Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Ian Lance Taylor <ian@airs.com>
Date: 22 Oct 1999 12:46:28 -0400

   From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <turnbull@sk.tsukuba.ac.jp>
   Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 18:49:15 +0900 (JST)

       Ian> he actually says is that we should all work on free software.
       Ian> He doesn't say that we should be somehow prohibited from
       Ian> working on proprietary software; he merely says that it would
       Ian> be better for us to work on free software.

   This I disagree with.  Proprietary software has an important economic
   role; working on proprietary software may detract from, but surely
   does not destroy, the community we have created.  An all-free-software
   world would be a poor world, just as an all-proprietary software world
   would be.  I am going to proceed to try and confirm that hypothesis (I
   believe it is true, but would not be surprised, and actually would be
   gratified, if it were not true---that is, if it turned out that
   proprietary software has no important economic role after all).

There are many actions which have an important economic role, which do
not destroy the community which does not practice them, and which lead
to a richer world, but which (I believe) should nevertheless not be
practiced.  For example: slavery, child labor, slaughtering elephants
for ivory, destroying the world's rainforests.  (Of these examples,
some will argue that some are acceptable, some will argue that none
are, few these days will argue that all are.)

In other words, I too expect that you can confirm your hypothesis, but
it simply isn't relevant to what choices we should make.  I admit that
it would be interesting if you could disconfirm your hypothesis, but
that too is not relevant.

Your hypothesis is only of interest to somebody who has already
decided that there is no moral or ethical reason to choose free
software.  In other words, your hypothesis is of interest to the Open
Source movement, but not to the Free Software movement.


I am now going to shift gears completely.  I suggest that proprietary
software has a clear role in an economics of scarcity.  The software
world, however, can exist in an economics of abundance.  If we can
freely integrate what others have created into our own programs, and
we permit others to use what we create, then it is possible to create
software with much less initial investment than is presently the case.
Society becomes richer because more software becomes available.  For
example, society is richer due to the widespread use of nonproprietary
software in the Internet.  The GPL helps to shift us to this economics
of abundance (although I believe there are remaining issues to be
resolved in the area of embedded systems).

Ian