If Software Companies Ran the Country (1987)

I was recently pointed to this essay from Whole Earth Review #57 (Winter 1987) by Jay Kinney. I think it is useful for people to go back 20 years to realize that many of the things we are now debating are not new problems, but predicted before they happened. This was written 2 years after the founding of the Free Software Foundation, long before the nastiness of the backward-facing 1995 USA NII, 1996 WIPO treaties, or the 1998 USA DMCA.

People are still confused about the nature of software, but not predicted in this essay was how we now have the folks trying to treat software as far less than a tangible commodity (BSA, etc -- tangible commodities offer better features for loaning/sharing/warranties/etc) trying to change the laws to disallow competition from those who better understand the nature of software and other intangibles (IE: those adopting modern methods of production, distribution, funding for knowledge which allow for sharing of this commodity with a zero marginal cost).

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Clarification on the hedge-clippers analogy

It's important to notice the point the article makes about treating nonrival goods as if they were rival goods (see rivalry on Wikipedia). I think it could have been fleshed out a bit more to make a clearer point. Here's a brief summary of why treating nonrival goods as rival goods is ridiculous using the article's analogy:

Since hedge-clippers are rival goods, it does not make sense for a hedge-clipper producer to license the hedge-clippers such that only the buyer can use them. If the buyer chooses to lend the hedge-clippers to a friend, the buyer cannot simultaneously use the hedge-clippers while they are lent to the buyer's friend. This does not hold for nonrival goods such as computer software, where the buyer can simultaneously use the nonrival good while lending the good to a friend. Thus, producers of nonrival goods have a much greater incentive than producers of rival goods to restrict their products so that only the buyer can use the product.

In a nutshell, one should not impose the intrinsic restrictions of rival goods to nonrival goods (where such restrictions are not intrinsic to the type of good). A similar argument can be applied to books, where we buy printed text not necessarily because we like printed text, but because publishers primarily distribute content in the form of printed text so the content of the book (a nonrival good) appears more like a rival good.

Legacy business models root cause of rivalry (and "piracy").

There are two ways to read this distinction: One, as a justification for the "only the buyer can use them", and the other as a reason to disallow the justification of the "only the buyer can use them".

While I believe that any direct analogies between works of the mind and tangible property are nonsense, I think that Professor Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center says best what I believe about the validity of that justification.

Why is it ever moral to deprive people of that which they could have for nothing and which they wish to have, and you already have made? If you could feed everyone by baking one loaf of bread, and pressing a button, what would be the moral case for permitting the price of bread to be higher than the poorest hungry person could pay?

I think the point of the hedge-clipper analogy is to remind people that with these restrictive licenses that they are not being offered something equivalent to the purchase of tangible property, but something far less. The fact that the nature of knowledge allows for something far more than can be done with tangible property simply adds insult to that injury.


Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) consultant.