Ethics and OSS/FSS

A friend of mine,who shall remain nameless as I haven't received his permission to use it, sent me an email recently asking about the ethics of using closed-source modules in Linux (at least that's what the root of the question was interpreted to be by me). Things like PDF reader and MP3 decoders are considered closed-source programs and are normally charged for. Doing things like cracking codecs is technically illegal. I say technically because it's what the law says. But is the law always right?

I'm having an ethical issue within myself. What are your thoughts on using restricted formats on Linux even though it is not legal? I do of course (every proprietary format I can think of) but I'm not sure if it's right. On the one hand it is wrong that everything (most web functionality it seems) is built around a restricted format (streaming wmv, mpeg, etc.) so only certain OS's can legally use them and I want to say to hell with the "man". But on the other hand I'm not entirely against restricted formats. If I was an artist who made a living of selling my music I wouldn't want it obtainable legally for free. If someone comes up with a piece of software or format it's their prerogative if they want to restrict it or sell it (I'm not against non-free software, people put their hard work into it). My personal belief is that all information and data should be free (this is different than a piece of software), but the majority of multimedia formats is not (should multimedia be??). So you are left with: a) pay out the ass for microsoft or mac, b) use the formats illegally anyway and tell everyone to go to hell, c) refuse to use non-free formats and miss out on most of the webs multimedia goodness.


Below is my reply but before you get to that I ask you to consider this: do the people that create and enforce our laws really have our best interests in mind or are they protecting those who can already protect themselves? I don't know about you but I don't have the money to cover my ass should certain companies find out I'm using their software without paying for it. I can't afford to pay for the software in the first place, that's why I'm using it 'illegally'. So does that mean that I'm supposed to be denied the right to utilize media that's created by, or directly uses, the format/program in question?

My reply
The debate that you're referencing is more than just legality or OSS vs. closed-source or proprietary programs. The point that you raise is the same standpoint that the FSF (Free Software Foundation) clings to, that all, or most at least, software should be free. The problem isn't in the paying for software, it's in the price, I think. It's not fair that a company like Microsoft charges exorbitant amounts of money for their software. Charging for your work is ethical, overcharging for it is morally wrong and illustrates the social ineptitude of people who call themselves entrepreneurs.

People like Bill Gates they want to capitalize and monopolize on the success of an idea and the work of others. Bill Gate's couldn't program a robot around a corner. His idea was to invade, control and capitalize on a market that nobody else had thought of as a private quarters sanctum. He wanted to build something that the business public would use. Then, once he got the market penetration he thought he deserved, he capitalized on the idea and made everybody sign blood pacts with him so he could charge shitloads of money, all the while knowing that things only worked with his idea and he could therefore get away with it. Pro: The hardware's cheap. Con: The software is ridiculously expensive.

Then you have people like Steve Jobs. First, he let a businessman control the overall finances of a company he built. Second he hired people who could do what he wanted. Third he hired more people who could build what he envisioned. Then he sat in on the design meetings and gave his input. Steve knows how to produce a product that the public wants, that will work and continue to do so for a long time and that the public will embrace emphatically. iPod wasn't a fluke, it was a well thought out design. OSX wasn't an operating system, it was truly a work of programming art that was designed to be easy to use, effective and as near flawless as you can get as an OS. Then he went out to all of these companies and said "here's our product, come work with us" and offered everything as a package deal at a reasonable price. But he didn't say only work with us, he just said "here's what you have to do for us and we'll work exclusively with you", not "do this and work only with us or fuck off". The hardware's more expensive but the software is dirt cheap in comparison.

Next comes Linus Torvalds (praise be!). First, he wasn't designing a product, he was designing something for the sake of it and for himself and a few close friends to use. The idea wasn't to build some money hogging conglomeration and market it as his own. He simply built the core, the foundation on which everything else is built, and told the whole world to use it if they wanted to. All he wanted was for people to give him credit for the work he did. He wasn't going for fame or money, just for fun (coincidently that's also the name of his biography). He let everyone else use it, gave and took credit where credit was due and let anyone who wanted to work with it work with it with no real restrictions. Hell, he even said change it if you want, just let me and mine test it if you want everyone else to use it. Nobody else did that.

The main differences between the three ideals here is the ego. Bill is all ego, all money, all acclaim. Steve is egotistical but doesn't suffer from nepotism like Bill and wants to make a profit, just not rape our wallets. Linus is at the opposite end of the spectrum and follows his ideals without charging, realizing that his work is just a piece of the puzzle. Steve and Bill want to make money while Steve and Linus want to make stuff that works well. But Bill doesn't want to play nicely with others, not everyone can afford a Mac and pretty well none of us are so disconnected from the world that we can rely solely on Linux (don't take it like the insult it seems to be).

Bottom line: using closed source applications isn't unethical, it's just breaking the law. Anyone who said the law is always ethical needs to be beaten to death with the smart stick because they've already been hit enough with the dumbass bat. Also there's companies out there, namely Novell with their SuSE product who offer the binaries (not the source code, thus making it closed source instead of open source (code)) for use on Linux and other non-Windows/Mac systems. The binaries are freely available from the openSuSE project (http://www.opensuse.org).

I highly encourage you to follow the link that's in the title of this entry. It's the preamble for the GPL (General Public License) that governs the use of open source software. While it's not used for all open source software the spirit in the preamble doesn't change for the most part through the different iterations of the different GPL licenses (yes, there's quite a few different GPL versions and license levels). Let me answer my earlier question: I shouldn't be denied enjoying the different things out there, be they movies, music or on-line readables. Just imagine if you had to pay $15 just to read my blog for a year. Would you? Cause there's no way in hell I'm that entertaining and if you think I am I know a really good psychologist...

Also I think that of the three Steve Jobs really has the right idea. I know how hard it is to make stuff like this and I don't want other people using it without my permission. But I wrote all of my stuff with the GPL in mind and gave everyone permission so long as the gave me my credit, though none of it was good or useful enough to charge for.

DF of the week
There's a new show out called "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" This is a fantastic show, especially if you like to watch people make asses of themselves on national television. And it's nice to see kids get the ego boost from realizing what we won't tell them: that they're smarter than most adults.

Farewell unwashed asses.
Gryyphyn, out.

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