Problems with Restrictions

Doghouse – Morality and Licensing

Article from Issue 242/2021

Recent discussions of introducing moral restrictions into free and open source software licensing have maddog remembering all the reasons early developers decided not to go down that road.

Recently there have been some discussions around free software that are focusing on nontechnical issues that might best be described as "moral" issues.

For example, should people be allowed to charge for "free software" and should free software be used for purposes that are "immoral"? Should we build restrictions into our licensing that require "moral use"?

I cannot speak for every piece of software out there or every person who writes it, but we did have these discussions over a quarter century ago, and while I may not be able to find my car keys, I remember these discussions very well.

As some of you are aware, the Linux kernel's copyright is not held by a single person, but by many people who all have licensed their code under the GPL.

As the Linux kernel moved from a "hobby" to a "technical wonder," several of us could see it moving to commercial use.

As we started the discussions, there were some developers who said "I do not want my software to be used by the military, because I do not like war or the military." Some developers said "I do not want my code to be used by banks." Others said "I do not want my code to be used by the church," while still others took the opposite stance of "I do not want my code to be used by atheists."

As we drew the circles of more and more people who told us who they did not want using their code, it became obvious that the Venn diagram of all of these exclusions meant no one would be able to use the code.

Even if you were to narrow down the groups from, as an example, "The Church" to some particular sect of "The Church," the future requirements would eventually cause the kernel to be useless to anyone, and if your code can not be used, then why write it?

Another reason for not going down this path is the fact that there are plenty of pieces of code out there that could be used for immoral purposes – closed source code, other operating system kernels. Plus uses for immoral purposes would still happen even if you tried to prevent it.

A side effect is the legal situation. I know many lawyers and some of them are my very good friends. Lawyers of large companies and governments look at every license with a critical eye. If they feel that the use of a piece of code puts their company in jeopardy for breaking the license, they will recommend the company not use it. Inserting a "morality" clause in the midst of your license is one way of getting corporate lawyers to say "use something else," because one person's idea of morality differs from another.

A corollary to "morality uses" is the concept of "selling code," or using free software in commercial products. Many developers said "I do not want people making money on the software that I write for free."

The genesis of this thinking is that typically free software is written for your own use, or for the use of people like you who are also programmers and contributors to your software. You typically do not mind "sharing" your software with them, but it grates on you that someone is making money off your software.

On the other hand, having these people selling your software and perhaps providing service helps more people become exposed to your software (and you) then might otherwise happen. These people may do the extra work, such as documentation, integration, and training that you do not want to do. Eventually these people may become sponsors of your project, allowing you to work on your software full time.

Another element of "selling free software" is demonstrated in the recent purchase of Red Hat by IBM. Some thought that this was a "sell out," and opposed the sale based on "people making money from free software." On the other hand both IBM and Red Hat create thousands of jobs and develop solutions for people that need them.

You have to come back to the fact that the "free" in free software is not about gratis, but freedom. Even Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation took pains to say that people should be able to make money "selling free software."

As the Linux kernel project got closer and closer to version 1.0, the discussions became more and more intense, and we did lose a few very talented programmers because of some of the decisions that were made, including:

  • Free software can be used for any purpose.
  • You can sell free software as long as you obey the conditions of the license.

You can not create morality through licensing. You create moral people and acts through teaching and requiring morality in life.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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