Ownership in Software

Axel Schulz axel at schulz.ph
Wed Apr 21 14:32:10 UTC 2004

Dear friends,

It is already a good deal of time since I started wondering about computer software. 

And since that time I could not answering the question to myself why software should not be owned, like Stallman suggested. By the way, who is the owner? I think it can be either the engineer or the company (the client) who pays the engineer. Or? 

Stallman seems to say that software should not be owned. Please consider these two quotations:

1) "Should development of software be linked with having owners to restrict the use of it?"

2) "I have shown how ownership of a program - the power to restrict changing or copying it - is obstructive. Its negative effects are widespread and important. It follows that society shouldn't have owners for programs." (Stallman, 1995, p. 193 & 196)

I have to say that I disagree with Stallman at this point. Society needs good software (more than ever). And individuals should be allowed to claim rights in their products - this should be their freedom, too. This is from my point of view the main ethical conflict. It is a question of justice, freedom, and valid claims.

What Stallman is trying to defend is non-ownership. But this makes people un-free. The concept of freedom has in social philosophy two meanings: (1) to be free from something (negative freedom) and (2) free to do something (positive freedom).  Basically, we are un-free when our wants are denied their satisfaction.

However, both kind of freedoms have to be defended in a political theory. I cannot see how one could defend a non-ownership in software. 

I would argue that freedom has to be ensured; and that's why the individual freedom to ownership in software cannot be abolished. The claim for the abolition of ownership in software, as I would say, too weak. 

Stallman listed in his article some good arguments for non-ownership. But I am not completely certain if the claim embedded in the argument cannot be fulfilled by other means, e.g., with FREE (GPL'ed) software, too. If it could - why deny the (positive freedom) of other people to claim rights (of authorship) in their products? How could one justify such a claim?

Stallmans argument is sound when it comes to patents. "1-click-patents" do not bring any advantage for society and make ALL types of software un-free. From a moral point of view this is indeed a good reason for denying the applicability of patents to software. The problem in practise is, to point the risk of patents in software for society. (I know, I am taking trees into the forest here.)

The GPL and the whole idea of FREE Software is very sound. This is a valid claim. 

Now, please tell me if I am on the right track. I do not tell me I am not ;-)  (Just kidding)
I am really looking forward to your comments. I think I will learn a lot from you.

Thanks in advance!

best regards,

Stallman R (1995): Why Software Should Be Free, In: Nissenbaum/Johnson: Computers, Ethics, And Social Values, Prentice-Hall, pp. 190-200 

(*) I am not a software developer. That's why this question might sound to you a little strange.

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