Dear FOSS, will you take over Copyright? A short critique on Richard Stallman’s introductory speech on “Free and Open Source Software” in NUS

Introduction

In Stallman’s talk about issues about piracy and copyright, and his free and open source software (FOSS). I find it quite interesting as he presented his viewpoints on those issues. In all, the FOSS is a software that allows users to share, redistribute, redevelop, edit and practically do whatever any users would like to do with the programmes in FOSS. His purpose to create FOSS was to have a limitless, free and unrestricted area where people could do freely with the programmes in FOSS. This creation was driven by his experiences in his youth where software is created with too many restrictions, or what he calls “digital handcuffs”. Examples of what these “digital handcuffs” do are stopping people from knowing the source codes of how programmes work. These were called proprietary software.

In his speech, he talked about piracy. Piracy to him is not about illegal downloads of copyrighted software; it is about sharing software and encouraging information exchange to improve society. This explanation seems to be very appealing to anyone who has ever committed or is still committing the infringement of copyright. There are more things he said in his speech the main focus is on FOSS. That how this software should be used and how it will benefit humanity. And in this blog post, I will post my response towards his idea of FOSS. My responses are critical towards the feasibility of FOSS as I must admit that FOSS is a beautiful concept. However, it will never be the one that will emerge victorious with its battle with the “Copyright” camp in centuries to come.

Copyright’s inevitable dominance over FOSS

Copyright will have dominance over FOSS. In terms of this dominance, it is the dominance over “market” share or the share of users. The reason for this to happen is the structural flaws of FOSS which I will present in this blog post.

These are the points I have summarized about my evaluation on the structural flaws of FOSS:

  1. FOSS is too novel and not realistic in terms of its working principles of unrestricted sharing, non-commercialisation, and total freedom.
  2. It does not look at human nature, humans tends to be selfish.
  3. This platform cannot allow survive on the notion of “goodwill” because there are bound to have people who will not following this unwritten and tacit rule of “goodwill”.
  4. The freedom and non-commercialising characteristics of FOSS will deny professional programmers to make a living out of designing programmes if it would to be a dominant platform in ICT.
  5. Once professional programmers do not make a living from this industry, expect talent drain. After all, humans are driven by many motivational factors such as material rewards.

In a capitalistic world, economies across the world are based on the idea of profit making. Capitalism has managed to triumph in countries such as China, Vietnam and Russia. These countries were once communist but have now embraced either capitalism in economic or political aspect or either one of them. (The End of History and the Last Man. n.d)

In my opinion, FOSS is similar to communism, as it is beautifully crafted with the idea of total freedom, non-commercialization and unrestricted-sharing as its main concept. FOSS prides itself on these values for anyone who wished to do as they pleased with the programmes available in FOSS. However, the major drawback is it’s without rules, FOSS is non-commercialised, and programmes in FOSS can be downloaded, modified and be sold by any unscrupulous users. According to Stallman, this act of downloading programmes from FOSS and then commercialising is something he will not control because of his principle of total freedom in FOSS. Also, he said that it is purely up to one’s ethical guidelines to do whatever he wants. Even though the act of commercialising the products is unethical, it is the right of freedom of action that can’t be violated. This to me is the biggest mistake of Stallman’s philosophy in FOSS and is the cause of its inevitable failure analogous to communism. The failure of FOSS is not annihilation or eradication but a failure to exert dominance over the “market” share of users.

One analogy to describe total freedom would be anarchy, where there are no central authority, no rules, no laws, and no guidelines for anyone to follow. Every action will be based on one’s moral principle. However, how much of “proper” moral actions can we expect from society where everyone’s personality and desires are different from another person’s? According to John Locke, humans are not all selfish and evil (John Locke. n.d). However, it is the inherent human nature that caused humans to be selfish. In short, humans have very high tendency to be selfish. In linking this argument to FOSS’ working principles, we should not expect everyone to act ethically or by “goodwill” all the time because it is simply unrealistic as there is high probability that people will not adhere to such social contract.

Imagine a time comes when FOSS becomes the dominant platform together with the removal of copyright of our society. Programming will cease to become a form of commercial means. This meant that no one will be able to make a living out of it. In other words, we shall see an inevitable phenomenon of talent drain and lack of talent influx to happen. As humans are sentient beings, we respond to desires, needs and wants as motivational objectives. Software programmers are no exception to these motivations to motivate their actions. In my opinion, a dominant FOSS will remove opportunities from the programmers to make programming their career. It will rob them off of their livelihood. Resulting in the notion that programming is a purely just a serious hobby for anyone. Hence, the quality of programmes is questionable, because the sense of competition in this field will no longer exist. It is this motivation from competition that drives humans towards their many astonishing innovations throughout the history of mankind.

Therefore, in my opinion, although copyright products at times maybe restrictive but it allows creators to reap the rewards of their fruits of labour while not comprising on the quality of programmes created. Such examples are Microsoft windows and Adobe’s PDF that we have enjoyed so far. A refutation may surface and posed that market “monopoly” is the reason why in the example of Microsoft’s programmes it has managed to be one of the popular ones in used. My intuitive and initial response to that refutation does agree to a large extent. However, the crux to this issue is we have a choice. We can choose to use other programmes but if we are not doing so, that means that such “monopolized” programmes do have good standards that we appreciate and will continue to use.

References:

1. The End of History and the Last Man. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 27, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Last_Man

Citation in text: (“The End of History and the Last Man,” n.d.)

2. John Locke. (n.d). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 27, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Locke

Citation in text: (“John Locke,” n.d)

 

 

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