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"To my `customers'": a dystopian future for Free Software
By S11 or sirian, Section Diaries
Posted on Mon Oct 28th, 2002 at 06:32:24 GMT
There's a tendency by many users of free software to frown on paying for it. We've all heard the adage, "free as in speech, not as in beer," yet subconciously, still demand the latter. The result is that many free software developers have to earn a living through other activities, even producing proprietary software in some cases! This is my view of what that attitude leads to, featuring a short dystopian glimpse of the future.


Fortunately, the letter you are about to read, presuming you stick around that long, is not a reality. Yet. I find that oftentimes, dystopian futures, with demonstrated movement towards them today, are better at invoking emotions than screaming about what is happening today.

It's difficult to get people riled up over processors that only execute code digitally signed, or about new restrictions in their sound-playing software licenses, or legal "protection" of ebook "encryption". When they see that this leads to a world of control by a central group of how they can operate their lives, preventing them from even helping each other out, the metaphorical arms are taken up so much more easily.

For an example of one such dystopian essay, see RMS's "The Right to Read".

I wrote this essay because I have noticed several types of people who claim to be part of free software, but who have harmful attitudes towards this movement. These are the usual variations on the theme:

  • They believe that free software should be gratis.
  • They write free software and offer it at no charge, but charge for proprietary software.
  • They are willing to pay for proprietary software, but don't give a cent[2] to free software projects.
  • They don't pay for software if not forced to.

Why are these attitudes harmful? The background offers my answers to a train of questions I asked myself, when I realized that it didn't really make sense to offer up more money for proprietary software (and book, read: O'Reilly) producers than free software producers, as this was akin to rewarding the proprietary software production and relatively punishing free software production; that is not my intention, regardless of how much I'd save if I didn't pay for "free" software.

Node:FS dystopia background, Next:The Letter, Previous:Free Software dystopia, Up:Free Software dystopia


Studio S11, Inc., is a [fictitious] company that produces a school administration tool called ZAST.[3] It is unclear, in fact a big secret, what ZAST stands for.

Node:How Studio S11 profits, Next:Sophisticated self-interest, Previous:FS dystopia background, Up:FS dystopia background

How Studio S11 profits

This product is offered for download at no charge. In recall of the old shareware model, satisfied customers are expected--but not license-ly required, as that wouldn't be free--to "register," which is basically a donation with a more capitalist-friendly name.

It is wrong to think of registration as "voluntary." Instead of relying on legal, yet immoral, mechanisms to enforce some kind of "product activation", we rely on natural mechanisms built into the market.

The following presumptions are made about software and the market:

  1. Software is desired by the public to the point that there is consumer demand.
  2. Distribution of software is not scarce, in market terms, but production is.
  3. Monetary incentive may be required to produce software.
  4. Free software offers greater value than "equivalent" proprietary software, per the extra freedoms you get with it.
  5. Anyone can use these freedoms to some degree.
  6. Consumers use money, in the scheme of things, to reward those that produce those products that are most valuable to them.

The first point is obvious. In the search for the scarcity in software, I found the root at production, not distribution; hopefully, your analysis would lead to the same conclusion. The fourth is a simple "value-added" equation: all other things being equal, free software offers more. Fifth, besides the usual about avoiding vendor lock-in and security backdoors, this can be empirically proven with cases such as .

The sixth is not so obvious. It is not always clear how a consumer should go about rewarding those activities that benefit them. While payment for goods is an excellent model, it simply doesn't apply to software. By extension, people do not always see when a "voluntary" donation isn't really voluntary.

Node:Sophisticated self-interest, Next:Studio S11 Registration, Previous:How Studio S11 profits, Up:FS dystopia background

Sophisticated self-interest

Consider the case of Mandrake Club: the Mandrake Club has been honestly offered as a way to support development of the Mandrake [GNU/]Linux distribution; i.e. it has been described as such. Although membership isn't technically required to get the distribution, what if you don't join? Then the company fails, and the distribution no longer exists. So it is still a voluntary act of self-interest, where more is at stake then the amount in your wallet at the moment.

The difference is between short-term benefit and long-term benefit. I spotted a good term in The Economist, calling for companies to voluntarily refuse cronyism offered by elites in Kazakhstan in return for laissez-faire on the political process: "[Western firms] would be practising a sophisticated form of self-interest if they used their influence to promote good governance, rather than the opposite."

In the biased way I've painted it, "sophisticated self-interest" would seem to be an obvious strategy on the path to success. Alas, it doesn't seem to be so important when your school is offered a highly favorable license package in return for active discouragement of free software platforms.[4]

Anyway, I have gone on a tangent.

Node:Studio S11 Registration, Previous:Sophisticated self-interest, Up:FS dystopia background

Donation => Registration

Presumably, ZAST is a more valuable product than those of its competitors; that is the assumption we make here. As is the way of competition, Studio S11 offers ZAST at the same price as these other products.

Studio S11 expects, as those to whom it sells the product to are educators, that they will be better able to understand the concept of "sophisticated self-interest". Accordingly, Studio S11 relies on the natural system of rewarding those actions that benefit them, simply explaining the principles above, and why it is wrong to think of the registration as completely optional, though it takes the same form as a donation.

Node:The Letter, Next:My Future as a Software Developer, Previous:FS dystopia background, Up:Free Software dystopia

The Letter
27 October 2008

Dear "customers":


This company was founded in anticipation of a new market. In this market, customers refuse to be controlled by the vendors from whom they buy. They refuse to give in to ploys of short-term benefit in sacrifice of long-term self-interest, and interest in their fellow customers. They use a cooperative community to achieve their goals, rather than one that relies on vendors dividing them from other customers and preventing them from helping each other out. But most importantly, they understand the relationship between themselves and the vendors in this cooperative community.

Sadly, this market has failed to materialize.

Since ZAST 1.0 was released 4 years ago, its user base has grown to cover almost 15% of the market. This growth, in a conservative market dominated by vendors who employ maximum vendor lock-in tactics, not to mention less-than-glamorous software, I consider one of our greatest achievements.

Our other great achievement is of course the software itself. Though ZAST does not have the best qualities with which to attract free software developers, the few of us there are have succeeded in producing a robust school administration platform. Most importantly, this platform is Free Software. We of Studio S11 have offered you vendor independence and the freedom to make changes to ZAST to fit your needs, rather than adapting your needs to fit the software.

We began with no promise of pay, as this same conservative was unlikely to be willing to invest in a software development project itself, what with so many complete, lower-risk alternatives available. As stated above, the software was written to fit the market.

Perhaps any creator in the same position would be saying the same things: "Where are my customers?" But that is not quite the case here. We have customers; most of you simply refuse to live up to your obligations in your relationship with us, as were stated in the ZAST Administrator's Manual, and you were sure to have read when you first decided to try out ZAST.

Those obligations are as follows: as you recognize that Studio S11 provides a valuable service to you, and you are a direct beneficiary of that service, you agree to help support the development of the ZAST software, whether monetarily or in other terms of free software development. In exchange, Studio S11 agrees to respect your freedom to copy, modify, and redistribute the software as you see fit.

Your obligations are not legal. We felt that to legally force you to pay, it would be necessary to take away your freedoms to do those things; as this is the new market we are still talking about, that would eliminate Studio S11 from competition. We still feel that this is the right way to go about a software business.

On the other hand, we can't revoke your freedoms to use the software as we have already granted them. You are the clear winners in this arrangement. So why do you have to fight it?

So many of the IT managers maintaining ZAST deployments initially brought the software to their boards for approval under the terms of price; they claimed that it was "free" (as in price, in their words). The boards, ever impaired by monetary tunnel vision, failing to give the long term the attention it deserved, approved the software on these grounds.

To the boards' credit, they actually checked to make sure that the software worked. Studio S11 encouraged the use of ZAST for this purpose; there is no need to pay for software you aren't going to use in any way. Unfortunately, the former qualification that led to the adoption of ZAST in so many cases led to the problem that I am addressing now.

In the interests of collecting funds for the development, and furthermore so that I could earn a living from my efforts, I visited many of these boards in person. True to the obligations mentioned above, I stood before the boards, on my time, pleading with them to see the bigger picture, the "sophisticated self-interest" on which ZAST so relies. So common was the response, "Why should we pay for something that we can get for free (sic)?"

This attitude was particularly acute in the cases of cash-strapped administrations; i.e. all of them. So many of you told me "We don't have money to just give away to some company." Well, disregarding the point above about the real nature of the registration fee, if that is the case, then I, as a "company", am clearly wasting my time. So what, exactly, am I doing here? Why do you use ZAST anyway? Everyone's low on cash; that's what economists mean when they say "limited resources". Well, my resources are limited too, and they don't need to be spent on completely unprofitable activities, where nobody benefits but those who refuse to cooperate.

In refusing to cooperate with the company, as the company has agreed to cooperate with you, the roles have been reversed from their way in the proprietary software market. Perhaps you were willing to take it up the arse when you were under the spell of your imprisoning vendor. But I won't! I use free software for the same reason.

Some of the more knowledgeable about free software issues of you have suggested that I set up side businesses around ZAST to make money from it. But this is sidestepping the issue; that is not making money from ZAST. That is just as well as what I do now. Besides, the development of ZAST is a valuable enough activity, to you, to warrant more than a dismissal of the silly idealist who "gives his product away".

I do make a living, but not through ZAST. Waiting for the software to take off, I've stayed here in Evansville, living off my store clerk's salary. I choose this job, and to stay here, in the interests of not disrupting my main service. After all, you are my "customers". Do those who bring up these "side businesses" suggest that this activity, clerking at a video store, is a more efficient use of my resources then developing ZAST? You certainly seem to be sending this message to me. Perhaps I have chosen the wrong career.

I'll take the hint. Studio S11 has observed that you are perfectly willing to pay for proprietary software, even when perfectly good free software is available to replace it. Clearly, the production of proprietary software, being locked in to a single vendor, being artifically charged for distribution rather than production, not having a say in the development of the software you use, not knowing how the systems that run your "business" work, and not being able to cooperate with your fellow customers are far more valuable to you than the opposites of these things.

Earlier, I said that we could not take those freedoms from you. This is true for the software you already have. But Studio S11's ear is now highly attuned to the market that it was clearly ignoring before. As such, all future releases of the ZAST school administration software will be released as proprietary software.

In stark contrast to the feel of my writings released before this decision was made, Studio S11 will be focused on screwing you up the arse, as previously mentioned. The company will do all the things to you that it previously stated were morally wrong, and it will take away your freedoms.

Studio S11 will get away with doing this to you, because you clearly don't care. Even though your current copy of ZAST is free software, this can't protect you, because you are unwilling to do what it takes to protect your freedoms. You're unwilling to pay for your freedom. You still have "tunnel vision", and this is why Studio S11 will be more successful from now on.

We'll start by offering ZAST "for free". We'll add a bunch of new features that will force you to upgrade. To simplify testing, we'll focus our development efforts on the platform the majority of our customers use; too bad for the rest of you, because we can't have our lowly customers getting a look at our "intellectual property". During this time, ZAST will gain new "features" in the form of incompatible changes to the data storage formats. In time, you won't be able to reverse-engineer it, and to protect ourselves, we'll use the power of "intellectual property" law to make it illegal for you to do so. What happens from there will not be revealed at this time; after all, this is business strategy! Our goal is to serve ourselves, first and foremost, and I don't believe that it would be profitable to reveal all our plans at once. Rest assured, it will be exciting.

What about forking the code? As previously stated over and over again, you have a mental block against funding a free software project. The software will suffer severe bit rot. After a couple of years of obsolescence, we're counting on the fact that you'll have to "upgrade". [5]

Who else will you turn to? All our competitors do the same things I've just announced that Studio S11 will start doing, and they have a great deal more practice at them. We're just being honest with you at this time. Because I want you to perhaps look back one day, and maybe you'll see what you've lost. Today, in one small area, you've lost your freedom. How much more freedom will you let us, and I say us because I have become one of the hoarders now, take away from you?
Sincerely yours,


Stephen Compall
Studio S11, Inc.

Node:My Future as a Software Developer, Previous:The Letter, Up:Free Software dystopia

My Future as a Software Developer

Software development is what I want to do in my life. I enjoy it, and it is valuable to society, assuming that I am producing software that is free. Presumably, one day I will also be good at it :). So that should be all the reason I need to rely on it for a living.

There are so many people in the free software community that make their livings producing proprietary software. Why can they not instead make their livings producing free software? Is it not more valuable to society to do the latter, and if it is, then why are they more amply rewarded for the former?

My advisor expects that this is simply college idealism, bound to pass as "reality" sets in. My employer feels the same way: "there's a difference between what you like to do, and what you're paid to do." My fellow classmates, no doubt, have the goal of producing a proprietary "killer app", and making loads of money, or just getting a cushy programming job for Microsoft et al.

In this "reality", free software developers are expected to jump through other hoops, and let useful software development slide as a "loss leader". For example, support services (Cygnus) or proprietary software extensions are common sidetracks. While the developer is certainly in a position to provide support, this may not be his/her most useful activity on which to spend time; that should be coding. Compared to free software, proprietary software is certainly not a good usage of time. So why are developers expected to jump through these hoops?

If you want to look at this from the self-interest angle, I am saying "why are they getting paid more than me?" But writing proprietary software offends me. I am in luck here; the university doesn't claim copyright on student works, so I am free to release them under free licensing schemes. Offered a position helping with the intranet software, written in Visual Basic, around here, I refused, opting instead for tech support and lab monitoring. So I offer as an expression of my feelings a quote from Robert Chassell:

The main clarity, for me, was the sense that if you want to have a decent life, you don't want to have bits of it closed off. This whole idea of having the freedom to go in and to fix something and modify it, whatever it may be, it really makes a difference. It makes one think happily that after you've lived a few years that what you've done is worthwhile. Because otherwise it just gets taken away and thrown out or abandoned or, at the very least, you no longer have any relation to it. It's like losing a bit of your life.

So the reason for this "letter", as with any dystopian fiction: I do not want it to happen. Neither should you.

Stephen Compall, 27 October 2002

2. My apologies for ethnocentric use of monetary illustration.

3. I thought of ZAST as a replacement for the [non-free] software that operates "administration" at schools, e.g. attendance, employees, class schedules. One of my teachers was also the "technology coordinator", who needed to get one of these packages for the following year. I mentioned free software, but she became so stuck on the idea of cost-benefit, and was ignoring the more important issues. I even sent her a link to an article about "Why Public Software Should Be Free", and she replied with a complaint about the cost of the package she/they eventually chose. Ah, the trials of advocacy.

4. Yes, this is how things are at my university, according to the IT staff.

5. To those few of you who did pay the registration fee, I thank you, and wish there were more of you. I'll be returning your fee. I strongly suggest that you find others like you and form a group to fund further development of the free ZAST. Good luck.

Copyright © 2002 Stephen Compall.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts. You can see the license here.
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"To my `customers'": a dystopian future for Free Software | 3 comments (3 topical, editorial) | Post A Comment
[new] Paying for free software (#1)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Sat Nov 2nd, 2002 at 21:29:26 GMT

I agree that self-interest can be a dangerous thing, but "paying" doesn't have be "transferring money". I think that it's important that free software gives people the freedom to choose how they'd like to contriute to the community, depending on their situation: donating effort is just as good as donating money.

(Just as in normal society, I agree that it's not nice if someone receives a gift, and doesn't give anyting back.)

I agree that this is an important topic! There are so many things left that would be great to have, although I'm quite happy that I can do (almost) without proprietary software. (The only proprietary software I have is Mathematica and Labview, for which no real alternatives exist, as far as I know.)

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[new] What cases? (#2)
by S11 or sirian (#439) () on Wed Dec 11th, 2002 at 01:03:37 GMT
(User Info) http://csserver.evansville.edu/~sc87/

Notice above, where it says:
Fifth, besides the usual about avoiding vendor lock-in and security backdoors, this can be empirically proven with cases such as .
I probably intended to insert something like the library story mentioned on GNU-friends a while back, or some other specific, popularly-reported case where user freedom came in really handy. Though it is usually the unreported cases that are the best... Or perhaps I knew what I was going to put there, but didn't remember the exact details.

Anyway, think of your own examples. :)

DotGNU || Free Software in Education group
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