Ownership in Software

Guillaume Ponce contact at guillaumeponce.org
Fri Apr 23 08:14:55 UTC 2004

                              Dear Axel,

You are right in one thing: you try to think by yourself on all these
questions to make your very *own* opinion and not just stick to a
fundamental text that would be just like a holy bible for the free
software supporters.

But I really think you missed two points in your thinking.

1. What is ownership and what is authorship

The first is what is ownership on software, and the fact that it is
really different from the authorship.  Copyright is what in law is the
closest to the notion of ownership of software, although it is limited
in time.  So the one who is the closest to be the "owner" of a piece
of software is the copyright holder.

As for something you own, you can sell and buy copyright
("ownership").  But you cannot buy or sell authorship (hiring a writer
to write a book and putting your name on it is punished by law, at
least where I live, in France).  The author is just the *original*
copyright holder ("owner") of the work.

Suppose you are hired to write (proprietary) software for a company.
In fact you will be hired not only to write it, but also to cease your
copyright ("ownership").  You won't be the copyright holder anymore,
but you will still be the author (you are still the that wrote the
software, whoever is "owner" is).

So authorship and "ownership" are two very different things as you
can, at the same time, have one and not the other.

2. What is freedom and what is power

The second point I think you really missed is what is a freedom and
what is a power.

It seems you started your thinking by reading "Why Software Should Not
Have Owners" (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/why-free.html).  You
should go on reading "Freedom or Power?"

Short quoting:

"Freedom is being able to make decisions that affect mainly you. Power
is being able to make decisions that affect others more than you."

Before we continue, let's have a look on how far the notion of
ownership can apply to immaterial things, like information, and
software which is a kind of information (can you agree with this?).
The prerogative of the copyright holder ("owner") is to edict at which
conditions the software can be used/copied/modified.  He can even
decide to prevent anyone from using/copying/modifying it (and that is
unfortunately a common practice).

Claiming the freedom to do so is in fact claiming a power.  You are
just claiming a *power* to prevent others to do what they want, what
their *freedom* should grant them, even with "your" software, or more
accurately the software you are the *author* of.

So there are no two kinds of freedom that oppose, the one of the
copyright holder and the one of the users.  There is a quest for
freedom of the users against the manifestation of a power of the
copyright holder.

This power granted by law at this time, which some of us feel is
wrong.  And in this point of view, the GPL (and beside it, the notion
of copyleft) is just a workaround for this.  You can see it as a
temporary and realist solution to the problem.

The true and final solution would be that law stop granting such a
power to copyright holders => software don't have owners.

-- Guillaume Ponce

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