Subject: freedom and human kindness (was Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software)
From: "Bradley M. Kuhn" <bkuhn@ebb.org>
Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 00:16:40 -0400

shapj@us.ibm.com wrote:

> Placing this discussion in the context of "rights" is, frankly, a weak
> framing.

Indeed.  I don't think this issue is really a discussion of rights at all.
I don't think that an inventor nor a user has inalienable rights over ideas.

But, without inventors' rights, the idea of copyright and patent doesn't
really exist, which reframes the whole "rights" argument [see my other post
on the thread].


> 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

I agree that simply advocating a position by stating that some action is
"right" is not enough.  Such statements are important, but must be backed up
with action.

I think that the GNU project is a perfect example of how to do both.  The
GNU project, of course, advocates a certain ethical position.  However, it
simultaneously seeks to create quality software that fits the goals of that
ethical position.  Does this not fit the model of "giving folks something for
their own advantage"?  Is it inherently problematic that the the something
comes with an ethical position attached?


I would disagree that we *need* to decouple the ethical advocacy work from
the technological work.  It's great if people use free software because it
helps them.  (Indeed, those who create free software probably do so to help
others, and are pleased when they see others helped by it).  However, I
think it is dangerous to allow free software to become the next shallow
"industry fad".  The software industry has a history of introducing
something as the next panacea, and it looses steam because nothing can solve
everyone's technological problems as nicely as everyone would want.

When we frame free software as simply "a method for giving clients something
that will be an advantage to them", I fear that we are taking this path.  In
the sort term, free software models don't always fit a client's needs as
well as some other proprietary software might.  Thus, if the only reasons
put forth to this client for going with free software were: "it's to your
advantage", the client might be quick to dismiss it forever if something
goes wrong.

However, Consider how things are when free software is framed in the idea of
ethics, and that these ethics allow everyone equal opportunity in the
support/enhancement/training marketplaces, and allow individuals to act in
natural ways of humans helping humans.  This sort of argument goes beyond
technology and gets to the core of what it means to be human.  I think such
an idea has a much more long lasting possibility than "hey, this method can
be a personal advantage to you."

I can see how this argument seems ludicrous to someone who things humans are
guided solely by self-interest.  I don't think we are guided in this manner
alone, and that's why I work to advocate free software in an ethical
framework, and encourage others to do so.  I feel that if free software is
to survive, we need to make it clear that its primary advantage is that it
allows everyone to help each other in a cooperative fashion by ensuring
freedoms for all involved.

(At the same time, I think it is fine and laudable if others embrace free
 software for different reasons.  I would never presume to require others to
 have the same ethical system as I do.  What worries me is when folks try to
 hide the fact that there is this other, ethical side to the community.  I
 believe that sometimes the "Open Source" hype lets this happen too often.)

> 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).

I wonder: do you think self-interest is more enduring than human desire to
love and help other humans?  The reason I ask is that I don't think the
"freedom" side of the free software movement is relying only on faith---I
think it is also relying on that genuine human urge to: "do onto others as
you would have others do unto you".  I don't dispute that self-interest is
there, but I would argue that it is *not* more enduring than human kindness.
At worst, I think the two are equally enduring.  At best, I think we are
evolving to a society where everyone helps one another by default, and
self-interest is much weaker force.

> 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.

I don't think that's the key of what the GPL and other free software gives
us.  I think the key that the GPL (and other measures that can help ensure
software freedoms) give us is a way of using the current legal system to
level the playing field for everyone.

I don't see the free software movement as a "battle against proprietary
software", nor do I see it as "balancing the self-interest of many parties".
I see it as creating an alternative model for software that allows greater
freedom (and, by extension, greater opportunity) for everyone.  I think that
the reason free software is so often "pitted" against proprietary software
is that the opportunities free software creates ( payment for services
rendered rather than licensing fees, focus on service as means of funding
new development, etc.) are radically different from the opportunities that
exist in the proprietary software realm.

I think that we can best push forward free software by taking advantage of
this opportunities and telling those we do business with that it is
*because* of the freedoms we had that we were able to provide them with
solutions.  Then, free software isn't just a fad, and it isn't just a
"balance of inventors' rights vs. users' rights", it's about freedom and
using freedom to make people happy.

-- 
         -  bkuhn@ebb.org  -  Bradley M. Kuhn  -  bkuhn@gnu.org  -
                          http://www.ebb.org/bkuhn