Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: shapj@us.ibm.com
Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1999 11:19:42 -0400

A personal opinion:

Placing this discussion in the context of "rights" is, frankly, a weak framing.
Rights are not defined by nature or by God, rights are defined by societies, and
they have meaning only to the extent that the defining society's memes survive
and prosper.  Rights are all too often divorced from merit, and lend themselves
to black and white positions, which aren't often useful.

There are a very small number of "rights" that seem to be essential to support
other freedoms.  The "right to source code" certainly is not one of them, and in
my opinion calling this a "right" dilutes the term.

I find it more productive to think in terms of "value propositions" and
"incentives."  Open source licenses, in my opinion, appeal to the end user not
because they believe in some "right" to have/read/use the source, but because
they (collectively) like the quality of the work and the fact that the balance
of control has shifted in their favor.  This is not at all abstract; there is a
direct, concrete, and obvious advantage in their eyes to using free software.

Similarly, I am interested in writing open source software (artifacts of current
employment notwithstanding) because I think there is leverage in doing so, and
because I think that I will be able to offer customers better products thereby.
I think that open source shifts the balance of power against the patent holders
(in practice, not necessarily in law).  Finally, I think I can see ways to make
good money that way.

There are certainly people out there who do all of this from a sense of
principle.  My thought is this: if you can get people to understand for
themselves that something is to their advantage, you have a much more
sustainable and growable position than if you have to tell them from "on high"
that something is the "right" thing to do, or that they should beat the drums to
protect their "right" to do something that most of them can never see needing to
actually "do".  Cynical though it may be, I believe that self-interest is more
enduring than faith (though the irony in that sentence does not escape me).
Whatever you think about gun posession (I was a national champion shooter at one
time; I don't own one), there is a clear lesson in the success of the anti-gun
lobby in the US: people will not rally to defend rights that they do not
anticipate needing to exercise

Therefore, I am not interested in "rights".  I am interested in building a
community that finds a successful balance point among the self interest of a
range of parties.  The novelty of GPL, in my opinion, is not that it's doctrine
is anti-proprietary.  Rather, it's that it strikes a different and equally
(perhaps more) effective balance point between the interests of software
producers and the interests of software users.  As long as that balance point
has higher leverage than the alternatives, there is no need to speak of rights;
it will win on merit.


Jonathan S. Shapiro, Ph. D.
IBM T.J. Watson Research Center
Email: shapj@us.ibm.com
Phone: +1 914 784 7085  (Tieline: 863)
Fax: +1 914 784 7595