Xah's Edu Corner: Responsible Software Licensing

Xah Lee xah at xahlee.org
Sat Dec 24 07:31:48 CET 2005

Responsible Software Licensing & Free Software Foundation

Xah Lee, 2005-07

Dear Programers,

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

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 most people in the free
software 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 thiefing and gratis and
noise-making parts.

In a commpercial 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 a commercial item (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 Wikipedia.org 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 agree, please spread the idea.

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 xah at xahlee.orghttp://xahlee.org/

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