`Why Software Should be Free by Richard Stallman

JAnne Davies employmentincentives at gmail.com
Thu Aug 5 19:40:03 EDT 2010

The Argument against Having Owners

The question at hand is, “Should development of software be linked
with having owners to restrict the use of it?”

In order to decide this, we have to judge the effect on society of
each of those two activities independently: the effect of developing
the software (regardless of its terms of distribution), and the effect
of restricting its use (assuming the software has been developed). If
one of these activities is helpful and the other is harmful, we would
be better off dropping the linkage and doing only the helpful one.

To put it another way, if restricting the distribution of a program
already developed is harmful to society overall, then an ethical
software developer will reject the option of doing so.

To determine the effect of restricting sharing, we need to compare the
value to society of a restricted (i.e., proprietary) program with that
of the same program, available to everyone. This means comparing two
possible worlds.

This analysis also addresses the simple counterargument sometimes made
that “the benefit to the neighbor of giving him or her a copy of a
program is cancelled by the harm done to the owner.” This
counterargument assumes that the harm and the benefit are equal in
magnitude. The analysis involves comparing these magnitudes, and shows
that the benefit is much greater.

To elucidate this argument, let's apply it in another area: road

It would be possible to fund the construction of all roads with tolls.
This would entail having toll booths at all street corners. Such a
system would provide a great incentive to improve roads. It would also
have the virtue of causing the users of any given road to pay for that
road. However, a toll booth is an artificial obstruction to smooth
driving—artificial, because it is not a consequence of how roads or
cars work.

Comparing free roads and toll roads by their usefulness, we find that
(all else being equal) roads without toll booths are cheaper to
construct, cheaper to run, safer, and more efficient to use.(2) In a
poor country, tolls may make the roads unavailable to many citizens.
The roads without toll booths thus offer more benefit to society at
less cost; they are preferable for society. Therefore, society should
choose to fund roads in another way, not by means of toll booths. Use
of roads, once built, should be free.

When the advocates of toll booths propose them as merely a way of
raising funds, they distort the choice that is available. Toll booths
do raise funds, but they do something else as well: in effect, they
degrade the road. The toll road is not as good as the free road;
giving us more or technically superior roads may not be an improvement
if this means substituting toll roads for free roads.

Of course, the construction of a free road does cost money, which the
public must somehow pay. However, this does not imply the
inevitability of toll booths. We who must in either case pay will get
more value for our money by buying a free road.

I am not saying that a toll road is worse than no road at all. That
would be true if the toll were so great that hardly anyone used the
road—but this is an unlikely policy for a toll collector. However, as
long as the toll booths cause significant waste and inconvenience, it
is better to raise the funds in a less obstructive fashion.

To apply the same argument to software development, I will now show
that having “toll booths” for useful software programs costs society
dearly: it makes the programs more expensive to construct, more
expensive to distribute, and less satisfying and efficient to use. It
will follow that program construction should be encouraged in some
other way. Then I will go on to explain other methods of encouraging
and (to the extent actually necessary) funding software development.
quoted from: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/shouldbefree.html

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