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- Copyright 1994 Richard Stallman Verbatim copying and
redistribution is permitted without royalty as long as this notice
is preserved; alteration is not permitted.
- Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is
permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.
Why Software Should Not Have Owners
Version as of April 1998
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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 balance.
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
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 behavior.
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.
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
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 all.
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,
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
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 programming.
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 selling GNU
CD-ROMs, T-shirts, 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 company.
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
As a computer user today, you may find yourself using a proprietary
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.
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