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The Software Thief

Created on March 31, 2018, 4:07 p.m.

Lets say I'm a pig farmer. When I go to market I sell pork chops in exchange for money. I then go around the other stalls with the money I've earned and buy the things I need to live and continue being a pig farmer - clothes, food, grain, raw materials etc. Everyone else at the market is exactly the same as me - they sell their goods and buy the things they need. This market setup is good because it allows people to specialize - I can simply focus on pig farming and yet I still have the chance to acquire everything I need to live a good life. Money isn't even strictly required. Everyone could simply pile up all their produce in the middle of the market and then take from the pile all the things they need to live - dividing up the remaining resources in some decided way. Money is a nice way to grease the wheels in this system - making the market more productive by adjusting the value of goods somewhat based on their supply and demand.

What happens if someone starts stealing from this market? It seems immediately clear that this sucks for people like me who contribute to the market as we can no longer get so many things in exchange for what we make. But it actually sucks for the person stealing too. In the near future they might be happy - with more pork chops than they had before but if they continue to steal from everyone too much, and there are no longer enough resources for people to making a living then productivity goes down and the pile starts to shrink. I might not be able to buy the things I need to make a living such as grain to feed my pigs. The pigs might die - and that means no more pork chops for anyone, including the thief!

It is better for everyone if I, as a pig farmer, can always afford everything I need to keep my productivity at maximum - because the more pork chops I make the more will be spare for people to consume "for free". In this sense it isn't exactly the act of taking from the pile which is bad for our little market society but rather each individuals net contribution which is important - the giving minus the taking.

This explanation holds up well for almost all types of goods, but something very bizarre happens to this system if all the producers in the market become software developers and all the products become software, because the remarkable thing about a software market is that software can be replicated for next to zero cost.

In a software market when the thief grabs an extra pork chop from the pile it doesn't shrink the pile, and no matter how many pork chops he grabs - or how many people grab pork chops, it will never go down. Providing I, as a pig farmer, can always get all the things I require from the pile, there will always be an infinite supply of pork chops for everyone, forever. In this market, net contribution is no longer a useful measure for an individual's merit - now all that matters is how much one gives - not how much one takes away. This simple property of software has some remarkable effects.

Firstly it means that in a software market we can very easily feed the hungry and house the homeless with no extra effort - giving an endless supply of "free" copies of software for those who cannot themselves (for whatever reason) contribute to the market.

Similarly, the state of the market can never "get worse". In a normal market the supply of pork chops can go down, and people can start to go hungry, but in a software market we can never be in a state where the market contains less produce than it did before. The supply of things can only get more and more abundant, the pile can only get larger and larger - things can only get better and better for everyone.

The third effect is hyper-specialization. In a normal market there is an advantage in having two or more pig farmers as it results in a bigger supply of pork chops but in a software market having people produce the same identical product is useless. In a software market uniqueness is the first thing required for there to be demand, and often the more specialized and novel, the better the product.

It isn't hard to noticed how utopian all of these effects seem - in short a software market seems capable of producing a world without need which can only improve. And although it is clear this is limited to software, many computer scientists, economists and philosophers have wondered if exploiting these effects in some way might be the secret to delivering a better society to the world. As software grows and continues to automate jobs which were previously a part of the normal market, thinking about these sorts of issues is becoming increasingly important. So this is a question I think everyone should be thinking about: can a software market flourish in a way that brings a utopia to mankind?

Well you might have already thought of some potential issues. The most obvious one is that of motivation. If taking from the market without giving back is easy and has no negative outcomes, then what is the point in producing any software at all? Is it not always better to be a leech?

This issue is undeniable, and it certainly might mean software markets develop more slowly than those based around competition - but at the same time (unlike in a normal market) having non-contributors is not inherently bad for a software market - and it is clear from life that people find all kinds of motivations to contribute toward good causes outside of simple selfish gain. In fact, having unlimited access to a software market with free copies of everything it produces, and no worries about fulfilling basic needs, may well motivate many people in an unprecedented way that a normal market cannot.

There is, in my opinion, a single much larger problem with software markets: that producing software almost always requires some interaction with normal markets - at the very least in the form of food, drink, and housing for those developing the software. And as we know, when you take from the pile in a normal market it doesn't grow back. Developing software cannot happen in isolation from normal markets.

In an effort to pay for these things taken from the normal markets - housing, food and other goods - one can charge money for copies of software, using DRM and software licensing to enforce limitations on replication. This basically transforms software into a standard commodity no different to pork chops - traded on the normal markets in the usual way. It is by far the simplest approach for dealing with the problem and I don't believe it is bad at all - but it is just as clear that when it comes to our vision of utopian software markets it is not going to help - as blocking easy replication instantly negates all of the potential positive effects achievable with a software market.

Using DRM and software licensing also introduces some knock-on negative effects for consumers. When users are blocked from having access to the software source code they are unable to fix, develop, or innovate using the software they have purchased. DRM can ruin the user experience and people feel cheated if they have purchased a non-replicable object in the usual way but still are not free to do whatever they please since they do not legally or technically "own" it.

In 1989 in reaction to these issues Richard Stallman invented a software license called the GPL license. This is a clever software license that ensures not only that software licensed under GPL must be released with the source code available, but that all derivative software must also be released under the same license. In this way the GPL is a "viral license" which ensures those who take anything from the software market must always give back anything they produce in turn under the same terms. GPL has been hugely successful with a flagship project being the free and open source GNU/Linux operating system which is used by almost all software developers worldwide and has had an huge impact on the history of mankind. But the most incredible thing about GNU/Linux is not the fact that it is free, but the fact that it, and any derivative products, will always remain free by law.

The GPL license nicely balances one side of the equation - forcing companies and individuals who benefit from the software market to contribute back to it in the same way. It also maintains the rights of the "software poor" who do not contribute back to the market, and ensures that software cannot be limited in supply - that the pile must always keep growing and things must only improve in the market. Essentially it is a very clever way to ensure by law that the fundamental utopian properties of software markets are maintained.

But the GPL still doesn't balance the other side of the equation - the one where developers need housing and food to live and produce software - because it also fails to provide any material compensation for those who contribute.

Currently the situation is less than ideal: most developers only develop software for the software market using spare resources left over from their interactions with the normal market - most have separate full time jobs which pay for food, housing and everything else required to develop the software they make. All of the benefits of the software market are being maintained but the software in the market is limited in scope, speed and quality by what can be completed in people's spare time. Without the same resources as software developed for money, it seems this market will always lag behind.

The question that has been left unanswered for a number of years is where do we go from here? Is the software utopia now a lost dream? Where are the new ideas on how to tackle these fundamental issues. We have seen many radical political proposals perhaps embodied most by the rise of pirate parties across Europe - but where are the proposals like GPL - practical proposals which work within existing legal frameworks and don't require large political or social change?

Well here is one - and it starts with us first recognizing that something is wrong with things as they are.

What is wrong is this: software market developers are contributing to the normal markets without compensation. Software market developers do take resources from the normal market such as food and housing - but it isn't true to say they don't give something back to the normal market in return. The software they develop for the software market does contribute back to the normal market in the value it adds to other industries. Just as software developers take food and housing from the normal market, builders and farmers take free software from the software market and use it to become more productive when it comes to building houses and producing food. It is the same zero sum game it always was.

But the contributions of free software are not being recognized, and in many ways you can't expect them to be: supermarkets and landlords aren't going to suddenly take github stars as a valid form of payment. The contributions of the software market are being ignored because software developers are not asking for anything in return. We are handing out pork chops, asking for nothing in exchange, and wondering why the pig farm is suffering. We're stealing from ourselves - lowering our own productivity - and making things worse for everyone.

It may seem noble to give software away for free to the normal market and ask for nothing in return - to present software to the farmers and builders of the world as a gift - but this will only do harm in the long run. Not only is this stealing from ourselves, but the benefits the software market produces do not, as we imagine, get spread nicely across the population of the world. Software and automation almost always only increase the profits of company owners and shareholders. For most companies software is a way to automate their business - to cut jobs and reduce the working hours of employees - to create exactly the same amount of produce as before, and to charge the consumer exactly the same price as before, but to pocket the difference that should be distributed to consumers and employees. Giving software away as a gift does not mean a bigger pile for everyone - it means those savvy enough to make use of the software market will use the chance to take more and give less - to lower their net contribution. Yes - a software market can even harm the standard market if it produces further inequalities and lowers productivity.

And I'm not trying to point fingers - I myself have many open source projects licensed under very lenient licenses such as BSD3. Considering the social issues surrounding software is hard, and not something I want to have to do. As software developers we have the power to change this situation but it starts with us accepting a little more responsibility for the software we create and that isn't nice or easy.

How you want to take responsibility it up to you. For those developers who wish to further the software market - use the GPL - charge companies for commercial licenses - force companies who profit from the software market to recognize the legitimate contributions it makes and get them to pay forward to those who maintain it.

For those like me, who only wish for their software to be given away to the world, the situation is more difficult and for that we need a new set of licenses.

We need a new set of software licenses that ask for something immaterial in return - software licenses that include clauses which dictate how the benefits the software produces for the world are distributed - licenses that are lenient but that refuse to participate in the continued progress of inequality which harms the markets - licenses that make sure the profits from free software end up in the hands of those who need it most, not those who need it least.

Imagine, for example, an open-source software license that ensured that when used by a company, the highest paid employee of that company could not earn more than 100x the lowest paid employee, or a license that ensured that half of the profits produced by the software were distributed evenly among the employees of that company. Imagine a license which dictated that profits gained from the software had to reflect price reductions for consumers. Imagine thousands of other such clauses - designed to give the power back to the creators of software, to let them decide how their free software benefited mankind.

I am not a lawyer or a politician but these are the kind of licenses I want to use - so that is why I need help - to try and find ideas that can fit within existing legal frameworks such as GPL. Ideas that can give software creators the power to control what they build - to let us stop stealing from ourselves.

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