Do we need to rethink what free software is?


Licensing has always been a fundamental tool in achieving free software's goals, with copyleft licenses deliberately taking advantage of copyright to ensure that all further recipients of software are in a position to exercise free software's four essential freedoms. Recently we've seen people raising two very different concerns around existing licenses and proposing new types of license as remedies, and while both are (at present) incompatible with our existing concepts of what free software is, they both raise genuine issues that the community should seriously consider.

The first is the rise in licenses that attempt to restrict business models based around providing software as a service. If users can pay Amazon to provide a hosted version of a piece of software, there's little incentive for them to pay the authors of that software. This has led to various projects adopting license terms such as the Commons Clause that effectively make it nonviable to provide such a service, forcing providers to pay for a commercial use license instead.

In general the entities pushing for these licenses are VC backed companies[1] who are themselves benefiting from free software written by volunteers that they give nothing back to, so I have very little sympathy. But it does raise a larger issue - how do we ensure that production of free software isn't just a mechanism for the transformation of unpaid labour into corporate profit? I'm fortunate enough to be paid to write free software, but many projects of immense infrastructural importance are simultaneously fundamental to multiple business models and also chronically underfunded. In an era where people are becoming increasingly vocal about wealth and power disparity, this obvious unfairness will result in people attempting to find mechanisms to impose some degree of balance - and given the degree to which copyleft licenses prevented certain abuses of the commons, it's likely that people will attempt to do so using licenses.At the same time, people are spending more time considering some of the other ethical outcomes of free software. Copyleft ensures that you can share your code with your neighbour without your neighbour being able to deny the same freedom to others, but it does nothing to prevent your neighbour using your code to deny other fundamental, non-software, freedoms. As governments make more and more use of technology to perform acts of mass surveillance, detention, and even genocide, software authors may feel legitimately appalled at the idea that they are helping enable this by allowing their software to be used for any purpose. The JSON license includes a requirement that "The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil", but the lack of any meaningful clarity around what "Good" and "Evil" actually mean makes it hard to determine whether it achieved its aims.The definition of free software includes the assertion that it must be possible to use the software for any purpose. But if it is possible to use software in such a way that others lose their freedom to exercise those rights, is this really the standard we should be holding? Again, it's unsurprising that people will attempt to solve this problem through licensing, even if in doing so they no longer meet the current definition of free software.I don't have solutions for these problems, and I don't know for sure that it's possible to solve them without causing more harm than good in the process. But in the absence of these issues being discussed within the free software community, we risk free software being splintered - on one side, with companies imposing increasingly draconian licensing terms in an attempt to prop up their business models, and on the other side, with people deciding that protecting people's freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is more important than protecting their freedom to use software to deny those freedoms to others.As stewards of the free software definition, the Free Software Foundation should be taking the lead in ensuring that these issues are discussed. The priority of the board right now should be to restructure itself to ensure that it can legitimately claim to represent the community and play the leadership role it's been failing to in recent years, otherwise the opportunity will be lost and much of the activist energy that underpins free software will be spent elsewhere.If free software is going to maintain relevance, it needs to continue to explain how it interacts with contemporary social issues. If any organisation is going to claim to lead the community, it needs to be doing that.

[1] Plus one VC firm itself - Bain Capital, an investment firm notorious for investing in companies, extracting as much value as possible and then allowing the companies to go bankrupt