[Fsfe-ie] Re: ethical interpretations of FS

Fergal Daly fergal at esatclear.ie
Thu Feb 5 16:10:45 CET 2004

I've rearranged your mail slightly. The first bit is to do with my argument
with Ian, the rest if is my interpretation of the FSF's argument. I am
undecided on whether their argument is strong enough, I'm interesting in
exploring it further but not before resolving the first part.

I don't see any point in exploring it while this analogy between "free
passwords" and "free software" exists. So please reply to the first bit and
then, if you feel like it, continue on.

On Thu, Feb 05, 2004 at 11:50:40AM +0000, Aidan Delaney wrote:
> I believe I'm starting to believe Ian.
> I don't have time to read the rest of your email.  I'll reply on Monday

It's probably not very interesting. It is not really about being for or
against full FSF-ism. I'm only only trying to show that the analogy with "no
secret passwords" is not useful to the discussion.

If by "starting to believe Ian" you meant that you're starting to believe
that software and passwords are so similar and that anyone who argues that
software should be Free (FSF - Free) must logically also argue that
everybody's passwords should be free (free beer/free as the wind/free to be
used by everyone else). If you are starting to believe this then please
explain how the "dependency on the author" idea, which is basically the core
of the FSF argument, can be transferred to the password situation and
implies in any way that nobody should have a secret password.

Until this point is out of the way, there is no point in considering
anything else. If Ian is correct on this point then the FSF's philosophy is
fundamentally broken. It can be used to justify all manner of bad "free"ness
and no matter what points anyone makes in it's favour an opponent can always
immediately respond with "that may be true but if you believe that then you
must also believe that all secrets are bad".


> >Because then the user would not be dependent on the author of X for
> >all fixes and improvements.
> This is where free market comes in.  Users have a coice wheather to use  
> services that rely on Free Software or on propritery software.  I and  
> the FSF say that all software should be Free, but we cannot _force_  
> people to make their software free.

Agreed, but the FSF believe that non-Free software is morally wrong. This
gives me the impression that if they could force people (by passing laws for
example) they would.

Again, that is not to say that all software must be available to everyone,
it just says it must be available to it's users, so if I chose not to let
anyone else use my software then no one else would be entitled to the
source. This could arguably apply to a corporate situation to, if the
company does not distribute the software outside of itself (and does not
allow employees to use it for personal purposes), then the software should
remain private to the company.

> >The Free in FSF is about far more than freely available. In fact the
> >FSF say
> >freely available source is no good on it's own. The Freedom they are
> >concerned with is the Freedom to modify, use and redistribute  
> >modified
> >versions without any control from the original author.
> Agreed.  We must also have the freedom to choose non-Free software :)   
> I personally belive that I should have the freedom to use only Free  
> software, I don't think that I have the freedom to curtail someone  
> else's use of non-Free software.  Except where they use Free software  
> owned by me and make it non-Free.

I think (and I haven't reread this stuff recently so I could be wrong) that
the FSF think that curtailing everyboby's use of non-Free software would be
a good thing. The reason being that your use of non-Free software does
affect me in. If some non-Free software becomes a de facto standard or a
monopoly then I may have no choice but to use it or to spend huge amounts of
time writing a compatible version just to go about my daily business in
society - Word and .doc files being a perfect example. Think of how much
time has been wasted on implementing free software importers just because
this terrible, undocumented (undocumentable?) file format is a de facto

Software is inherently monopolistic in a way that chairs aren't. Any chair
is pretty much compatible with any other because we don't adjust our bums to
suit our current chair and then get locked it to a that shape because we've
bought all our underpants and trousers to suit it. We don't run into
problems at our friends house because our bums are incompatible with their
choice of chair. Even if someone did somehow get a monopoly on chairs, it
doesn't raise a huge barrier to entry for competitors. The unit cost of
making a chair is pretty much constant (ignoring economies of scale). With
software, once you've recovered your initial investment, your unit cost is
0. You can afford to undercut any competitor in order to maintain your
monopoly. This not only shafts your existing competitors, it prevents anyone
from even trying to compete. So you don't ever actually have to drop your
price, just the fact that you can and will drop it is enough to maintain
your monopoly.

The normal rules about supply/demand and monopolies in markets don't apply,
because they assume that each unit manufactured has an appreciable cost to
the manufacturer. So in the old models where competitors fight with the
balance tipping this way and that, you had this effect that any monopoly
that tried to raise it's prices (or tried to maintain it's prices despite
general improvements in manufacturing efficiency) would immediately be
undercut and lose market share. The market has a balance point that is
somewhere in the middle and if it moves away from that point, market forces
will push it back towards the balance point. Think of a ball in a valley, it
always rolls back to the valley floor.

With software this doesn't happen. There is a balance point in the middle
but if one of the competitors gains an advantage, market forces do not push
it back towards the balance point, in fact they push it away from it - the
bigger your market share, the more people will choose your software despite
the fact that your prices are higher. So the natural end-stage of a software
market is monopoly rather than a perpetual balance. Instead of a ball in a
valley you have a ball at the top of a mountain. It can stay at the top but
if it starts going down one side of the mountain it will almost cretainly go
right to the bottom and never come back.

The FSF understand this and they are saying, if we must have monopoly then
no one should be in control. It's a fairly good point,


More information about the FSFE-IE mailing list