Responsible Software Licensing and Free Software Foundation

By Xah Lee. Date:

Dear Programers,

I have always respected the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and its community.

when i wrote the article a couple years ago on Responsible Software Licensing, i thought it might not be welcomed by the free software community, because in a way responsibility is implicitly a antithesis against the free software community.

I have high respect for the Free Software Foundation, even though i do not believe their tenet and dedication that ALL software MUST be “Free”. Nevertheless, i respect its founder Richard Stallman and the community on the whole. I think it is a very good group in a capitalistic software environment, as i'm also a strong advocate and believer in the goodness of laissez-faire system.

So, as i was thinking that a movement towards Responsible Software Licensing may be opposed by the free software community in general, in principle and in practice. In principle because FSF's ethics focuses on the goodness of individuals, as opposed to some forced regulations such as licenses and contracts. In practice because a good half of people in the open source camp are there because they are poor students and are totally ignorant of sociology, economics, business, law. As a class of the young, they are OpenSourcing fanatics for the thieving and gratis and noise-making aspects.

In commercial software, where money are paid to acquire, it is reasonable to demand workability from the sold goods. However, in Free Software, almost always it is never commercial (i.e. practically it is always free of charge), therefore demanding that the software hold some responsibility for its consumers may seem inappropriate. We cannot stipulate warranties and insurances from gifts. (Nor can we, for some conceived ethics, to force some behavior by law, as history shows us that is not going to work well.)

However, i think the free software community can in fact advocate responsible software licensing, and be a pioneer in this movement.

As i've indicated in the Responsible Licensing article, that today's software come with disclaimers that essentially say the producer is not liable even if the software don't work at all. It will be hard to change this zero responsibility stance to a 100% responsibility stance. However, we can start in small ways. Suppose, if you write a piece of email program, although there are a myriad scenarios that it will have problems sending email and in reality such problem happens often, but a responsible software programer can at least GUARANTEE, that the software WILL work to some extent of its described utility. In the email program example, a responsible author can say “We GUARANTEE that this software will send out emails in a normal setting. If not, we will refund the money you have paid, or, send you $1 USD.” Although this may seem fuzzy and silly, but it is a start. By giving a very safe minimal guarantee of functionality, possibly with a nominal liability assurance, the author will have made a _Responsible License_.

The Free Software Foundation's GNU project has been a pioneer in many aspects. It is a pioneer in the concept of Free Software with its GPL license, which is the main force behind the success and ubiquity of Linux and a massive collection of freely available software and components. It in fact has made a major impact in society, even beyond the realm of software industry. (for instance, the massive grass-roots online info-encyclopedia is a indirect consequence FSF and GPL) Free Software community also has done pioneering leads in software technology. For example, its emacs text editor, is a all-encompassing, self-documented, self-sustaining software, and a quality work at that. It embodies the LISP programing language, and in fact emacs is mainly responsible for spreading the quality concepts that is functional programing to most industrial programers. The GNU C Compiler (now GNU Compiler Collection), is critical in starting Linux and a massive collection of software in the unix industry.

This is why i think Free Software Foundation can be a leader towards responsible software licensing. There are a huge number of Free Software followers. Many of us also publish our programs, big or small. By starting with a very small, nominal statement in the license, we can spread the attitude of responsible software. Gradually, this practice can spread to commercial software, and to such a degree of competing offers of liabilities and guarantees as we have in for example USA's consumer products.

Please think about this. If you find this idea worth considering, please spread it.