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Tony Stanco: Why FreeDevelopers.Net Used The Declaration Of Independence As Its Model

Feb 22, 2001, 01:10 (17 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tony Stanco)

By Tony Stanco, FreeDevelopers.net

The following are the reasons that FreeDevelopers.Net based the Declaration of Software Freedom on the Declaration of Independence.

The moral question between free and proprietary software ultimately revolves around the issue, "Is code more like law (and ought to be public and free) or more like literature (and therefore can be private property)?"

We must ask developers, who are renowned for their independent thinking, to suspend disbelief and skepticism until the end, for new ways of seeing the world at first seem strange and thus inherently wrong. But people from the earliest times have turned to things they know well to better understand things that are new. And the proper place for software development in the world is a new question.

Since everyone intuitively knows what law and literature are, let's look to them in a thought experiment to better understand the attributes of software, and specifically to resolve the question whether the software development paradigm ought to follow a free or proprietary model.

LAW v. LITERATURE
What's the difference between law and literature? Both are just words on paper. And both are created by men and women from their native, intellectual powers. So why then does society treat them so utterly different? Why is literature allowed to be private property, subject to the capricious whims of a creator who can do whatever he wants with it, while personal ownership of law is forbidden? In fact, in free and democratic countries the creation of law has been studiously circumscribed, and is subject to great control, huge regulatory mechanisms and public participation.

While we in free and democratic societies have been thrust into a world with these verities presented as gifts, who among us has stopped for a moment of reflection to wonder why this is or how it came about? Has it always been that law and literature were treated so differently?

Remembering back to high school history we can all recollect learning of times when law was just the dictates of all-powerful kings. When law was really just whatever the king wanted it to be at the moment without restriction. Back then, writing good laws made them good kings and bad laws made them bad kings. But either way, kings were the solitary authors of law, creating real world effects for their subjects with their mere utterances, just like literary authors today create fictional worlds with their words. So, at the time, law was just the private property of kings. Or to put it another way, law was the king's literature.

So in fact even not too long ago, the world was confused about the differences of law and literature. Some places today still live under the confusion. But for the most part, the world through bloody trial and error has discovered that law and literature are somehow very different. With countless political wars fought over who would get to write the words to be placed in law books, the world came to slowly realize that law creation ought to rest in the governed through some democratic means, and not be the private preserve of a particular person. This is surely clear to all thinking people in the 21st century and needs no elaboration here.

WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL DIFFERENCE?
Over centuries, therefore, the world has established that there is a difference between law and literature, and that the two ought not to be confused. But has the world ever rationalized the essential differences in them to explain the difference in treatment more specifically? Because to apply effects to different circumstances as we are trying to do here with software, one must understand the causes too, not just the outcomes. So what really is it in law that makes it different from literature? Again, both are merely words from people's intellect, so exactly what is the essential difference?

For one thing, people don't have to read an ordinary book. Experiencing literature is totally voluntary, whereas law is compulsory. Does that explain all of the essential differences? It certainly appears to go a very long way, but that is not the whole story. Law is not only compulsory; it is coercive, also. Law, unlike literature, does not only tell you what you need to know, it tells you what you have to do, too. And if you don't do it, it sends the police to knock on your door at night to politely, or not so politely, make sure you do it. And this is ultimately the essential difference between law and literature.

Therefore, in the final analysis, law is essentially not like literature, because it controls people.

So to briefly recap, over the centuries, starting with rational predispositions of equality, autonomy and freedom, the world has deduced in bloody and deadly cycles of reductio ad absurdum that if law is to control people, the only legitimate creation of that law is a social contract among the people as written in a democratic process by the governed themselves.

WHICH IS SOFTWARE MORE LIKE?
So the basic question at the beginning of the 21st century between proprietary and free software comes down to the question whether software is more like law (and ought to be public and free), or more like literature (and can be private property). Under the analysis above, the crucial question is, "Does software control people?"

Well, the answer is both yes and no.

Up until very recently, before computers were interconnected by the Internet, they were isolated tools, not instruments of control. So, no, historically computers do not control people.

But with the creation of cyberspace in recent years, where more and more interaction between people is through computers, these machines are fast becoming a nonhuman, digital police force, telling people not only what they need to know, but coercing them on how to do it, too. Without complying with their specific rules for participating in cyberspace, people cannot properly function there. In other words, digital machines are beginning to control how people interact with other people and with the physical world in real and definite ways. So, the answer is quickly becoming yes.

However, whereas a human police force takes its marching orders from what we call law, the new digital, nonhuman, police force takes its orders from what we call software. But both are functional substitutes for ways to control people. And as such, with the beginning of the Internet Age, software has begun to supplement the traditional function of law.

As a functional equivalent to law, by analogy to thousands of years of human history, software, therefore, should not be created at the whim of a king (or his current day manifestation as CEO), nor should it be owned as private property. Rather like law, it should be public property, and open to general inspection and deliberation, so that the governed can participate in the formation of the social contract by which they will be governed. As a result, software should be developed under a free model, rather than the current proprietary paradigm that we have had up until now.

In conclusion, as Richard Stallman has said for 16 years, free software is really about Freedom. As such, free software is this generation's moral duty, just as much as the establishment of democracy was the moral duty of our ancestors for which we, the later generations, have been the beneficiaries. It is this congruence between their revolution and ours that justified, in our view, the use of the Declaration of Independence as the model of the Declaration of Software Freedom.

Tony Stanco
FreeDevelopers.Net

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For those who, inspired by these ideals, want to join FreeDevelopers, please sign the Declaration at www.FreeDevelopers.Net/freedomdec.

For those who need appeals to their personal pecuniary interest and an answer to the question, "How does this profit me?" please wait until we unveil the proposed new commercial structure for the development of software. It will be disclosed in the coming weeks.

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