November 28, 2003

A modified license for Free Software fairness

Author: Apurva Mehta

We should not be misled by the apparent success of Free
Software projects today. The popular Free Software licenses, such as the
GNU GPL and the BSD License, are not conducive to
innovative software development. The fact that many Free Software
products are popular should not hide the facts about the licenses
under which they are being distributed.

Historically, producers are
rewarded for their effort, and can in turn compensate the efforts of
others as they see fit. In the modern world, the vehicle of this
reward and compensation is money. The amount of money you get for
your work is an indication of the value of your work to other
people. If I create something that could save someone a great deal
of effort, then I expect that person to compensate me equally with the
fruits of his effort. That ensures my survival. In other words, my
work ensures my survival.

Conventional products of the mind have a material form. The brilliant
engineering that went into a car manifests itself in the car, which
is assembled from a number of parts. Those parts and the car as a
whole cannot be duplicated easily.

Once a car maker sells a car to a customer, he has no claims on the
car thereafter, because the effort he expended in building that car
has been fairly compensated by the money of the customer. The car was
exchanged for a price both parties agreed upon. If the customer wants
to modify the car, sell it again, give it away, or make public the
modifications he made to that car, the car maker cannot object.

Why shouldn't software be subject to the same rules? Why shouldn't
a customer have all the possible rights to your software once he has
bought it from you? That is the argument of Free Software

The answer is that software is a special case because it is easily
duplicated. It is a product of the mind which has no material form.

You can use your software and at the same time give it (or sell it) to
an infinite number of people with virtually no extra effort. You
cannot sell your car and continue driving it too. Therefore applying
the same rules to software as you do to material products does not
work in an economic system designed for the fair exchange of material
products. The emphasis here is on the word "fair."

You could share the changes you made on a car, but for other
people to benefit, they would need to buy that same car from the same
car maker. The car maker would thus also benefit from all the people
who wanted to benefit from your changes. He would inadvertently
benefit from your changes directly, in hard money. So in terms of a
material product, the current rules of exchange seem to be fair.

Free Software evangelists want you to create software and
then give it away to whoever wants it. You can reserve
the right to charge money to whoever receives a copy from you but
you cannot stop anyone else from selling it or giving it away
themselves. People can use their copy, modify it, and give away their
modifications along with your software.

Free Software evangelists say they want to protect the freedom of the
software. But what about the freedom of the developer? Is it not the
right of someone to make a living from the work he does? The
evangelists say that they get compensated because the modifications to
their software come back to them. But man cannot live on software
alone. The Free Software licenses do not guarantee that the software
anyone writes will ensure their survival even though it may be of
great value to a great many people.

The truth of Free Software is that almost all of it is made on the
spare time of the developers who create it. Only the top developers of
the most popular Free Software projects are paid to work full-time on
the software they create. Even most of them had to work on their
projects as a hobby for a long time before they got full-time
jobs. The companies that employ these top developers are able to pay
them because they sell services based on the software, but not the
software itself. Because of the software license developers cannot be
ensured a living by producing good software, hence they have to look
at other means of survival (like the sale of services).

To summarize: The current licenses for Free Software try to give an
owner all the possible rights to the product, but the unique nature of
software means that distribution under these terms is unfair to

On the other side of the philosophical divide are the companies that
sell proprietary software. They make significant profits because they
can easily duplicate software. They create the software once, then
sell each copy even though the cost of producing each copy is
negligible. They do not grant even the basic rights of ownership to
customers who purchase from them. You cannot resell the proprietary
software you buy. You cannot modify it. You are not free to open it up
and see how it works. And worst of all, some companies force you to
upgrade to newer versions by questionable techniques like changing file formats in newer versions of software and then stopping support for the old versions.

Sellers of proprietary software do not grant you the basic rights of
ownership which you are entitled to. This too is blatantly unfair.

So what is to be done?

A compromise for fairness

I propose a compromise between the two extremes. An ideal license
would be one that gives a customer the rights of ownership while
ensuring a developer can survive on the creation and maintenance of
the software.

Since software is special because it is easily duplicated, the way to
create fairness to the developer and customer is to restrict this
property of software -- that is, to enforce restrictions on the
redistribution of software. Logically, these restrictions would make
software equivalent to other material products and hence would imply
that software distributed on these terms would be fair to all parties
concerned under the current economic model.

My ideal license would be similar to the GNU GPL, except that it would
restrict free redistribution -- if you sell or give away the software,
then you must stop using it yourself. And it would include the
clause that you can share your changes only with those parties who
already have the same software as you.

In such a license you would get the full source code, the freedom
to modify it, the freedom to share changes with people who already have
the same version of the software, and the freedom to sell or
give away the software as long as you give up your use of it as well.

Such a license would not be without problems of its own. Clearly it
would be almost impossible to enforce. Yet the same could be said
about popular proprietary software today, for which cracks and pirated
copies are readily available to those who know where to look. The
companies that make the software continue to make money, so I feel
that my scheme could be quite workable.

Apurva Mehta is a 19-year-old computer engineering student in India.


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