulate the choice as between...