Software Development: The Ethics of Free Software

“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

“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

“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.”