DotGNU Project - GNU Freedom for the Net








Business Ethics In The Face Of Monopolistic Threats

In view of the increasing commercialization of the Free Software movement, it has become important to clarify a matter of business ethics that is all too often overlooked.

This has to do with monopolies. Copyright law allows the authors of computer programs to have, for a limited period of time, monopoly rights to modifying and copying the program. For the sake of illustration, let's compare this monopoly to a monopoly of oranges: Imagine that in the whole world there was only one place where orange trees grow, and imagine furthermore that I am the owner of that area. Then I have a monopoly of oranges. Let's suppose that I am generous and put up a sign that says "Everyone is welcome to come and pick oranges". It won't take long before some entrepreneurial people pick more oranges than they want to eat themselves, and start a business of selling oranges. As long as there are still plenty of oranges for everyone who wants to pick oranges, I wouldn't mind that. Effectively, what the businesses are selling is the convenience of being able to conveniently buy the oranges, without bothering about the harvest and transportation of the oranges.

This situation is comparable to a market for software which can be freely copied and redistributed, without any monopolies.

However, I would get very upset if someone came and harvested all oranges in order to gain control of the market and sell the oranges at a higher price. That would be exploiting my generosity in a totally unethical manner.

In the same way, when I contribute to a Free Software project, then I want my contribution to be for everyone's benefit, and I do not want anyone to turn it into a monopoly. In fact the whole point of the Free Software movement is to get rid of software monopolies. (Proprietary software is software which has an "owner" who has a monopoly through having the right to decide who can see the source code, who may modify the program, and who may copy it for purposes of further distribution. Free Software is software where every user has these rights.)

The Free Software community welcomes businesses to get involved. We don't mind when the involved companies derive a profit from their involvement (why else would be profit-oriented company get involved) as long as these companies fight together with us at least against the worst software monopolies.

In particular, we think that every business which chooses to use the fruits of our generosity, and to derive an economic benefit from these Free Software programs, should

  • actively support the efforts of the Free Software movement to create alternatives for proprietary software which is particularly dangerous because of an effective monopoly, or because of vendor lock-in
  • refrain from making any political statements in favor of software patents in any form or shape
  • refrain from any aggressive use of patents against Free Software (there's nothing wrong with how e.g. Red Hat Inc. handles software patents)

In the context of DotGNU project this means:

  1. If you earn money through distributing an improved version of some DotGNU software, we expect you to also make significant contributions to the development project, for everyone's benefit. While the GNU General Public License does not require you to do this, if you don't do this we will feel that you have unfairly exploited the generosity of DotGNU's volunteer contributors who work hard with little or no personal benefit with the goal of setting the IT world free from some dangerous monopolies.
  2. Don't align your business interests with those of Microsoft Corp, which effectively controls the specifications for .NET - There are strong indications that from a business strategy perspective, these technologies were designed specifically with the goal to unleash a destructive "Hailstorm" against both Sun's Java platform and against the Open Source movement which has become a serious threat for Microsoft's monopolistic strategies. While there is nothing wrong in principle with making Free Software commercial offerings based on the ".NET on Unix" idea, if you choose this route it is your responsibility to make sure that your business and your customers are not at Microsoft's mercy.

Your comments please...

You are invited to add your comments concerning this at the appropriate page of the DotGNU Wiki




Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted in any medium or format, provided this notice is preserved.

This page is maintained by Norbert Bollow <nb@SoftwareEconomics.biz> with support from the DotGNU Developers mailing list.