Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Ian Lance Taylor <>
Date: 25 Oct 1999 19:36:38 -0400

   From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
   Date: Sat, 23 Oct 1999 16:32:25 +0900 (JST)

   I plan to write and publish some essays that I believe would (a) pain
   RMS (a minor consideration except to him and me) and (b) tend to
   weaken some of the arguments of Free Software advocates.  I must
   justify that action _to me_.  That is most of what I wanted to do in
   this thread.  Therefore I have asked the strongest advocates of the
   contrary position I know to rationalize (not justify) some of the
   terms they use to me.

I'm not clear as to whether you are still unclear on the
rationalization of the ethical argument for free software.

Do you accept the rationality of Peter Singer's utilitarian arguments?
(I'm on a plane right now, so I can't get you a reference, but I can
get one later if necessary; a recent essay of his received wide
publicity due to his appointment to the Princeton faculty).  Few
people accept his conclusions, but his logic is difficult to deny
without a retreat into the primacy of self-interest.

(Note that many people are willing to say that self-interest is the
chief motivating factor of most of us, but far fewer people are
prepared to say of themselves that their primary motivation is
self-interest.  We tend to use cover phrases like ``the world would be
better off if we all recognized that...'' leaving the implication that
our personal interest is the betterment of the world.)

I think Singer's utilitarianism can be used to provide a rational
support for free software (although I will not bother to draw it out
step by step unless somebody doubts me).  It requires only that people
subordinate a small amount of personal self-interest in favor of a
result that benefits all computer users.

It is even possible that if we all make the disinterested choice, the
wide spread availability and free use of powerful software will help
all of us more than if we all make the self-interested choice.  This
may be akin to what Singer believes.  This is also related to what
Hofstadter called (I think) super-rationalism, and of course it ties
back to Kant's moral imperative.  Note that arguments against this in
the arena of software are normally predicated on some form of ``most
people will make the self-interested choice,'' where the
self-interested choice may include choosing to not write software at

Now, I suspect that that is not the sort of answer which you are
looking for.  You want an answer which ties support for free software
directly to personal self-interest in some form (I understand that
this need not be merely money).  Otherwise, it is difficult to model.

But as I tried to argue in my last message, there need not be any such
answer.  Any economic model must presume certain ethical standards, or
else it becomes useless as a guide to thought.  Your notion of
``community destroying'' presupposes the definition of the community.
If my community includes only my fellow citizens of the USA, there are
many actions I can undertake which are prohibited if my community
includes all human beings (the recent excellent movie ``Three Kings''
makes this point surprisingly well for a Hollywood flick; for a more
historical view consider the theory of the just war which was widely
accepted in Europe during this millennium before this century's
reinvention of the total war).

   But where ethical imperatives are quantitative and can be balanced,
   then choice of model can make a big difference between grudging
   acceptance by both sides of unpalatable conclusions, and complete
   rejection on the grounds of missing the point.

I believe that ethical imperatives are rarely quantitative, and can
rarely be balanced.  Agreement in ethical issues comes not on the
basis of balancing ethical imperatives, but on politics--the art of
the possible.

You speak of grudging acceptance of unpalatable conclusions.  However,
the free software movement, or at least a significant portion of it,
is rather unlikely to accept any conclusion which calls for the
existence and support of proprietary software.  So although I have not
seen your model, I can already predict that your concerns will bear
out: some significant number of people will reject it on the grounds
of missing the point.

I know that I've wandered pretty far afield from Free Software
Business.  But I don't think it's as far afield as all that: most
FSB's first decide to use free software, and then decide to make a
profit from it.

I'll close by quickly noting something I and many others have
mentioned before: the magical nature of software permits one
individual to have a disproportionate effect on the world.  An author
of free software, like the author of a brilliant new idea, creates
something which can spread from person to person around the world, and
can take on a life of its own.  That's a great power, and in
particular it means that an individual free software author has more
power than a significant number of proprietary software developers.
If you want to capture the incentives to write free software, don't
neglect the heady feeling of knowing that thousands of people are
using your work, and that it will live on apart from you.