Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Ian Lance Taylor <>
Date: 25 Oct 1999 16:47:17 -0400

   From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
   Date: Sat, 23 Oct 1999 16:09:05 +0900 (JST)

      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.

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

   Slavery, child labor (where definition of "child" is somewhat culture-
   dependent), and destroying the world's rainforests are all "community-
   destroying" in my definition.  Slaughtering (all) elephants to
   extinction for their ivory is also community-destroying.  I believe
   that all such things should be opposed, and more actively than simply
   denouncing them as "immoral".  Slavery and child labor hurt all of us,
   and failing to oppose them is like allowing a cut to become infected
   and fester, whether our small community participates directly or not.

   Cutting one hardwood tree or slaughtering one elephant for its ivory
   is not community-destroying in the same way (although as currently
   conducted both are enormously wasteful and should be opposed on that
   ground); I don't want to go into it further, but want to make it clear
   that my definition of "community-destroying" does not require the
   extinction of the members of the community.

   The point is that _one_ proprietary program does not destroy the free
   software community, IMO, although it may make it difficult for the
   developer to enter our community (and before you respond, remember
   that Russ Nelson sells a program that at last report was proprietary).

Oh, I agree that enslaving a significant percentage of humans, or
forcing most children to work, is community destroying.

But what about just a few slaves, or just a few working children?
That is not community destroying, any more than cutting down a few
trees or killing a few elephants is.  (In fact, there are more than a
few slaves in the world today, and there are more than a few working
children, but our community has (presumably) not been destroyed.)

You say ``failing to oppose them is like allowing a cut to become
infested and fester;'' I say the same is true of permitting even a
single elephant to be killed for ivory.

If you reject keeping a single slave, but permit killing a single
elephant, then you are making moral decisions.  I don't see how you
can use your notion of ``community destroying'' to guide you in such a
decision.  You have chosen your community based on your moral beliefs.

My point is that I believe that you are trying to describe your
approach in morally neutral terms, but I believe that that is
impossible.  Economic arguments are inherently grounded in a
particular ethics.

Would an investigation of the economics of slavery be flawed if it
failed to consider the moral dimension?  What if it had a footnote
stating that some people were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, and
that their effect on the model was captured as an exogenous force?
Don't you feel that something would be missing?

Would free software ever have come into existence without a moral
dimension?  In the early days of the GNU project, nobody was saying
that free software was better in any economic sense.

   But RMS is absolute on this point as far as I can tell.  He does not
   see a boycott of proprietary software primarily as pressure on its
   vendors, AFAIK, rather it is an essential public sanitation measure
   for the free software community, like polio vaccinations.

Yes, RMS is saying that a boycott of proprietary software is required
on moral grounds.  He is no more absolute on this point than you are
on the point that there are no moral grounds to reject proprietary
software.  You may, perhaps, think that he is extreme, but you are
equally extreme.  The only difference (and I agree that it is a
significant difference) is that far more people think like you than
think like him.

       Ian> I am now going to shift gears completely.  I suggest that
       Ian> proprietary software has a clear role in an economics of
       Ian> scarcity.  The software world, however, can exist in an
       Ian> economics of abundance.

   No.  It cannot.  As long as there is more than one program which does
   not yet exist, but somebody would like to see created, we live in a
   situation of economic scarcity: there are real choices to be made
   about how to use our resources.

   Economic abundance (everything is free) means that there are no
   choices to be made about how to use resources because there is nothing 
   that is useful that is left to be done.  Until we reach that happy
   state (I don't expect it in my lifetime), scarcity rules, and economic 
   analysis is applicable.

   The Free Software commune in isolation can live under the assumption
   of non-scarcity; it will be poorer for it, I believe, but it would be
   an interesting experiment.

No doubt I used the wrong term.  I am not thinking of a state in which
there are no choices to be made about how to use resources.  That will
never happen in this universe.

I am thinking about the type of abundance in which the chief
constraints on our actions is not resources, but attention.  If I can
easily ask a computer to do whatever action I happen to be interested
in, subject to the constraints of physical resources, we have an
abundance of software.

I believe the free software community is helping to build such a
world, although I do not know whether we will succeed.