Killing Free Software with Kindness

Free Software and Open-Source has gained a massive foothold in industry. Mobile phones, digital TVs, laser printers, etc. nearly all build on free software. It is actually hard these days to find embedded devices which do not contain free software. By any measure of deployment, free software is now wildly successful. That success brings economic benefits to free software hackers, in terms of employment.

Free Software has its roots in a desire to be able to tinker on software. In particular, it’s distinguished from hobbyist programming by a desire to be able to fix or improve software in devices one owns or has access to. As such, Free Software is an ethical construct which argues that vendors have a duty to their users to provide them with the ability to modify the code on the device (this is the “freedom” part). It has been further developed to argue that free software is economically a more efficient way to develop software.

As free software gained adoption, there has perhaps been an increasing trend amongst its developers to weigh the economic aspects far more heavily than the freedom to modify code. E.g. Linus Torvalds has stated he is fine with vendors using DRM on Linux devices to lock down the code, which could prevent users modifying the devices. Certain former BusyBox developers seem more concerned that big corporations use free software rather than provide source. There are many other calls for free-software copyright holders to be “pragmatic” about licensing.

Effectively, many developers now take an economic view of free software. They view free software perhaps purely as an advertisement of skills, a professional tool to build reputation, and what not. The ethical “end-user freedom” aspect is no longer significant, for many, who view it as unpragmatic. This leads to a “softly-softly” approach to Free Software licence enforcement being advocated by some, effectively tolerating vendors who do little to honour their apparent licence obligations.

However, I would argue that this is short-sighted. Firstly, if one does not believe in enforcing free software licences like the GPL, then what difference does one think there is between GPL and BSD? Secondly, consider the following:

Imagine 2 companies:

  • BigCorp
  • GoodCorp

BigCorp uses Linux, as it’s cheap and saves them precious per-unit $$ in royalties. Their upper-management have no great appreciation for free software and/or open-source other than expediency. They will release only as little code and material as they have to. They have a relatively large in-house legal team who are certainly capable of figuring out what their responsibilities are in distributing such software. They have been engaged with in the past by free software organisations about their licensing failings, however they still fail to provide full sources to the GPL software they distribute in their devices – i.e. there can be no doubt this behaviour is deliberate.

GoodCorp is medium-sized. They also use Linux because it’s cheap. However, they have people in their top-level management, perhaps founder-engineers, who still appreciate some of the reasoning behind free software, such as ethics and longer-term efficiency. The company doesn’t have huge resources, but they are willing to put in a little engineering effort into longer-term issues, like going through the community processes to get code reviewed and integrated upstream, as they can see some longer-term value in doing so, even if it less tangible. They are meticulous about making sure they comply with the GPL and they even GPL some (or, in the case of AngelCorp, all) of their device/function specific code in order to contribute back to the free software pool.

If BigCorp fails to meet its obligations, again and again, and no real action is ever taken against it, it can be argued that this is effectively punishing GoodCorp. GoodCorp is spending some of its scarce resources on complying with the GPL and engaging with the community, which BigCorp is not. This puts GoodCorp at a competitive disadvantage to BigCorp. The rational thing for GoodCorp to do is to emulate BigCorp and free up those resources and lower its costs. If nothing changes, eventually one of the more short-term-focused, businessy types in GoodCorps’ management will prevail with such an argument over the founder-engineer(s) types.

So by not enforcing free software licences, you reward those companies that pay lip service to their obligations and you punish those that care about meeting their obligations by allowing the one to free-ride on the efforts of the others. Economics dictates that the equilibrium point for the ratio of leechers to contributors will be much higher with a laisez-faire approach to licence enforcement, than it would be if the licence were enforced1.

In short, even if you take a “pragmatic” view of free software – if you are uncomfortable with the idea of suing companies that use customised free software in their devices – if you still believe that these customisations should be published (in accordance with those free software licences which often demand this), then it is important to the longer-term economic viability of free software that enforcement takes place.

Basically, and apologies for loading the terminology, are you for BigCorp or for GoodCorp?

1. This is true up to the point where licence enforcement activity makes proprietary software more attractive. Some people would argue this point is quite low, that only a laisez-faire enforcement approach allows significant adoption of free software. However that seems unlikely to me, as I feel that free software saw significant adoption rates during the period in the late 90s and early 2000s when most developers still emphasised the ethical, freedom aspects of free software. This particular argument needs further investigation, in particular to see which way the evidence lies – i.e. when the laisez-faire attitude took hold compared to adoption.

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