The problem with proprietary software

I am both a libertarian and a free software user. Some people think this is weird. I don't think so.

Free software is basically the rejection of the idea that one can sell software (or other products) licences and libertarians support laissez faire capitalism and understand that free market is the most efficient method of allocating resources and promoting well being among human beings. The alleged contradiction is that free software rejects market as the means to distribute softwares while libertarianism says free market is the best mean to allocate resources. If this was true, they'd be incompatible. I think they are not incompatible. Moreover, they are quite close to each other. Here is why.

First: free software is not the same as software without a price. I must admit the term "free software" is misleading. It would be better to talk about software freedom. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as free (priceless) software: every software costs money to develop, maintain and distribute and if someone does not need to bear this cost it means someone else does. The so called free software are actually software published under licences that allow the user to access the code, read it, change it and distribute it. There is no obstacle for someone to sell free software (yep, bad choice of words). I've seen some stores selling Debian DVDs together with some magazines. Those that are not sold are paid for nonetheless. LibreOffice is beard by The Document Foundation, that is financed with donations. Firefox is maintained by Mozilla, which gets paid thanks to services it provides, for example, the searches from the Firefox search bar. I myself am a partner of a tiny company that develops licence-free games that are distributed free of charge. We bear the costs hopping to get the money back with adds and other sources. Thus, free software is not, and has never been, free.

Second: libertarianism is the belief that freedom is one of the main values to be preserved. Free software is software developed by who wants to do it and used by who wants to use, without any coercion whatsoever in either side. Mozilla distributes their software free of charge because they want to and are free to do it. I use it because I want and I am free to do it. There is no coercion.

Third: free software is not software without an owner. In a free environment there is private property. This results simply from the fact that individuals want to have property and being free to protect it they will certainly do it. Libertarians stand for private property as an important value to be preserved, but there are some people who think free software is a collective property. This is not true. A piece of software is private property because it is up to its creator to decide what to do with it. I have written lots of scripts that were very handy to me and even some little computer games that I have never distributed. I didn't want to distribute it so I didn't. I don't think other people would be interested in them. I've distributed some others. If I am free to do with my software what I please, than it is certainly a private property. It happens that somethings are peculiar. If I own a cake and eat it, than I no longer own a cake. Gone. If I own a house and I rent it for a month period, I can use it next month. If I own smoke tough, and I let it disperse, than its gone. The fact is information, including software, may be easily copied. If I email a secret of a software to a friend of mine, I may find out tomorrow that every single person in the world owns my secret or software. If you don't want your secret to be widely knows, do not distribute it. If you want to distribute only to people willing to pay, that is your problem: find a way to do it, but I'll consider any use of coercion as an immoral mean to achieve such a goal.

Fourth: proprietary software is actually software sold under coercion. Proprietary software is also a misleading name. Every software is proprietary. The fact that I gave my software to a lot of people does not make it not mine. Their copies are theirs, of course, but I'll always be the original author and I own my copies. The so called proprietary software is actually a piece of information protected by the state. This means the state forces us all to pay taxes so it can stop some people from using information they've received from other people. It goes like this: Microsoft does not want you to use your Windows Home Basic Edition to make professional work and because of this government will take money from us all in order to punish those who use Windows against the licence. Adobe does not want Photoshop to be distributed without payment, so the government will tax everyone in order to arrest people selling CDs with copies of Photoshop burnt. It would be very difficult to Microsoft and Adobe to achieve these goals by themselves and therefore they expect government to do the dirty job. Government is coercion: we are forced to pay taxes and to obey the law. If you use government to sell software, you are using coercion. Proprietary software is not software that belongs to someone: every software belongs to someone. It is a piece of software with a licence government will force you to obey under threat of imprisonment.

Is it a crime to copy a software? Well, it shouldn't be. Companies and individuals are surely entitled to sell their software just as they can sell their secrets, gossips or any other product or service. I think they have the right to try to make deals with their buyers in which they agree not to reveal secrets, copy softwares or use them in some manner. This is nobody else's business. If I agree to pay John $1,000 a month renting his house for a year, and I don't honor the deal and leave the house three months later, John may sue me. It is a violation of a contract and John will win the cause and make me pay a reparation.This is how civil law works: people sue people for what they think they have been injured. Crime is different. Crime is an offence government takes care of punishing because it is so grave that people (the government, actually) thinks everyone should share the burden to persecute and punish the offender. Thus, if some stupid maniac kills Joe's daughter, police will chase him, arrest him and punish him. He will be arrested even if Joe doesn't want him to be. He will be arrested even if nobody liked the victim. No one is to be killed and everyone will help ensure that. To say that respecting a contract to preserve a secret or not to copy a software is a crime is to say that it is everyone's business if Joe does not honor his contract with Microsoft. It is, indeed, to grant software owners the special privilege to have government to protect their contracts as if they were crimes. Copying a software after having signed a contract not to do it is a civil offense and should be treated as such.

It should be clear that I do not think Microsoft should be forced to reveal Windows source code. Not at all. It shouldn't be forced to do anything. Neither should government worry about persecuting those that violate contracts with Microsoft as if they were rules of criminal law. If Microsoft is capable of creating a mechanism that stops it's customers from copying their code (as Sony did with PS3 for a long time) or if Coca-Cola can hide Coke's recipe from everyone, than congrats to them. However, if someone finds out some way to copy it, it's their problem, not governments. Some may argue that the losses due to a single violation of the licence agreement are so big that make this agreement more important then others. I don't think so. If an agreement is fragile it is not of government business to make it not so. Software owners may use any business model they want, provided coercion is not used. Relying on tax payers money to protect your contract is to use coercion against tax payers.

There is actually one single aspect where libertarianism and free software are incompatible: that is the idea that the owner of an information may decide what others will do with it. This is where Creative Commons, Gnu, Apache and many others made a great evil with their licences. The so called "free licences" allow the user to do a list of things with the software as if it was the software owner right to choose what others will do with their copies of the software. They intend to be enlightened despots: "since I made this software I'll distribute to you and allow you to do anything you want with it". It is as if on using the software people were giving up part of their freedom to me. This perfectly stupid idea may spread to others areas, to cause unrepairable damage. It is happening already: console makers intend to forbid you to use this or that game on "their" console. Hardware vendors try to include a "licence" with every sale to stop people from doing this or that to the gadget. Soon enough we'll have wine that can only be drank in marriage celebrations, houses that cannot be used as a garage and shoes that may not be hang on clothesline. Imagine a world where every product has a "user agreement": you're only free to do what you want with things you've made yourself.

Neither proprietary nor free software has the right to tell me what I can or cannot do with my products. In this aspect I prefer the so called piracy over free software. I'll not waste time reading what Gimp authors accept me to draw or what kind of text the creators of LibreOffice allow me to write. This is foolish. They may choose not to distribute their software exactly like the sheep owner may not sell me his sheep. Once they give me or sell me a sheep or a copy, it is mine to do as I please.

Most vendors use a distribution model that has an implicit agreement. There is no such thing as an "implicit deal": either there is a deal or not. When you ask for a beer in a bar it is quite clear that he expects you to pay. There is no "when you ask for a beer you agree with the terms and conditions specified in the agreement bellow" crap. Writing in a long obscure tedious document that if I use you software, than I may not copy it or that I must do this or that is immoral. If you want to distribute only to people who sign a contract, than make them read it and sign it for real (regardless of weather it is on screen or on paper). That would surely be a burden and reduce the number of costumers to the number of those willing both to read the deal and abide to it. Vendors wouldn't like that ― which is evidence of their intentions ― and so they build their protocol in such a manner that it is very easy to make the deal without the other part having to read the agreement. This did not eliminate the burden. This changed the deal: that what was a contract is now a fraud. If one wants the contract to be observed, why allow people to avoid it? If the vendors want us to abide to the agreement, why they so easily accept my choice not to read it? When we rent a house and the owner wants no animals, he will make this quite clear: he won't hide it in a hundred page nonsense agreement. Both proprietary and free softwares are guilty of this stupidity.

Supporters of the proprietary software model may say their business model wouldn't be possible without special government protection. The argument is as follows: watching over all users is very expensive and if the companies had to do it the price of the software would be so hight that it wouldn't be worthy. The problem is that this argumentation intends to eliminate the cost transferring it to the government, and the government gladly accepts it because it will take the money from the people by force. Thus, software creators are trying to convince us government is important because otherwise software would be very expensive and the government accept it because it gains legitimacy (and more taxes). Proprietary software would argue that the alternative is not to develop software. They'd say: "software development is expensive and the only viable model to do it is selling licences. The licence protection is expensive and only viable if government protects them". Well, that is simply not true. We can see it clearly as there are free software, but let's pretend it is true. If it was true that the total cost of software development was so hight that either government protects licences or we would have a world without software, than the best thing to do would be to live in a world without software. The fact is when you transfer the cost to the government, it is still there. It leaves companies accountability and enters tax payer's accountability. Let's say that if Microsoft had to bear the costs of protecting their code without special treatment it would have to sell each licence for $100,000. If this was true, transferring costs to government so that each licence is sold as cheap as $100 means to steal $99,900 for each licence from tax payers.

In simple words: if a business is not profitable, it's their problem, not ours.