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Software Development: The Ethics of Free Software

Mar 15, 2000, 15:53 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Bertrand Meyer)

"The movement in favor of free and open-source software has recently reached a highly visible status, not only in the computer profession but in the popular media, with mass-circulation magazines as widely available as Time and Newsweek giving prominent coverage to such heroes of the movement as Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and Linus Torvalds. Although comments on free software in its various form have been overwhelmingly laudatory, little attention has been made to justify this positive assessment and, more generally, to explore seriously the associated ethical issues."

"It should be pointed out, however, that the existence of a community of dedicated, well-intentioned and sincere defenders of a cause is unrelated to the ethical value of that cause. As an example, one of the tragedies of the twentieth centuries has been the diversion of the energy and passion of countless honest and idealistic volunteers towards support for Soviet-style communism, a regime that cause tens of millions of deaths, uncounted cases of human misery, and the destruction of civil society in entire countries. This example is obviously not a comparison with the free software community, simply a reminder that no idea can be justified on the basis of the quality of its supporters. The observation works the other way too: bad people can defend good causes. A corrupt and dishonest politician may sincerely support principles of democracy and freedom. His personal failings do not disqualify the ideas of democracy and freedom any more than the Nazi regime's impressive building of autobahnen disqualifies the merits of freeways."

"It is unfair, of course, to judge an idea from the character of its proponents. But in the case at hand the connection is close, as Dr. Stallman is the living icon of the free software movement, widely admired, imitated and idolized (almost like a sect leader) by his followers; he is also listed as the author of much of the GNU literature--the only one, in fact, in the documents that I have seen. So his attitude shapes much of the free software community's perception of commercial software. That perception is that commercial software is evil."

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