Free Software Debate Antipatterns

A collection of fallacious arguments commonly encountered in debates about Free Software.

Clean Hands

“I don’t want to restrict the freedom of users of my software so I’m not going to copyleft it.”

This confuses use of software with economic exploitation of source code. Failing to protect the former in order to protect the latter privileges control over freedom.


“Hi! I’m NiceCorp’s community manager! My book on community is available on Kindle under a non-free licence!”

Seeking to exploit a community while working against that community’s interests is at best confused. And “community manager” is an oxymoron.

Companies Not Users

“BigCorp make BigSystem so they can tell users what they can and cannot do with BigSystem, it’s BigCorp’s system.”

No, the actual instance that the user owns is the user’s system.

Exploitation Not Use

“But what about my freedom to not share the sources and to charge for the binaries? You are limiting my freedom by trying to stop me doing that!”

Use of software means something like interacting with it, not exploiting its economic value. Even if we ignore this, the “freedom” to control what others can do with software is not freedom but control.

Gift Economies

“Software is a gift economy and you can’t seek anything in return for a gift.”

The ability to share software freely may result in a gift economy but this is not the objective of free software. It is individual liberty, not gift giving, that should be promoted and protected.

Even where it is appropriate to discuss gift economies their history is often misunderstood. The strong social norms of tribal societies that have historically practiced gift giving would be represented in civil societies by law rather than rhetoric.

Giving Back

“As long as BigProject gets back any modifications we’re not worried about users of those modifications elsewhere.”

Free Software is not about “giving back” code to projects. It’s about not taking freedom from users of software. If someone else doesn’t respect the freedom of users of software derived from a project then contributing code to that project does not excuse their actions.

Hackers Not Users

“I share my code with other hackers. Users don’t need it anyway.”

Software must be free for users to use not just for hackers to hack. Ensuring that all software is free helps hackers more than just sharing source code between themselves because hackers are also users.

Let Them Eat Cake

“Sure, you aren’t free to use the software on SystemX, but you can get the source code to build and run it anywhere else you like.”

If an individual is not free to use the software that they are currently trying to use then it is of little comfort to them that the same software is theoretically free to use elsewhere. The freedom to use software should be general, and each use of software should be a specific instance of that general freedom.

Markets Not Users

“The market will produce free systems if they are more efficient, and so in the long run everything will be OK.”

The current technology markets are the product of decades of non-market activity against free software. There is no reason why resistance to this should be limited to consumer choice within those markets. Don’t confuse economics with ethics.

Popularity Not Freedom

“I’d rather my software was used in a hundred proprietary projects than by a dozen people who are truly free to use it.”

Then you are interested in popularity, not freedom.

Projects Not People

“The important thing is that the licence protects BigProject.”

Free software enables people to organize themselves around projects to produce software. But the subject of free software is the freedom of the individuals that use the software produced by the project, not the status of that project.

Source Code Not Software

“I just want to get code back for my project, I don’t care whether people can run software on their systems.”

Availability of source code is important for the freedom to use software that is made using that source code. But availability of source code elsewhere is not a substitute for the freedom to use software freely on a particular system. Tivoisation demonstrates why this is a problem.

Posted in Free Culture
3 comments on “Free Software Debate Antipatterns
  1. Some ‘free software debate antipatterns’ arise through nature rather than confusion, e.g. the natural right to privacy.
    On the one hand there’s the restoration of freedom unnaturally suspended by privilege, and on the other, unnatural ‘freedoms’ obtained through privilege.
    One could construe ‘the freedom not to share source’ as simply a spurious antipattern, but it sounds like a confusion of privacy.
    You have a hope of abolishing the privilege that prohibits unauthorised copying of published works, but no hope of forcing people to share that which they do not wish to share. Privacy is not a ‘freedom not to share’ to be deprecated, but a superior natural right to be duly protected.
    Some people will require the ability to exchange their labour, their private work for money, and will not be too happy at attempts to force them to share their work for nothing.

  2. bernardg66 says:

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts in free source software here. It is harder and harder to promote this kind of software nowadays because of economical crisis and commerce everywhere. People want to earn some money so in most cases software is actually paid or without open source at all. Individual liberty, freedom, these things are the most important in promoting free software. However all apps that I am using at the moment are unfortunately paid. I just won’t be able to find the apps that I want in free source or free modes. The most interesting thing is that free software is promoted by many years now, but no success at all.
    However I must say that I am taking some money for my made software too. I just have to earn some money for my family and for my credit, because there are some hard times nowadays. But I believe that there will be a day when I will be able to make it free too. Thanks one more time for an interesting article here and I will be waiting for more nice ones from you in the future for sure.
    Bernard Gillson from custom software development

  3. James Murray says:

    I assume that most people who contribute to developing open-source, free software actually have a day-job writing paid-for software (unless they still live with their parents which is probably true in some cases).
    The paid-for software they write will often be more niche than the areas where open-source has made a big impact, e.g. operating systems and office suites, so won’t (yet) be troubled by free competition.
    But if and when it is, and these developers can’t earn a living, the whole edifice of free products will collapse.
    James Murray from essay writing service