Why Software Should Not Have Owners

Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us. Not everyone wants it to be easier. The system of copyright gives software programs “owners”, most of whom aim to withhold software’s potential benefit from the rest of the public. They would like to be the only ones who can copy and modify the software that we use.

Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us. Not everyone wants it to be easier. The system of copyright gives software programs “owners”, most of whom aim to withhold software’s potential benefit from the rest of the public. They would like to be the only ones who can copy and modify the software that we use.

The copyright system grew up with printing—a technology for mass
production copying. Copyright fit in well with this technology
because it restricted only the mass producers of copies. It did not
take freedom away from readers of books. An ordinary reader, who did
not own a printing press, could copy books only with pen and ink, and
few readers were sued for that.

Digital technology is more flexible than the printing press: when
information has digital form, you can easily copy it to share it with
others. This very flexibility makes a bad fit with a system like
copyright. That’s the reason for the increasingly nasty and draconian
measures now used to enforce software copyright. Consider these four
practices of the Software Publishers Association (SPA):

  • Massive propaganda saying it is wrong to disobey the owners
    to help your friend.

  • Solicitation for stool pigeons to inform on their coworkers and

  • Raids (with police help) on offices and schools, in which people are
    told they must prove they are innocent of illegal copying.

  • Prosecution (by the US government, at the SPA’s request) of people
    such as MIT’s David LaMacchia, not for copying software (he is not
    accused of copying any), but merely for leaving copying facilities
    unguarded and failing to censor their use.

All four practices resemble those used in the former Soviet Union,
where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying,
and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it
from hand to hand as “samizdat”. There is of course a difference: the
motive for information control in the Soviet Union was political; in
the US the motive is profit. But it is the actions that affect us,
not the motive. Any attempt to block the sharing of information, no
matter why, leads to the same methods and the same harshness.

Owners make several kinds of arguments for giving them the power
to control how we use information:

  • Name calling.

    Owners use smear words such as “piracy” and “theft”, as well as expert
    terminology such as “intellectual property” and “damage”, to suggest a
    certain line of thinking to the public—a simplistic analogy between
    programs and physical objects.

    Our ideas and intuitions about property for material objects are about
    whether it is right to take an object away from someone else. They
    don’t directly apply to making a copy of something. But the owners
    ask us to apply them anyway.

  • Exaggeration.

    Owners say that they suffer “harm” or “economic loss” when users copy
    programs themselves. But the copying has no direct effect on the
    owner, and it harms no one. The owner can lose only if the person who
    made the copy would otherwise have paid for one from the owner.

    A little thought shows that most such people would not have bought
    copies. Yet the owners compute their “losses” as if each and every
    one would have bought a copy. That is exaggeration—to put it kindly.

  • The law.

    Owners often describe the current state of the law, and the harsh
    penalties they can threaten us with. Implicit in this approach is the
    suggestion that today’s law reflects an unquestionable view of
    morality—yet at the same time, we are urged to regard these penalties
    as facts of nature that can’t be blamed on anyone.

    This line of persuasion isn’t designed to stand up to critical
    thinking; it’s intended to reinforce a habitual mental pathway.

    It’s elementary that laws don’t decide right and wrong. Every American
    should know that, forty years ago, it was against the law in many
    states for a black person to sit in the front of a bus; but only
    racists would say sitting there was wrong.

  • Natural rights.

    Authors often claim a special connection with programs they have
    written, and go on to assert that, as a result, their desires and
    interests concerning the program simply outweigh those of anyone
    else—or even those of the whole rest of the world. (Typically
    companies, not authors, hold the copyrights on software, but we are
    expected to ignore this discrepancy.)

    To those who propose this as an ethical axiom—the author is more
    important than you—I can only say that I, a notable software author
    myself, call it bunk.

    But people in general are only likely to feel any sympathy with the
    natural rights claims for two reasons.

    One reason is an overstretched analogy with material objects. When I
    cook spaghetti, I do object if someone else eats it, because then I
    cannot eat it. His action hurts me exactly as much as it benefits
    him; only one of us can eat the spaghetti, so the question is, which?
    The smallest distinction between us is enough to tip the ethical

    But whether you run or change a program I wrote affects you directly
    and me only indirectly. Whether you give a copy to your friend
    affects you and your friend much more than it affects me. I shouldn’t
    have the power to tell you not to do these things. No one should.

    The second reason is that people have been told that natural rights
    for authors is the accepted and unquestioned tradition of our society.

    As a matter of history, the opposite is true. The idea of natural
    rights of authors was proposed and decisively rejected when the US
    Constitution was drawn up. That’s why the Constitution only
    permits a system of copyright and does not require
    one; that’s why it says that copyright must be temporary. It also
    states that the purpose of copyright is to promote progress—not to
    reward authors. Copyright does reward authors somewhat, and
    publishers more, but that is intended as a means of modifying their

    The real established tradition of our society is that copyright cuts
    into the natural rights of the public—and that this can only be
    justified for the public’s sake.

  • Economics.

    The final argument made for having owners of software is that this
    leads to production of more software.

    Unlike the others, this argument at least takes a legitimate approach
    to the subject. It is based on a valid goal—satisfying the users of
    software. And it is empirically clear that people will produce more of
    something if they are well paid for doing so.

    But the economic argument has a flaw: it is based on the assumption
    that the difference is only a matter of how much money we have to pay.
    It assumes that “production of software” is what we want, whether the
    software has owners or not.

    People readily accept this assumption because it accords with our
    experiences with material objects. Consider a sandwich, for instance.
    You might well be able to get an equivalent sandwich either free or
    for a price. If so, the amount you pay is the only difference.
    Whether or not you have to buy it, the sandwich has the same taste,
    the same nutritional value, and in either case you can only eat it
    once. Whether you get the sandwich from an owner or not cannot
    directly affect anything but the amount of money you have afterwards.

    This is true for any kind of material object—whether or not it has an
    owner does not directly affect what it is, or what you can do with
    it if you acquire it.

    But if a program has an owner, this very much affects what it is, and
    what you can do with a copy if you buy one. The difference is not
    just a matter of money. The system of owners of software encourages
    software owners to produce something—but not what society really
    needs. And it causes intangible ethical pollution that affects us

    What does society need? It needs information that is truly available
    to its citizens—for example, programs that people can read, fix,
    adapt, and improve, not just operate. But what software owners
    typically deliver is a black box that we can’t study or change.

    Society also needs freedom. When a program has an owner, the users
    lose freedom to control part of their own lives.

    And above all society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary
    cooperation in its citizens. When software owners tell us that
    helping our neighbors in a natural way is “piracy”, they pollute our
    society’s civic spirit.

    This is why we say that

    free software

    is a matter of freedom, not price.

    The economic argument for owners is erroneous, but the economic issue
    is real. Some people write useful software for the pleasure of
    writing it or for admiration and love; but if we want more software
    than those people write, we need to raise funds.

    For ten years now, free software developers have tried various methods
    of finding funds, with some success. There’s no need to make anyone
    rich; the median US family income, around $35k, proves to be
    enough incentive for many jobs that are less satisfying than

    For years, until a fellowship made it unnecessary, I made a living
    from custom enhancements of the free software I had written. Each
    enhancement was added to the standard released version and thus
    eventually became available to the general public. Clients paid me so
    that I would work on the enhancements they wanted, rather than on the
    features I would otherwise have considered highest priority.

    The Free Software Foundation (FSF), a
    tax-exempt charity for free software development, raises funds by




    manuals, and

    deluxe distributions,

    (all of which users are free to copy and change), as well as from donations. It now has a staff of five
    programmers, plus three employees who handle mail orders.

    Some free software developers make money by selling support services.
    Cygnus Support, with around 50 employees [when this article was
    written], estimates that about 15 per cent of its staff activity is
    free software development—a respectable percentage for a software

    Companies including Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Analog
    Devices have combined to fund the continued development of the free
    GNU compiler for the language C. Meanwhile, the GNU compiler for the
    Ada language is being funded by the US Air Force, which believes this
    is the most cost-effective way to get a high quality compiler.
    [Air Force funding ended some time ago; the GNU Ada Compiler
    is now in service, and its maintenance is funded commercially.]

    All these examples are small; the free software movement is still
    small, and still young. But the example of listener-supported radio
    in this country [the US] shows it’s possible to support a large
    activity without forcing each user to pay.

As a computer user today, you may find yourself using a

(18k characters)
program. If your friend asks to make a copy, it
would be wrong to refuse. Cooperation is more important than
copyright. But underground, closet cooperation does not make for a
good society. A person should aspire to live an upright life openly
with pride, and this means saying “No” to proprietary software.

You deserve to be able to cooperate openly and freely with other
people who use software. You deserve to be able to learn how the
software works, and to teach your students with it. You deserve to be
able to hire your favorite programmer to fix it when it breaks.

You deserve free software.

Copyright 1994 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is
permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

Author: Richard Stallman

News Service: www.gnu.org

URL: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/why-free.html