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Do we need to rethink what free software is? (mjg59.dreamwidth.org)
106 points by reddotX 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 136 comments

Whether software is used for ethical or unethical purposes has nothing to do with the license. There is no possible way to bake subjective ethical usage guidelines into a license and still end up with free software.

Trying to license "good" and "evil" boils down to the same slippery slope that the TOR Project dealt with when they had to reject requests to add censorship mechanisms. "Can't we just censor hate speech?"

Software is a tool. How that tool is used is at the discretion of the user. If a developer is concerned that a project could be used for evil, then he or she should consider whether releasing the software publicly is a morally good choice in the first place.

I couldn't have written it better myself.

On a related note, the person behind the Hippocratic License (HL) which they define as "a modified MIT license that specifically prohibits the use of open source software to harm others" was recently asked by OSI [1] to modify the language in the original document since it might've led people to wrongly believe that the aforementioned license was Open Source Software and that software distributed under it was Open Source Software.

[1] https://archive.is/hKA41

"harm others"... that is extremely subjective. Everyone can claim they have been harmed, say, psychologically or whatever. This is not going to end well. Oh well, I am not surprised.

There are many things which are subjective but that hardly means they are completely ungrounded from human consideration, even when it comes to the exercise of power. The (partial) subjectivity of a measurement isn't a good excuse to completely give up on the domain.

To which she replied effectively, "I know. That's the point. I'm trying to get the definition changed."


IANAL, but the HL reads to me as if you'd have to convict some entity of effectively breaking the human rights in order to prevent their use of your software.

This sounds next to impossible, unless the entity is a war criminal,in which case a civil suit would be entirely pointless.

Or do you even think there would - as an example - be a US court prohibit the use of some software for ICE? Such a court ruling would imply the US government acts against UN human rights. Which court would open this box for a software licence?

I am not sure about that. Of course enforcing your usage ideas will be next to impossible, but mentioning sth. can serve other purposes too (e.g. making a set of shared values visible to other developers).

So if you for example say that everybody except military, secret services and weapons manufacturers are allowed to use your software, that might not stop them from using it, but it makes other devs consider similar clauses and at one point it might be widespread enough to show some sort of effect (e.g. less people willing to work for the goons).

Anyone can add ethical stipulations to the license of their choice but the result is no longer a free software license.

A license requiring a user to adhere to the software developers' moral code is the opposite of a free software license.

In your example regarding "weapons manufacturers;" in the United States the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution and interpreted by the courts as an inalienable human right. Your proposed software license would thus restrict the freedom of the user and is therefore non-free.

> Anyone can add ethical stipulations to the license of their choice but the result is no longer a free software license.

Yes, of course.

The question is whether we want to change that. Of course our current understanding of Free Software makes such a license outside its bounds. Of course the Four Freedoms and the OSD both prevent restrictions on use. But do the Four Freedoms and the OSD accurately capture what we really want out of free software?

To be clear, I personally lean towards "yes, they still do," but I think it's absolutely healthy and important to talk about why they do. The OSD wasn't handed down by the gods on a mountaintop; it's a set of rules that we believe facilitate a broader social purpose, and we should be always willing to ask whether we still agree with that social purpose and whether we still think the rules get us there.

(Also, it's true that "free software" might end up being the wrong term for a changed definition, but it still seems important that the free software community, including the FSF, participate in these discussions.)

If "free software" is the wrong term for the license then the discussions might not be relevant at all to the Free Software Foundation or the free software community.

I highlighted right above how one of the desired use cases of this proposed "ethical" licensing model is to restrict a fundamental human right of the users of the software.

In the best case, what we are talking about is not free software. In the worst case, there may be actors involved in these discussions hoping to use outrage mobs to destabilize the free software movement, in particular application code still licensed under GPLv2.

> If "free software" is the wrong term for the license then the discussions might not be relevant at all to the Free Software Foundation or the free software community.

Arguing that free software as conventionally defined is better than what is being proposed is 100% within the mission of the Free Software Foundation. The FSF tells you how bad Windows is, even though Windows isn't free software. The FSF has a list of popular non-free licenses and tells you why they aren't free.

Arguing that members of the free software community who are interested in other licenses should continue to write free software - and why - is also firmly within the mission of the FSF. If they have concerns over free software, responding to those concerns in good faith is the job of the FSF. I'm no less of a member of the free software community simply because I write proprietary code from 9 to 5 on weekdays. (If I were, there would be very little free software community, and it would be mostly driven by well-funded corporations and not by individuals.)

Also, I'm of the opinion that you can accomplish the same goals by means other than licenses (e.g., better rules on who can participate in development), and I'm sympathetic to the goals. Shouldn't the Free Software Foundation be saying, if you want to achieve these goals, here is concretely how you can accomplish them using free software? If people are saying "free software cannot do X, we must abandon free software to do X," shouldn't it be an FSF priority to demonstrate that you can do X with free software?

> In the worst case, there may be actors involved in these discussions hoping to use outrage mobs to destabilize the free software movement, in particular application code still licensed under GPLv2.

I think if we're going to spin conspiracy theories, let's talk more about whether the NSA supported Richard Stallman as the spokesperson of the free software movement to ensure that it never gained mainstream acceptance by making sure the popular image of free software was some weirdo with bad personal hygiene, and how the community failure to get rid of him played right into government interests for decades. Sounds equally plausible.

The thing about freedoms is that they are collective cultural decisions and priorities. An extreme example slavery. The right to not be owned by someone is in direct contrast of someone else's right to property. We have collectively as a western society determined that was wrong and misguided, wars were fought over it to the point we consider it a ridiculous juxtaposition today.

I believe the right to bear arms is at a similar crossroads with those who want the right to feel safe from the government and those who want to feel safe from others. Who's freedom is more important?

Although I think these arguments are against what free software is, maybe it's a discussion worth having, maybe there is something that was missed.

> but it makes other devs consider similar clauses and at one point it might be widespread enough to show some sort of effect (e.g. less people willing to work for the goons).

You can already attempt to convince people to not do that though, on a massive scale, even. You do not need licenses for that. Licenses are a legal matter. Working for the military or secret services is completely legal, but many would say that it is unethical in some or all cases. Why would you need licenses to achieve the goals you mentioned, or how are licenses of any use to achieve these goals, or what is it about licenses that inherently make them more effective in doing that?

Agreed. The relatively clear terms of the GPL have been very hard to enforce. Do you really think someone intent on doing evil will be stopped by a couple of lines of text in the header of the source code? Who has ever been okay with ethnic cleansing and torture but draws the line at copyright infringement?

Not to mention how reasonable people can disagree on where to draw the line. If you think the Israeli government violates human rights, does that justify banning all Israelis from using the software? What about Intel with its major facility in Kiryat Gat? Should you then ban the software from being run on any Intel processors, whether or not they were made in Israel?

I sympathize with the movement to hold coders and users accountable, but I just don't think this is workable.

It’s not easy to come up with every possible scenario your code will be used in. For example, I’m sure the now-infamous chef author didn’t think that their code would be included by a company as a part of their for-profit offering to ICE.

I don't quite agree, the GPL is after all a licence founded on a set of ethics.

The GPL is based around a well-defined set of ethics that centers around giving the user complete freedom to use and modify the software. This is necessary for software to be considered free.

It's certainly possible to restrict usage based around a moral code. Look at the JSON License: https://www.json.org/license.html

> The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.

So, yes, it would be possible to restrict software licensing based on a loosely-defined moral code that would constantly need updates to keep pace with new social injustices, but this would not be free software.

The JSON license is a joke, like Google's "Don't Be Evil". It's not enforced because it's impossible to enforce, and IBM got an exemption anyway.

>The GPL is based around a well-defined set of ethics that centers around giving the user complete freedom to use and modify the software

I take issue with this. First of all, this “well-defined” qualifier is ironically poorly defined. What does that mean? It either is or is not derived from some principle or set of principles; it is ultimately an example of ethics being imposed as a restriction.

Secondly, you don’t actually have “complete freedom”. A recent example I encountered was the utility github.com/gojp/goreportcard which still relies on github.com/alecthomas/gometalinter despite gometalinter being deprecated in favor of the much faster github.com/golangci/golangci-lint. Because golangci-lint is licensed under GPL and goreportcard is licensed under Apache 2.0 it would violate GPL to integrate golangci-lint into goreportcard. So either goreportcard has to adopt a new license and ensure they’re compliant with that license or suffer relying on subpar software that has been abandoned by its creator and community.

Now perhaps I’m ignorant (something I often find myself guilty of when speaking on such lofty topics, please forgive and correct me if this is the case) to what you mean by “complete freedom” but that doesn’t seem like “complete freedom” to me, it sounds like two incompatible sets of ethics.

For your first question, this is mostly about legal interpretability. The GPL has a long text that describes explicitly what it allows and doesn't. Yes, that is based on an ethical framework, but that ethical framework is all baked into the text of the license. There is no ambiguity. The GP contrasts this with the JSON license which only uses the term 'good' to describe what it allows. This is incredibly ambiguous from a court's perspective, likely past the point of just being thrown out as a clause in a legal contract.

For your second question, you are right that you don't have 'complete freedom,' which another commenter pointed out cannot even theoretically exist. The closest you really get is public domain, in which you're not even restricted like the MIT; you don't even have to list the author! (IANAL, so this is not legal advice, but just my understanding.) However, the GPL is not interested in guaranteeing complete freedom, in the style of very permissive licenses. Instead, it's interested in maximizing end-user freedom. An MIT library can immediately be placed in a proprietary program, and now the end-user has none of the Four Freedoms, though the author of the program still has all of them. So, the GPL puts restrictions on developers and how they can use the software ('limiting freedom', if you want, though it's the freedom to limit others' Four Freedoms that is being limited), to guarantee that the Four Freedoms reach the end-user. This does lead to incompatibility as you've outlined, and so goreportcard would have to adopt the GPL to use the library and remain compliant (again, IANAL), but from the perspective of the GNU foundation, this maximizes the total number of freedoms retained because it continues to protect end-users. I hope this helps, I wanted to expand on what the goals of the GPL actually are, since you seemed to earnestly be asking.

A user in an ICE concentration camp also lacks the freedom to tinker with the software. Seems like a pretty big hole in the ability of the license to protect the freedom of its end users.

The people in "concentration camps" aren't using the software though. You are conflating two different issues.

Legally, there is plenty of ambiguity in the GPLs, v2 and v3.

When people say the GPL ensures freedom for the "user", they mean the end-user. Under the GPL, the end-user can always view and modify the source code of the software they use however they want.

Distributors of software, on the other hand, are prohibited from licensing GPL-derived software in a way that restricts end-user freedom. (And they're also prohibited from licensing GPL-software in a way that allows others to license it in a way that restricts end-user freedom, which is why you can't incorporate GPL code into an Apache-licensed project.)

"complete freedom" does not exist even in theory due to basic information theoretic arguments.

In this context I read “complete freedom” as “use without restriction”, and that doesn’t seem to be the case with less permissive licenses. Not sure I completely understand what your comment implies but I’d love to better understand what you mean if you care to expand on that idea!

Feel free to create the "moral/ethical software" movement, but please don't touch the current definition of free software.

People already have a hard time understanding what free software exactly is/requires/provides. Changing the definition at this point would only create confusion, especially if the new one is even more ethically grounded.

Agree. Don't touch definitions. For example, some people were not fine with the definition of "free software", so they coined the term "open source software" to line out their views on the topic.

I think "social" or "ethical" software could be a reasonable term for the views proposed.

That being said, and IANAL, but I'm pretty sure that such ideas would not held in court, unless the "unethical behaviour" is illegal. But in this case, why should criminals stick to software licences?

Agree. I think the strength of free software is that it's making a single ethical point (which is hard enough to get across.) I support anybody wanting to make "ethical" software, but it's 1) not the same thing as free software and 2) very difficult to make an ethical tool; people find it hard enough to explain their personal ethical distinctions, I definitely don't want to listen to a some hammer's idiosyncratic belief system.

Say you develope a targeting algorithm to be used by a robotic arm with a water pistol — wouldn’t it then be totally legitimate to say: you are allowed to use this freely, as long as you don’t use it with a real gun?

The non commercial clause in the creative commons is also sth like this: free for non-commercial usage, all others have to ask.

I don’t see why authors shouldn’t be allowed to excert at least a little bit of control what their creations are used for, if they like to do so.

> The non commercial clause in the creative commons is also sth like this: free for non-commercial usage, all others have to ask.

Perfectly fine. But then it's not free software, or in this case free creative work. It's as you said: it's free only for some which makes it unfree in general.

Let's say you write such targeting software and I make hardware using it. I add a sticker saying "don't put a real gun into it" on it. Are we good? Or is it like "known to cause cancer in California" stuff?

What do you consider free software? Because I don't consider anything licensed under GPL as free, but I would consider software licensed under MIT or BSD as free.

To answer your question: probably any software following the widely accepted, opinion-free definition of "free software".

Can you run it? Read its code? Redistribute it verbatim? Make modifications to the code for private use? Redistribute the modifications? Then it's free software.

You are free not to like some free software licenses though.

> Can you run it? Read its code? Redistribute it verbatim? Make modifications to the code for private use? Redistribute the modifications? Then it's free software.

Your answer proves that GP has a point: Commons Clause (on top of Apache for instance) fits your requirements perfectly, yet it is not "free software" according to FSF/OSI definitions.

There are degrees to freedom, and while FOSS activists would like to paint issues black and white, they really are not. Which freedoms a particular user cares about is not at all given. For myself, I would gladly use Commons Clause software, because if I make money off software then it's only fair that I pay commercial license for it - after all, it's in my interest that the software is actively developed and maintained. And your questions are really all I care about, and this clause conforms to them.

But I think in the end it is up to each user to decide which set of freedoms they care about to the point of not using non-conforming software. The cynic in me would say that most users care only about free (as in beer) - at least judging by Android and plethora of its free-of-cost apps.

EDIT: I am not arguing that Commons Clause & co. should be accepted under the "free license" term - for better or worse, this term has some widely accepted definition that is not compatible with them. Maybe a new term, like "hybrid licenses" is needed? We'll see.

"Common Clause" prevents everybody to run it for "any purpose". Of course it does not fit the requirement for free software.

I doubt that "can you run it?" is meant to be interpreted as: "can you run it, sometimes?"

Indeed. The actual definition says: "The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0)." I simplified too much.

To GP:

> There are degrees to freedom, and while FOSS activists would like to paint issues black and white, they really are not

There are software that are free software, and software that are not free software. This is the whole point of a good definition. Actually assessing whether a program is free software might be hard, but at the end no software is between free software and non-free software.

Now we can argue on a level of freedom but we are not talking about this definition anymore.

I'm not sure Commons Clause even meets those informal requirements.

You can't run Commons Clause software if you're receiving payment for doing so. You can't redistribute Commons Clause software verbatim if you're receiving payment for doing so. (As written, it even appears to prohibit selling a CD of the software for the cost of the blank CD, a service that's otherwise widely accepted as a useful community contribution.)

Because the Commons Clause restricts the situations in which you can run and redistribute the software, software licensed under it isn't free software.

That's a good point - but of course I wasn't arguing that Commons Clause is "free software" (as defined by OSI/FSF). I do however believe that it solves a true problem that free software evangelists keep pretending doesn't exist, and it does so in a way which leaves user with much more freedoms than other proprietary licenses.

Is it free software? No. Does it allow many more freedoms than closed source? Hell yes. Is that enough? We'll see.

GPL -> "Free"

MIT or BSD -> "Open"


MIT or BSD: free, open source

GPL: free, open source, copyleft

These three licenses all conform with both the Open Source Definition AND the Free Software Definition.

And by the way, Linus Torvalds is closer to the open source initiative that to the free software foundation, which he does not like much, but his preferred license is the GPLv2.

You mean GPL -> "Free, but..."

No. It is free: the end user can do whatever they want with the software. It’s restricting the rights of the developer to give the user more freedom.

Any sort of 'ethical' clause will open you to endless legal battles, and make such software effectively impossible to use for anyone but large corporations able to afford those battles, or to buy themselves custom licenses.

I.e. it will even further concentrate power, and accomplish the exact opposite of what free software set out to do.

Not to mention the ethical nature of the software could be interpreted by potentially hostile courts. "Spreading disharmony against the state" will fall under "evil", and 'ethical' software will be reduced to another tool of control and propaganda.

Never understood why buying special licenses is an issue.

In general, it's not. Only when the license is such that using the software is impossible, even when the use is entirely in line with free software principles. You're effectively writing non-free software, but masquerading as free, and stealing its oxygen.

The agenda is made very clear toward the end of the article:

> As stewards of the free software definition, the Free Software Foundation should be taking the lead in ensuring that these issues are discussed. The priority of the board right now should be to restructure itself to ensure that it can legitimately claim to represent the community and play the leadership role it's been failing to in recent years, otherwise the opportunity will be lost and much of the activist energy that underpins free software will be spent elsewhere.

Translation: now that Stallman is mostly gone, we may finally change the definition of free software, thanks to a better "representativeness"

But this is extremely ridiculously naive to think that just because it would be coming from that Frankenstein FSF, it would not fragment the community. Debian would not follow. And tons of others.

Whatever you think of the current def, I think there is exactly zero chance of not fragmenting significantly by attempting to change it. I even think this is a huge misunderstanding of the very nature of free software to consider that free corporate usage and exploitation shall be prevented.

Sometimes they spill their spaghetti so willingly that all talk of ulterior motives becomes moot.

And if they can't change the norms of the community, fracturing it beyond repair is fine with them because it doesn't deserve to exist if it does not conform to their moral standards.

I do not think that there is a coordinated effort whatsoever to disrupt Free Software communities (at least not at industrial scale, maybe there are groups of 3 or 4 people with a similar mindset doing things together, but that is the case for pretty much anything on earth...), only - and especially in this case - personal opinions and approaches I sometimes strongly disagree with. Here to the point of not even understanding from where Matthew comes from, although it is true that some Linux devs are sometimes extremely far from the "canon" free software ideologies -- or maybe simply never really thought deeply about it.

And certainly this is the case here: getting rid of freedom 0 is not exactly something I would casually suggest esp in the name of preventing fracturing; I would expect the effect to be precisely the opposite :/ And I'm not sure at all why anybody would expect otherwise.

It takes "industrial scale" to build a large building, but not to burn one to the ground. The people involved in disrupting the community are relatively small in number, but they've developed an MO that lets them do great damage. They identify leadership of the targeted community, demand that they submit or be removed, and if neither of those happen they start contacting the sources of the community's funding.

If you decide to speak out against the Church of Scientology, a Scientologist may show up at your door telling you to stop. If you don't stop, your boss at work will start to get anonymous calls about you, exposing what a horrible person you are -- perhaps a sexual harasser, rapist, or child molester. Their story will be backed up -- by other Scientologists (who won't identify as such).

As for where Matthew is coming from, the details of that are not so important as that the Right People are in leadership of the community. If the community is not led by the Right People in service to the Right Ideas, then it is part of the system of White-Supremacist-Capitalist-Patriarchy, does not deserve to exist at all, and should be destroyed. And yes, Matthew "Ted Ts'o is a Rape Apologist" Garrett is one of the Right People (though thankfully, Ts'o seems to have a bit more spine than Stallman, so the smear didn't work nearly as well as was hoped).

Exactly. Now that they got rid of Stallman, they want to weaken the GPL, to look less fundamental and strict. Beware

Absent is any mention of the Affero GPL.

And that's the problem. Who is trustworthy?

> "The priority of the board right now should be to restructure itself to ensure that it can legitimately claim to represent the community"

Who is this appeal to, and what is it for? Is it genuine or an attempt, in the current upheaval, to have the board restructured to make it less effective?

> "and play the leadership role it's been failing to in recent years"

Failed in what? In "Representing the community"? What community should be represented here? Is the timing accidental? What is being sold to whom, or who to what?

Meanwhile rms is looking for new accommodations[1]:

"There should not be ... a digital listening device such as Echo, Siri or "Hello Google", or a card lock that records who opens the door. I will ask about cameras."

If nothing else, rms is trustworthy when it comes to software freedom. I'm not so sure about any new pretenders.


Ethics evolve, and shouldn't be pinned to a person.

BSD licensed software is fine as well, nobody would say it is unethical.

In the same way the GPL3 came about due to external circumstances, other forms of licensing should be able to be considered free (like the AGPL or maybe others) with regards to the current landscape and circumstances.

Everybody who matters already consider AGPL a free software licence, and that's not even because of an hypothetical evolution of any position.

Interesting article.

The problem of ethical use of something is not limited to software. When you get any tangible object, you don’t usually get usage restrictions from a license. So, if this is a problem to solve, I think that the solution should be sought more generally, not restricting the scope to software. (edit: and not to an individual software, which would be a weak way of "preventing" an unethical practice at the society level anyway).

Usage of tangible objects is restricted by law. I think it should be the same for software. And yes, law is not perfect, and not the same for different countries.

Everybody has their own, evolving, ethics. If everybody starts restricting usage for random things in licenses, we may be in for a big mess. And I say this as someone who has an opinion on many ethical matters.

> Usage of tangible objects is restricted by law.

A company can refuse to sell you a product if they don't agree with what you're going to do with it but they can't do anything at all if you somehow legally get ahold of it through secondary means.

Same with sold copyrighted works through the first sale doctrine (and this carries over to patents as well).

Software has seemed to have carved itself out a special niche where you don't actually own the product so the producers can dictate what you can and can not do with it after "first sale" since they don't really sell (or grant) you anything other than the right to use the product.

I'm the author of some popular open source software, but I don't have any illusions about the relative ease of building my software. This author sounds like they are trying throw their weight around, but I'm not sure they realize how much software is easily reproducible, given the right incentives, with nothing more than a spec. Open source is a convenience, and that's why people use it. Pretending that you can have serious influence over what companies are allowed to do with your software, outside of a very narrow and legally well-defined area, is seriously misguided.

If you are making a new missile system and all of the free (as in beer) software you want says you can't use it to kill people, then you suddenly have to pay a lot more money to make your missile system. That seems like a good thing to me.

I don't see how you could claim that it wouldn't be influencial if this became standard practice.

The question is whether it could ever become standard practice, or whether "no-killing-people" software would inevitably just become a hobby ecosystem that nobody seriously considers running a business with.

If people were actually committed to enforcing the ethics they espouse then there wouldn't really be a question, if such options were available. I agree that these are the things the discussion is ultimately about, and free software foundations taking it seriously might make it possible to be more than just a hobby ecosystem.

>then you suddenly have to pay a lot more money to make your missile

I assume you're talking about a government or government contractor, because anybody else wouldn't care about "licensing" if they're building a system to kill people. In the former case, "pay a lot more money" means spending more of everyone else's tax dollars, which they definitely won't have a problem with.

Many advanced weapons systems are made by companies like Ratheon.

I guess I'm operating under the assumptions that behavior under capitalism can be influenced by pricing, but government vendors may be a bad example.

This discussion about enforcing specific ethical standards in software licences is nothing new, freeware licences that forbade specific usage (like in military) existed quarter century ago.

That is why freedom 0 (the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose) in free software definition is important, and rejection of enforcement of specific ethical standard was intention and not omission.

This reflects modern liberal society, which accepts diversity of ethical systems and positions, accents civil cooperation and enforces just common necessary rules through law.

It is true that copyleft licences like GPL enforce free software idea itself, and are ideological in that sense. But such ideology is restricted in scope, so people with diverse ideological positions (say RMS and ESR) can accept it as a common ground. And even with this there is fracturing on copyleft vs non-copyleft free licences.

If 'free' software licences commited to some wider range of ideological and ethical positions, then it would lead to fracturing of communities along those lines and to endless infighting.

I would expect that such change would be advantageous to people with mainstream ethical positions, but oppressive to people with heterodox ethical positions. It would be ironic if free software would be more oppresive that commercial one (who is at least limited by consumer protection laws).

In conclusion, seems to me that such change is not benefical to free software and its users as a whole, but may be benefical to people who want to use free software as a power lever to force their ethical positions on others.

(There are also technical problems, like such software would be incompatible with GPL, and if forced as a new version of GPL that could delegitimize 'any newer' ammendment in GPL-3+ licences.)

Indeed. As I put it on Reddit the other day:

> Maybe you think that allowing people with a broad spectrum of opinions to work together on open source was only necessary in the early days when the movement was small and obscure, and now that it's popular and successful, those on the Right Side of History are justified in closing ranks and purging all who disagree because it's Their Movement. But I would say: why do you think the movement was successful in the first place? If you kill the common ground between hackers of all stripes, you're slaying the golden goose. The movement will not only resume languishing in obscurity, it will collapse in a series of petty squabbles over who has the correct exegesis of bell hooks's Ain't I A Woman with respect to routing underprivileged TCP/IP packets and who is obviously wrong and a cryptofascist and must therefore be expelled. Because that's where the movement will end up, once the current contingent of people pressing for power in FOSS get their way. (There is another theory which states that this has already happened; RMS is no right winger after all.)

> And that will be music to the ears of upper management of Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, etc. They will then drop their façade of loving open source. The peace floats will stop dead in their tracks and the tanks will roll out.

Free software means that anybody can use it. Even people you don’t like, whether that is Amazon or the US military. You can add whatever restrictions you want to your own software, but it doesn’t seem “free” if it restricts what I can do with it.

I think this is the issue. They want to create these licenses that restrict people's use, whether be it "good" or "evil", of software and yet still brand them as "free software" licenses which couldn't be further from the truth. In the end , this only brews confusion and misunderstanding. My belief is that if you want to create an "ethical" license, whatever that might mean at a point in time, then do it and brand it as such but then don't come and try to pass it as "free" when clearly it's not. This way people who want to use free software (or license as such) and people who want to use "ethical" software will know where to look respectively.

This article confuses me. It seems to be calling for FSF to think about addressing the needs of non-free software.

I think it is calling for the FSF to think about addressing a potential unwanted fragmentation of the free software community over opinions on ethical uses of software and solutions based on restriction from licenses.

The FSF has never viewed anyone who wants exceptions to copyleft as being part of their community to begin with.

Even something simple like the JSON license is something that the FSF sees as fundamentally incompatible with their values.


Yep, and I remember Stallman saying that these exceptions are not desirable in a talk.

Matthew Garrett certainly knows it and certainly wants that something is done on the matter. Which could be good. However, the title implies a possible evolution of the definition of free software, but I just can't see that as conceivable.

That would be akin to change the definition of the prime numbers to exclude 1, breaking many demonstrations in the process ⸮

> That would be akin to change the definition of the prime numbers to exclude 1

But one isn't prime: https://primes.utm.edu/notes/faq/one.html

Yes, that was ironic. 1 used to be prime for some time at some point in the past. I picked a mathematical definition that changed.


I don’t think that’s the right case for the FSF. I think maybe OSI or one of the standards bodies. I’m not sure the precedent for any body to do what the author suggests. So some new org.

It would be like the AMA deciding medical procedures couldn’t be performed on unethical people.

It’s a neat idea, but not sure why author thinks FSF would consider this as ver suggestion is not free.

You may have observed that recently the FSF was hijacked by people pursuing an agenda unrelated to free software concerns.

I think this is a slippery path.

Freedom 0 says: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.

If free software moves away from this how do we handle the curation of acceptable and not acceptable uses? This is a can of worms I 'd rather be left unopened.

I agree that there is a problem about monetization of software and I welcome the discussion about it. Abolishing freedom 0 however is something I 'd be very hesitant.

> As stewards of the free software definition, the Free Software Foundation should be taking the lead in ensuring that these issues are discussed.

They came to a consensus yeeeears ago about what can and cannot go into Free Software licenses.

I'm all for more fairness, but remember that for example the GPL is a giant legal hack, and maybe the next breakthrough will be an equally big legal and/of technical hack and not necessarily an attempt to amend other free licenses?

Edit: seeing how things play out in the US and Canada I'm even more sure than before that politics should be kept far out of tech.

> but remember that for example the GPL is a giant legal hack

Tax avoidance schemes are also legal hacks. If you can (ab)use something for bad things, then you should be able to (ab)use it for good things as well, yes?


Tax evasion schemes are not legal, by definition.

Maybe you are thinking of 'tax avoidance'?

Yes, you get the point.

When it comes to ethical principles, perfect is the enemy of the good. No ethical system can be perfectly watertight or universal, but that shouldn't stop us from trying at all.

With software specifically, those authors concerned about the ethical implications of the use of their software can add additional clauses to their license of choice, spelling out ethical constraints, but I fail to see how it can be reasonably enforced. I don't imagine for one moment that powerful corporations or governments are going to stand by and watch their empire crumble if the alternative would be to violate the ethical terms of a crucial piece of software that will give them an edge in their amoral powerplays.

> "...but many projects of immense infrastructural importance are simultaneously fundamental to multiple business models and also chronically underfunded."

True. Which then means free isn't entirely free. Those using such software are taking on risk - whether they care to admit it or not.

What's mind boggling is that this includes business entities large enough to mitigate that risk (i.e., contribute people and/or money). I'm being a bit cheeky but perhaps a license names "Use at your own risk" would be the way to go? That would be something upper level decision makers (and legal) would understand. As it is, many of those don't know GPL from MIT, etc.

Good write up. It is a tough question, but I personally think that we are all well served with LGPL/GPL/AGPL, Apache 2, and MIT licenses.

I understand the motivation for other more specific licenses, but it is also an advantage to just have a small set of licenses that people are familiar with.

I like to release stuff under ‘use either Apache 2 or GPL’, your choice. However, I honestly don’t know what problems that might cause people.

If I had to choose one license for all my stuff I would choose LGPL (permit free commercial use, changes to library must be shared) but a lot of my open source code is examples for my books so I like to be broad as possible, license wise.

The JSON license includes a requirement that "The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil"

Thanks, I never knew this and needed a chuckle this morning.

Crockford actually puts this requirement in most of the software that he writes. A few years ago he told a story where he had to relicense JSLint for IBM, stating "I give permission for IBM, its customers, partners, and minions, to use JSLint for evil."

You may also get a chuckle out of an anecdote about the license that Douglas Crockford gave during one of this talks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C-JoyNuQJs#t=2480s

Is it a joke or do they really not realize that there are no universal moral truths and that "good" and "evil" are completely subjective? What are the legal implications of that statement in theory and practice?

> Is it a joke or do they really not realize that [...]

In case you're not aware, the idea that there are no universal moral truths is not universally accepted. :)

(But, yes, it was a joke at George W. Bush's expense, per wikipedia).

> the idea that there are no universal moral truths is not universally accepted.

Yes, I know, which further strengthens the point that this is an extremely subjective territory. :P

Take it to the logical limit: either we have some sort of techno-utopia al la Star Trek -or- we have a world of Haves and Have-nots, Morlocks and Eloi, Techno-N. Korea. Unless Nature kicks our asses whatever we set up today will get amplified by technology one way or another.

Most people today can't even control their television (they can select what to watch, but not decide not to be spied on by their own tv. This is on the frontpage right now: "Watching You Watch: The Tracking Ecosystem of Over-the-Top TV Streaming Devices" [pdf] (princeton.edu) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21100404 )

These are social/political issues. I think the FSF here is overwhelmed by a tidal wave.

> Do we need to rethink what free software is?

Yes we do need to do that.

Initial idea of FOSS was more about personal use of OS applications, so at times when "you can share your code with your neighbour without your neighbour being able to deny the same freedom to others".

But that model simply does not work (or at least is not fair) in cases when OS is used in paid services. And 90% of OS code now is in the form that is suitable only for services. And that is the problem - FOSS is not motivating fair use of our code. Sometimes - quite opposite.

That is not true. Google "free software four freedoms".

What exactly is "not true"?

Initial idea of FOSS was more about personal use of OS applications,


Free software was initially aimed at protecting both personal and commercial freedoms, not just personal ones.

> The definition of free software includes the assertion that it must be possible to use the software for any purpose.

Rather, the assertion that the license must not assert any restrictions on use.

I don't know about free software, but I suspect there will still be a lot of people releasing code under open source licenses, including most developers working for companies.

Maybe there should be a standard license for non-commercial source code, but that could be called a "source available" license.

> the Free Software Foundation should be taking the lead in ensuring that these issues are discussed

What I suspect will happen is that the FSF will keep their happy-naive view of what "Free Software" is, ignoring the commercial and viability aspects of software financing and their definition will become stale.

And we will see more software that while not being officially OpenSource™ will, for most practical purposes, be open source.

> If free software is going to maintain relevance, it needs to continue to explain how it interacts with contemporary social issues. If any organisation is going to claim to lead the community, it needs to be doing that.

True. Though I don't think it will be open source that will suffer, rather, the organizations that miss the trends.

20 years ago most of the relevant free software was GNU, Apache, heavily Linux centric, etc

Today, not so much.

We look at open source funding in isolation but wealth inequality is pervasively unbalanced all over the place. Per-project funding has already failed to allocate resources adequately because it's only corporate projects that are funded not their dependencies. One proposed solution to this wider inequality is Universal Basic Incomes, that funds open source by design.

There are a lot of reasons to like UBI as a funding channel for open source. Open source contributes immensely to people learning how to use computers and even the bad ideas can influence the future. There is all this value and ecosystem being excluded when we look at funding on a per-project basis.

> As governments make more and more use of technology to perform acts of mass surveillance, detention, and even genocide, software authors may feel legitimately appalled at the idea that they are helping enable this by allowing their software to be used for any purpose.

This reminds me of US visa application forms. After you list all your relatives and past employers and places you've been in the last decade, there's about three pages of questions like "have you tortured kids or are you currently planning to", "have you committed genocide with biological weapons or are you planning to" and such. The idea is that genocide mongers will tick "yes", so the US can deny their visa.

> The idea is that genocide mongers will tick "yes", so the US can deny their visa.

You have failed to understand the system.

The idea is that they will tick “no”, and that then even if their crimes can't be proven to the criminal standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) necessary to impose imprisonment, capital punishment, or other criminal sanction they will then be subject to civil sanction for immigration violations, including deportation and bar from future legal entry, on the lower standard applicable to those non-criminal sanctions.


Just a side note, IMHO 'intellectual property' and the associated concept that ideas can be owned is gross enough that you don't need to take it any further.

Again my opinion, but calling it 'slavery' moves into the realm of histrionics and to me undermines your overall position. The fact that you can thread a few needles to make the leap doesn't really justify where you land, especially while there are people suffering actual physical slavery in the world today.

I think the term "intellectual property" is like when someone pisses on you and calls it "rain".

It makes no sense. The idea if I was on an island and can't share freely share some ideas of yours that you hold the "copyright" has zero correlation with any notion of property, and is much better described as slavery -- a form of control over my behavior.

> especially while there are people suffering actual physical slavery in the world today.

People in America in the red states are getting royally f*cked by Intellectual Slavery laws, while IS royalties are pouring into the blue states. I think there's a very real harm in not calling a spade a spade. Look at China. If they had been playing by the Intellectual Slavery regime of the West for the past 2 decades, they would not have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Instead they'd be sending what little they had to Bill Gates' pocket.

I'm out. Hit me up when 'slavery' just doesn't deliver the punch you're after and you move on to intellectual genocide.

We're basically in the verbal equivalent of the audio loudness wars. There's no dynamic range left in our speech, everything is theft, hate, rape, violence, racism, fascism and of course slavery on some ever increasing but poorly articulated spectrum.

I'm using logic. Intellectual Slavery is a logical term that corresponds much more closely to the rest of our language than IP.

"A slave is a person owned by someone and slavery is the state of being under the control of someone where a person is forced to work for another"

I think "Intellectual Monopoly" is a good term too, if the term "Slavery" makes you queasy. I think they are both 10x-100x more accurate than the current "IP" lies.

Might I suggest the slightly less emotive term "intellectual monopoly" instead?

I think "intellectual monopoly" is a good term. If we switched nomenclature to that, I think it's a great step in the right direction.

But when I hear the term IP, what I hear is "Intellectual Slavery", as you are declaring control over human behavior, which is the definition of slavery ("restricted freedom").

I'm not necessarily against Intellectual Slavery laws. If we as a people decide it's better to have those laws than not, that's fine. Just let's use honest terms here.

Be careful of what you ask for. IP laws are the foundation of what makes the GPL enforceable.

From the perspective of a developer using the BSD license, such as myself, this isn't such a big deal. A violation means "someone removed or replaced the copyright notice in my source code file". I don't want them to stop using or redistributing the program, including in its binary form that has no copyright notices; just restore the notices in any redistributed source.

I'm in favor of retaining only a limited form of IP law, which makes it unlawful to misrepresent the origin of a work. Basically, I would have academic misconduct and related types of misrepresentation continue to be offenses (even outside of an academic examination or publication setting), but not copying.

Other than that, scrap copyright with extreme prejudice.

Only problem is, what happens to the artists. Developers can still make money in a world in which the power of copyright is limited to fighting plagiarism. A lot of programs are in fact free to copy, but operate with limitations in the absence of a purchased license. But you can't record a song so that only limited features of the song are available for a limited time, unless the license is purchased. Such works can be taken outside of DRM easily via the analog hole.

> I'm in favor of retaining only a limited form of IP law, which makes it unlawful to misrepresent the origin of a work.

There's a technical solution (crypto signing) to that which is applicable exactly to those people who care, so it seems unnecessary to have legal machinery to enforce it.

I think this is a very good point. With git and proof of work hash patterns, it becomes not only unwise to falsely try and take credit for someone else's work, but technically infeasible to do. It's also becomes quite easy to add references (did I forget something? -- send a pull request!).

Which is why I used GPL as the example -- it requires modifications to be shared. BSD really wouldn't be affected nearly as much.

If we lived in a world where all free software was more like BSD, projects would look a lot less like linux, and a lot more like this:


Yes, however if copyright did not exist, GPL would be unnecessary, all software would be free software. Sure, the source code sometimes wouldn't be available, but there would be nothing legally preventing decompilation.

Sure, GPL software couldn't enforce releasing the source code, but for that matter, this is how it already works in European Union (as in EU, linking for purposes of interoperability is explicitly allowed).

>Sure, the source code sometimes wouldn't be available, but there would be nothing legally preventing decompilation.

This is true but generally unhelpful. The result of decompilation often isn't nearly as readable as the original source, and at the very least you've lost all documentation. A world without copyright would look much closer to one with entirely permissively licensed software than one with entirely copyleft software.

Unfortunately, in a world without GPL, you might not have easy access to that binary. It could be installed on a piece of multi-million dollar enterprise hardware that you'd have to purchase to get one.

That's probably exactly what companies like IBM would would do, if they weren't required to push their changes by GPL.

GPL doesn't prevent that unfortunately.

Yes, it explicitly does. Even in version 1 this was addressed. See section 3a and 3b:


GPL and copyleft are a clever hack to weaponize Intellectual Slavery laws against themselves, but a much simpler and better solution is just to work through Congress to repeal Intellectual Slavery laws of copyright and patents.

If copyright didn't exist, nobody could be required to share their changes to another person's work under schemes like GPL. Corporations would no longer be legally compelled to contribute to free software projects. Projects like Linux would likely be abandoned as large institutional users fork the projects and leave the original project to rot.

If copyright didn't exist, they could only use physical tamper-resistance techniques to protect their work from reverse engineering and copying.

Or they could simply refuse to sell it to you or anyone else without signing an NDA.

What are you talking about? This sounds like a Lyndon LaRouche screed.

Can you say this in, like, normal English without ideologically biased adjectives?

And maybe even throw in an example to clarify?

Intellectual Slavery laws of Copyrights and Patents do not in practice "promote the progress of science and useful arts". Instead they serve to transfer wealth from the majority of people to the 1%. Almost all profits from such laws flow to the richest corporations and individuals.

In places where such Intellectual Slavery laws have been flouted, such as China in the past few decades, you've seen great progress. If IS laws were followed in China, you'd have a richer Bill Gates and a lot more poor Chinese.

In the United States, in states that produce fewer information products, you see much lower standards of wealth, education, and health, as a substantial percentage of income flows from these states to IS states in return for overpriced information goods such as textbooks, software, medicine, and entertainment.

If people instead were free to use their own equipment to copy and share intellectual goods, such unnatural flows of wealth would not occur, and you would see a drastic lowering of wealth inequality, an improvement in education, a reduction in healthcare costs, an increase in higher quality educational content, and more.

The progress of science and useful arts would be accelerated, as billions of people would have access to the same information that currently only the wealth 1% have access to.

Perhaps there might be a few inventors/scientists/authors/musicians/etc who might decide without monopoly profits they won't invent, but even if there were, the impact from their abstaining from the field would not even be noticed, as there would be a flourishing of inventors/creators/etc who would thrive in the absence of restrictions on what they can do with ideas.

Thank you for that.

While I believe that you are conflating a few corrupt corporatist systems, that (I believe) will not be broken up by freeing up IP; I understand your point much better now. Again - thank you.

EDIT: I updated a grammar and a punctuation. Probably neither to perfection.

Sorry this is an emotional topic for me, as sometimes I get flashbacks to when I was a poor 19 year old kid on Napster just wanting to listen to the music all the rich kids were listening to, and then got sued by the RIAA.

That makes sense. I get triggered by certain things as well (but as I age, less and less, I think?).

I do appreciate the extended explanation. Your top-level comment was just not computing for me.

I am curious about whether wealth inequality is a top-tier (first-order) problem, as opposed to being a consequence of maybe other problems - and I may reach out to ask you your views on this at a later date.

World socialist revolution is far from simple.

The answer is simple A-GPL

Yep, and good luck acquiring users!

Perhaps acquiring users is not their goal? Open source does not have to be a popularity contest. Sharing for the sake of sharing - for increasing the knowledge of the world at large - is many people’s goal.

Doesn't Affero GPL cover this?

> As governments make more and more use of technology to perform acts of mass surveillance, detention, and even genocide, software authors may feel legitimately appalled at the idea that they are helping enable this by allowing their software to be used for any purpose.

Too bad, even if you were to disallow that in your license, governments won't care, those things often are often already illegal - courts will dismiss your cases about violation of copyright by saying it is "national security secret".

Additionally, licenses are based on copyright and cannot put additional restrictions. Consider GPL, it doesn't add restrictions, rather it allows you to do what copyright normally wouldn't allow. Programs are usable for any purpose by default, GPL doesn't change that. You can use EULA to add restrictions, however this requires an user to actually agree to those restrictions (by, say, clicking "I agree").

Is it true that copyright licenses can't add restrictions? Patent retaliation clauses in software copyright licenses suggest otherwise to me.

This isn't a restriction. Rather, a license grants a patent license which has its additional requirements. If you violate those requirements, you lose a patent license, but you don't violate the copyright (at which point, the license can be read as if it didn't have patent clause at all).

Can't copyright licenses terminate for any licensee who violates any term? What about copyleft itself? Don't violators lose their licenses?

In this age of software as a service, the FOSS model is obsolete. Consider the proposed backdooring of WhatsApp - even if I had all of WhatsApp's source code and set up an instance on my own server, would anyone use it? Why? How would I even get a non-backdoored encrypted chat program onto the app stores?

And let's be frank, app stores are a much better model for the non-techie end user than the chaos of Windows 9x.

Stallman's (deserved) fall from grace is leading to some soul-searching in the movement he founded and mismanaged for decades. Better late than never, but I'm afraid it's already too late.

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