Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 13:57:53 +0900 (JST)

This is the most responsive of the replies so far.  Thanks to those
who have expressed support for the "rights are a social creation"
position; it doesn't challenge my own position, and doesn't really
help me understand RMS's any better.

Bradley Kuhn argues cogently against the idea of "inventor's natural
rights," but I don't support that position.  I merely find it no less
reasonable than the position of "user's natural rights."

In a separate post, Bradley argues that this means that copyright and
patent are ill-founded; this is fallacious.  If neither the inventor
nor the user has specific rights, society is free to create them
legally, and there is no moral foundation for "civil disobedience."

RMS has opted to give up on me; that's probably the right course for
him.  Thanks, Richard; I continue to disagree, but I appreciate the
effort you'e gone to, and will keep your arguments in mind.

There are some things Ben says I want to respond to, basically I
reiterate my earlier positions, and then I'm done, at least until
compelling new arguments for natural rights to software ownership come
up, one way or the other.

>>>>> "Ben" == Ben Tilly <> writes:

    Ben> But why do you have that ethical requirement?  What does it
    Ben> MEAN for you to have that ethical requirement?

Why?  People who don't think like me are people, too.  Doing economics
assuming that the economist knows best is (economic) fascism.

What it means is that I must try to figure out what they think they
want (more precisely, the boundaries of the kinds of things they might
think they want) and try to design social systems (eg, market
institutions or legal assignments of property rights) that aggregate
different individuals' preferences, information, and abilities to (a)
avoid wasting resources and (b) provide for flexibility in balancing
their desires against one another, given the broad range of things
they might want.

    Ben> Would you care to give me a cost-benefit analysis, in the
    Ben> conventional economic terms, of existing concepts of
    Ben> intellectual property rights.

Yes.  That is _exactly_ what I propose doing.  RMS objects that
economic considerations cannot capture the true benefits of
intellectual property rights.

    Ben> If you want an economic cost-benefit analysis, I would
    Ben> suggest that you try Eric Raymond over at

Been there, done that.  I'm here partly at Eric's behest (would have
done it anyway, but Eric kindly gave me a personal invitation to
continue).  Eric, by the way, does not claim to be an _economist_ nor
to have done an economic analysis, at least not in front of a
sheepskin-carrying economist.

    Ben> Does the following help?

    Ben> Connecting Open Source with Free Software
    Ben> ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Yes, and no.  It is of great value in my studies in general; as for
the questions of "rights" and "freedoms," none.  (The latter word in
this context simply means "rights;" "freedom" can also mean
"opportunity," but then there is no moral or ethical obligation on
others.)  You simply point to RMS's writings on

The fact is, there is nothing there, nor in your essay, to justify
speaking of rights or freedoms (in the sense of rights).  It is
morally good to share, of course.  It is also morally good (at worst,
neutral) to be an entrepreneur and use (perhaps create, but that is
not necessary) new things to create products, and sell them to people,
who buy them only if they value the entrepreneur's product more than
other things they could have bought.  It simply is not morally evil
_not_ to share, except, as I wrote, in a commune.  The world is not a
commune; Communism is dead, commune-ism barely alive.

But the arguments given, both by you and by RMS, for implementing a
general right to source are inherently economic, in terms of the
greater harm to users (or society, through allegedly inhibiting
cooperation) as compared to the benefit that those users get from only
limited access to software.  A real "right to source" would be valid
no matter what economic harm it costs society when the user exercises

RMS tells me "that's not so, there are absolute ethical reasons for
free software that you [== Turnbull] are refusing to see, but I can't
explain any better than I already have."  Well, I just don't see them.
RMS seems to believe that because _after_ I have written software,
there is no further cost to me of sharing, I am morally obliged to
share.  Well, maybe my source code is embarrassingly ugly.  I don't
see an obligation to share that overrides my desire to wait until it's 
clean, and, hmmm, I've got better things to do than clean it up, like
write new programs.

Furthermore, that it is morally wrong to attempt to restrict my
clients from sharing the software with each other.  I guess it is
therefore morally unacceptable for movie studios to aid and abet movie
theaters in restricting viewers to those who buy tickets, since they
generally don't offer the movies for sale at the same time.  (Note
that the actual license to most software doesn't actually transfer
ownership in any sense, and therefore is actually a one-payment
indefinite-term lease; this is a rather exact analogy.  Thanks to John
Cowan for the observation.)  Don't see that one, either.

RMS being the best advocate, and still unable to penetrate my thick
skull, I am going to stop discussing this topic in public, and write
my economic cost-benefit analyses.  Those who wish to continue the
discussion with me are welcome to mail me privately, of course.  I
retain a great interest in this subject, but the public debate is at a 
complete impasse.

Again I write it: I will be happy to spend most of the rest of my life
in the free software commune.  But I will not weld the gate shut
behind me, and I plan to ignore the voices that spend all their energy
arguing that each member _should_ weld the gate shut behind her so she
can't get out.  I plan to come and go as I see fit, and to traffic
with the "immoral" types who spend most of their time on the outside,
and even share with them, accepting their terms, as they will have to
accept mine.

That is what I see as true freedom.

University of Tsukuba                Tennodai 1-1-1 Tsukuba 305-8573 JAPAN
Institute of Policy and Planning Sciences       Tel/fax: +81 (298) 53-5091
What are those two straight lines for?  "Free software rules."