Subject: Re: proprietary -- a truism
From: Dean Brettle <>
Date: Mon, 12 Apr 1999 09:38:17 -0700

Brian Bartholomew wrote:
> > I think it's almost a truism that a free software business has to
> > keep something proprietary.  Unless you keep something proprietary,
> > you have nothing to sell.  You wouldn't be in business, then, you'd
> > be a non-profit foundation.
> How far can the proprietary grasp extend before you won't call it a
> free software business?  Even Microsoft gives away code examples with
> their compilers.  How do you quantify the freeness of companies?  Here
> are some of my metrics:
>         Committment.  Whether the interesting bits are free (Red Hat)
>         or just the trash (Apple's proposed re-release of BSD).
>         Trust.  How likely the company is to become a lot more
>         proprietary as soon as users are locked in.
>         Reputation.  Do they do what they say?  Are things they've
>         claimed to be good values turned out to be good values?
>         Advantage.  How much of a special advantage the company has
>         over code contributions.
>         Truth.  Whether the proprietary hooks are identified up front,
>         or hidden in a cloud of handwaving.

One problem I see is that each of the metrics and their relative
importance is highly subjective.  But I think the bigger problem is that
they are not all applied to the same thing.

Trust and reputation are attributes of the company and are excellent
metrics for determining whether you want to support a particular company
with your business or your effort.  This is true whether or not the
company is involved with software.  Committment, advantage, and truth
(at least as I understand your definitions) are attributes of a
particular piece of software/license.  I think the distinction is
important because labelling a company (as opposed to a piece of
software) as "free" or "not free" can lead to:

1. Trustworthy companies with solid reputations being labeled as "not
free" because they release some software under a license which gives
them some special advantage.

2. Untrustworthy companies with bad reputations being labeled as "free"
because their software is "free".  This can, in turn, give free software
a bad rap.

Moreover, if you claim a particular company is not free, I will not know
if you mean "it can't be trusted" or "it sells proprietary software" or
both.  This matters to me, because it affects how I will act.  I might
be willing to use and contribute to some kinds of free software from an
untrustworthy company because it won't matter to me if the company
becomes more propietary.  On the other hand, I might be willing to
develop free software for a trustworthy company that sells proprietary

> I would rather the term 'free software' be reserved for those things
> which are truly managed as donations to the world.  Some other term
> should be invented for things which are mostly free.

I think this is a separate issue from quantifying the freeness of
companies.  I think committment, advantage, and (to a lesser extent)
truth are important metrics for individuals to apply when evaluating the
freeness of a piece of software.  Unfortunately, they don't seem
objective enough to be used as the basis for a generally agreed upon

-- Dean

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