The tool isn't the problem

Doghouse – Software Freedom

Article from Issue 268/2023
Author(s):

Restricting uses for FOSS may seem appealing, but it also might not be the solution some imagine.

Recently the question of whether free software (or even open source) should have some clause put into the license to keep the software from being used for "bad" purposes came up again. I believe that most of this was inspired by the war between Ukraine and Russia, and people not wanting their software used for purposes of war. Some of this is probably also inspired by various governments using computer vision software to spy on their citizens or open AI software to establish surveillance. One person even brought up the concept of using "his" free software in nuclear weapons.

I am a pacifist. I do not believe in war as a solution. However, this does not mean that I would just throw up my hands if a warmongering power attacked my country and started harming people. Therefore I can understand the feelings of these people.

However, there are many other things that some people do not like, and such people would object to others using "their" software for doing these things.

Some people do not like the government, so they do not want the government to use their software. Some people do not like the military, so they do not want the military to use their software, even if it is not for killing purposes. Some people do not like the police. Some people do not like religious organizations, and some do not like atheists. The list goes on and on, and if you draw a circle around each of these groups, eventually the Venn diagram shows the null set of people able to use the software. And if no one uses the software, what is the reason for writing it?

Another issue is the concept of software ownership. A particular person, perhaps the founder of the project or the team leader, may try to limit the use of the software, but are they the only person who wrote it? Do all of the contributors agree with this limitation? One of the reasons why the Linux kernel project is still back on the 2.x license of the GPL is that there are thousands of contributors and thousands of copyright holders, who would all have to agree to the change in the license. Some of these contributors have left the project, or died, making it really difficult to get their permission to change the license.

People may have heard of open source projects that change the licensing. Normally this is done with a fork of the project where the original license is maintained for the code released before the license change, and the modified license is applied to the forked code after. Another way of changing a license is to have all the contributors assign their copyrights to an entity (either a person or a corporation) so that person or corporation has the ability to change the license. This is why the GNU project could go from the GPL 2.x licenses to the GPL 3.x licenses without having to get permission from thousands of people.

But trying to get thousands of people to agree on changing the license to include sanctions against some group of people or a country would probably be close to impossible, and a very dangerous precedent.

Even the discussion of such a path would create horrible ripples. In the early days of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), intellectual property lawyers would read over the many licenses of FOSS software just to make sure there was not some "gotcha" that might affect the companies they represented and prevent those companies from using the software. This inspection by these lawyers is one of the reasons given for a limited set of open source licenses to be generated and used. Once a lawyer has inspected a particular type of license for its terms and conditions, they do not have to inspect it again. If now there were new restrictions superimposed on end uses, you would open this inspection again and many companies would give up using and contributing to open source.

Finally, open source software will find its way to people who want to use it for bad purposes no matter what you do. Just as locks only keep honest people honest, licenses will not prevent evil people from using software for evil purposes.

The solution to this is not to blame the tool, but the user. A hammer can be used to build a house or it can be used to kill a person … used for good or for evil. It is the end developer who is helping to build the weapon or wage the war that we need to stop, not the FOSS in the pipeline.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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