I recently came across Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists (1976). Although new to me, it’s by no means news. However, since reading it I can’t help but think about how connected it is with the current software landscape and, in particular, Microsoft’s business practices over the last three decades, especially when taken in contrast with the GNU Manifesto (1985).
The letter is a tirade against the widespread sharing of authorized copies of his company’s software, namely Altair BASIC – Microsoft’s first product. Gates was angry with the fact that the developers of the software were not being paid for the work they had done, that the majority of users had obtained the copy without paying.
The letter raises an important point regarding the economic question of sharing software. If copies are being widely circulated, how are the developers to make a living? There are two main sentiments that I detected upon reading the letter. They are that hobbyists and “users” (Gates used the quotes himself) are amateurs and thieves, respectively. First, without real professional programmers they wouldn’t have any good software. Gates completely dismisses any contribution that volunteers can make. Second, users of the software are looked upon and treated like criminals. Rather than recognize that the users are “fans” of the software, that they are helping increase it’s popularity, and trying to find a way to capitalize and monetize that, the users are treated as criminals.
In contrast, the GNU Manifesto (which was written separately from the Open Letter to Hobbyists – Richard Stallman had not read the letter at the time) takes a radically different approach. Richard Stallman considers the freedoms to study, modify and distribute software as absolutely essential freedoms for the computer user, and he sets out to find a way to protect those freedoms. He too addresses the question of “how will programmers make money?” with some suggestions that have been proven to be effective over the last two decades (such as customizing software or providing services and technical support for free software projects).
Let’s take some quotes from the two documents.
Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.
- Bill Gates
“Won’t everyone stop programming without a monetary incentive?”
Actually, many people will program with absolutely no monetary incentive. Programming has an irresistible fascination for some people, usually the people who are best at it. There is no shortage of professional musicians who keep at it even though they have no hope of making a living that way.
- from the GNU Manifesto
Both the proprietary and free software mentalities have developed greatly over the past few decades, as our world becomes increasing run by software. The free software movement and open source movement have proven that volunteers can build powerful (often the most powerful) software. Take a look at Firefox, or the LAMP web server environment (GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl). Large companies like Google and IBM run on free and open source software. Companies such as Red Hat and MySQL are extremely profitable developing, selling and providing services for free software. Many start-ups, like Google in the early days, or Facebook just a few years ago, rely on widely available inexpensive and powerful free and open source software. Without it, they might not have had the means to begin.
But proprietary software is still the norm, and Microsoft still treats it’s users like criminals. A friend of mine pointed this out to me the other day, as I was trying to explain what it was that I disliked about Microsoft’s mentality. His computer has been calling him a criminal for a while now, as Windows Genuine Advantage is accusing him of using an authorized copy of Windows. He certainly didn’t copy it himself, so there’s one of two possibilities: either the distributor he purchased his computer from used an unauthorized copy, or Windows Genuine advantage is wrong (it’s been wrong at least a few hundred thousand times already). It displays notices when he boots his computer and periodically while running. It’s withholding certain updates from his machine. And it took away his Windows Media Player (I know, I know, no big loss, but that was what he had been using). Mistrust breeds mistrust, and rightfully so.
I can’t help but look at the parallels in the music industry. Record labels have really been treating fans like criminals since the RIAA begin its indiscriminate lawsuits against music fans (or their dead grandparents) several years ago. The record industry is all but dead. There are large lay-offs and cutbacks, a huge decline in CD sales. Many insiders believe it’s already over, for the majors. But the music industry is still very much alive, and groups of artist, like the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (CMCC), have formed to combat the “treat the fan as a criminal” mentality which has lead to disaster for the major labels. Groups like the CMCC and many independent record labels have been developing new business models, rather than using draconian measures to protect outdated ones. The Barenaked Ladies are a great example of this, as is Dispatch (an independent band that embraced Napster instead of rebelling against it).
The movie industry, unfortunately, seems to be making the same mistakes that the record companies made. It seems as if they believe that the record industry just didn’t come down hard enough or early enough on new technology. The new video formats are increasingly loaded with Digital Restrictions Management, even to the point of building it into the hardware. They’ve cracked down on camcordering, as if that’s eroding the core of their business and is a replacement for going to the movies rather than simply creating hype for them. Want to feel like you’re being treated like a criminal? Try going to the movie theatres, where after paying for a ticket, you have to walk by posters and sit through trailers that are increasingly headed in this direction:
I believe that the only effective “anti-piracy” policy involves recognizing that the word “piracy” is being misused. People who share music are music fans. People who share software are computer enthusiasts. In the digital world, we can easily make copies of songs or programs to share with other people without having to take them away from someone else. This is fundamentally different from the concept of stealing material objects that proprietary software developers and major record labels want us to associate with sharing. The only thing that makes this type of sharing illegal is the present copyright system, which is just a legal construct and has no basis in natural law. Copyright isn’t an inherent right; it’s simply a system of incentives. The system can be changed if it’s not serving it’s purpose to society. In today’s world, copyright is a weapon used by large corporations to restrict people’s freedom for the sake of increased profits. We are more connected today than ever before in human history as a result of technology, yet so much of our effort goes into building digital walls.
Fear, uncertainty, anger and greed on behalf of corporations in the face of social cooperation produce things like Windows Genuine Advantage and the record industry’s demise. On the other hand, the flexibility, adaptation and innovation of the free/open source software movement and the independent music scene produce software/music that is more plentiful, quite often better quality and more widely available.
Which are you interested in supporting?