Tux IconDoes FOSS have a future?

The legal battle that Software Patents have created has lead to a lot of extravagant claims from both sides. One of the pro-patent arguments is that software must be patentable so that the people who invested time and effort in creating it are rewarded for their efforts. This, they say, gives those people an incentive to continue to create software. FOSS is all about stealing people's ideas and removing the profit from them, thereby destroying any incentive to create. They usually throw in a few "communism" parallels if they're writing for an American audience.

This can sound like a plausible argument. Why would people spend money on creating something if they'll just have to give it away?

If this argument is true, then FOSS is a temporary aberration that should be eliminated. However, it's a deceptive argument. It's on a parallel with saying that copying an MP3 is theft: It only makes sense if you ignore the fundamental difference between intellectual property and physical property.

The purpose of this essay is to make it clear why this argument is not just deceptive, it is demonstrably wrong. This I can do very simply by stating that software is science.

It seems a bit of a stretch to say that programmers are scientists. But it really isn't. Programmers have to understand hardware - that's engineering, electronics, and mathematics. They have to understand algorithms and communications protocols - that's mathematics again. And they have to build upon existing ideas in order to create a new one.

Programming is simply applied science. And so we need to look at how science advances:


Science is not closed or proprietary. It doesn't advance by placing limits on how you can use the knowledge it generates. It is recognized that every new discovery is made by "standing on the shoulders of giants". Every new work builds upon previous works. This is how it works, and the only way it can work.

Science is built upon peer review. Anybody can publish any theory or findings. Once they do, any and all interested parties can try and reproduce their experiments and see if they get the same results. Any and all interested parties can try to improve upon the original theories and observations.

That's how science advances. That's how people want software to advance. That's the only way software can advance. Software companies, in their current form, are an aberration that never should have happened.

"You must be able to own an idea to make a profit", say the pro-patent lobby. Do you believe it?

If you do, think about this: You're going to university. This university offers two courses: General science, and basketweaving.

Do you think the world would benefit most from having more scientists, or more basketweavers?

Do you think you would benefit most from becoming a scientist, or a basketweaver?

Scientists rely upon ideas being free. They insist upon ideas being free. Does any intelligent person insist that this means science is doomed and the world needs more basketweavers? Do we find that nobody is interested in paying scientists to create and discover?

No. We find science to be an excellent career choice and the heart of many multi-billion dollar industries. We find giving away ideas but charging for practical applications of those ideas to be a hugely profitable and productive solution.

Do you see the distinction? In science, ideas are free to be used and built upon by anybody. It's the applications of those ideas where the profit is made.

Keeping ideas free to be built upon is infinitely superior to keeping them locked up and proprietary. This is how science works. And it's how software works, regardless of how desperately a very few very rich corporations would prefer you to think otherwise.

Owning ideas is a bad idea. Software patents area bad idea. FOSS is the future.

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