To sell (software) or not to sell?

To sell (software) or not to sell?

Post by Chris Carle » Fri, 06 Jul 2001 08:23:20


I am grappling with the philosophical considerations of free software
and the FSF, in relation to the idea of possibly doing business in a
field that involves the creation of software.

I have some issues, criticisms, and views to discuss here, and I will
read any responses or criticisms with an open mind provided they are
civil, respectful, and non-*/non-hostile.

Rather than attack the general philosophical question of "should
software be free" the position on which the FSF is very well expounded,
I would rather pose a couple scenarios, and have people conjecture about
the ethical soundness of selling vs. not selling in each.

The idea that I have is to sell electronic hardware.  Most of that
hardware falls into the category of printed circuit boards (PCBs)
implementing circuits of value to hobbyists, low budget engineers, and
laserists (people who build and operate laser show equipment).  These
circuits implement functions that for the engineer to wire by hand in a
prototype design, would be very time consuming and cumbersome.  Thus,
some of these functions can be made into a PCB that contains in one
module, the peripheral (as in "not central to the creative process, as
opposed to a computer peripheral) functions of the engineer's design,
allowing them to concentrate effort on the core design (the creation of
a new thing).

However, of the circuits I have in mind, and what I may anticipate about
future ideas, is that there are two categories of circuit.  One involves
only the PCB hardware, and the second involves a microcontroller (uC)
running some firmware program.  For the first case, it is clear that the
value added lies in the time and effort of designing the circuit (the
circuitry itself in this case is rather trivial), and laying out the PCB
pattern.  Thus this case involves no special invention that could not be
duplicated by the potential customer.  The choice of an customer to buy
my product, would be motivated by their calculation that to buy from me
would be preferrable to building themselves.  The validity of my
business model then, depends on whether some relevant proportion of
engineers would choose to buy.

Furthermore, the triviality of the circuitry involved makes it
impractical to patent, although the board design itself could be
copywritten.  Thus, there is little defense against another company
copying my design and attempting to push me out of the market, but by
the same token there is little need to defend.  If another company
chooses to offer a PCB with the same or similar functionality, then we
compete fairly.  However, if they copy my board design and then sell it,
it seems they are harming me.  I had to work to produce the design, but
they didn't.  This seems unfair and unethical.  But does it justify my
choosing to forbid copying my board design?  Do I have a right to
protect my creation (information)?  Then there is the question of
whether the users can copy it.  Once they buy it, they could copy it.
But the reason that they bought it in the first place would probably
preclude them from copying it.  The crux seems to be the need to avoid
exploitation by another company.  One could say that I should provide
the source code to my PCB design (the Eagle files, and Gerbers) so that
anyone can modify the "code".  But when one is looking for a way to
exercise their skill to make money to put food on the table, this sounds
like an argument against my right to make a living.  What is
fundamentally different about the plans for a PCB vs. the plans for a

If I build tables by hand, an automated factory can come along and copy
my design, build my tables at lower cost, and put me out of business.
Why should one allow this to happen, by accepting an argument that the
plans "should" be free?  Again, it seems that the crux of the issue is
that if someone uses your plans to make money, and that means you loose
the market that you created in the first place, there is something wrong

Now for the second category of circuit, obviously there is software.
Now the magnitude of value added is much greater, as the software
requires much more time to develop than the hardware (maybe).  There are
two ways I could go here.  First, I could like in the plain PCB case
above, sell the PCB and provide the software as GPL.  Now the people who
would choose to buy it would do so for the reasons already mentioned.
Or, I could lock the uC and sell it as a chip with some fixed
functionality, needed to make the board operate.  I won't repeat the
issues involved here.

What it all seems to boil down to is that the idea "all software should
be free" is valid as a logical argument of what should be.  But things
are not that way.  To make a living, one must either work for another
business, or do business themself.  At this moment, with the question of
how to make a living at hand, I am not dealing with the way things
"should" be.  Rather, I am dealing with the way things are.  That is, if
I give away my plans (table drawings, PCB files, or uC software),
someone else may take my opportunity to make money away from me.

I have noticed that the FSF says that software businesses misrepresent
how much they loose money to unauthorized software copying.  The
businesses calculate all copies of software to be losses.  This of
course is unreasonable in that if those people who copied could not have
done so, they may have not bought the program anyway.  This is a valid
argument.  However, this argument doesn't address the other possiblity,
that is some of those copiers *would* have bought the program if they
couldn't have copied it.  Thus, there are losses, just not as great as
if all users would have bought it.

It seems that there is a side to the argument that may not be fully
addressed by the FSF's position, and that is the rights of authors.
Unfortunately, I don't possess the intellectual organization nor time to
analyze all of the FSF's logic about this, for it is quite extensive.  I
choose to look at it this way:

There are programs I want to use, that are non-free.  I feel an ethical
obligation to uphold the agreement requested by the authors of that
software, even if I object to other aspects of the author's ethics.  For
instance, I won't install available copies of MS Office from work on my
machine, because MS asks that I pay for those, or my employer asks that
I don't violate the licenses of software that it purchased.  The ethics
of my employer is reasonably sound, but I think the ethics of MS are
quite contestable.  But I don't use this to justify unethical action
myself against MS, specifically, violating the terms of the Office
license.  I suppose that means I afford to an author the right to
consider their creation "proprety" unless they choose to reclassify it.
Furthermore, my employer has made a request of me, and places trust in
me to uphold it.  Irregardless of my views about whether software should
be free or not, I have an ethical obligation to the agreement made with
my employer.

It seems to me that this is a right that should be upheld.  The FSF
claims that if a friend asks me for a copy of software, that I am doing
something wrong by witholding it from him.  But when I accept or pay for
software, I have made an agreement with the author, and I have an
ethical obligation to them to uphold it.  Even though it may benefit
society to give the copy, it may also cause harm to the author because
my friend may well pay for it if I don't provide the copy.  Who am I to
negate the right of the author to earn a living?

Christopher R. Carlen


To sell (software) or not to sell?

Post by Morten Skaarup Jense » Fri, 06 Jul 2001 17:48:16

I don't think you should worry about whether or not it is ethical to sell
software and hide source code. I think most people would say that the
software that you write is your property and you have the right to decide
what to do with it.

It's a bit like politics - the different licences are the parties, the
different pieces of software are the candidates and the users are the
voters. Being opensource supporters, we would of course like you to choose
our party as a candidate and we would like you to vote for our candidates,
but there is nothing unethical about voting for another party or being a
candidate in another party.

When choosing which party to be a candidate for, it's difficult if the
party you sympathise most with will not pay you enough to live on. You then
effectively have the choice of doing it part time or choosing a party that
will pay you enough. I hate having to make choices like that.


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