open software, cont. (88)

Sat, 11 Feb 89 16:30:18 EST

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 591. Saturday, 11 Feb 1989.

Date: 11 February 1989
From: Willard McCarty <>
Subject: when is software "free"?

It's difficult for those of us in university, and esp. those of a
certain age, not to feel a deep and abiding distrust of the
profit-motive and to find the commercialism of the present age,
to say nothing of software pirate-captains like Lotus and Ashton-
Tate, repugnant. Our ability to share ideas freely, knowing that
our paycheques will not suffer, permits us a great freedom. Make
no mistake -- without this freedom our society as a whole would
be in real trouble. I guess we feel uneasy about the commercial
folks partly because we know where commercialism can and is
leading (consider the Thatcherite siege of the universities in
the U.K.), partly for reasons too complex and murky to examine

Everyone who has been involved with computing at universities
knows what good has come from paying people to play with
computers and share their ideas openly. In many cases, I suspect,
these ideas simply wouldn't have arisen in a commercial
environment at all. At Toronto, for example, we are very
fortunate to be able to develop and distribute some software
without charge. We do this pragmatically, in order to disseminate
ideas and demonstrate their cogency. I very much doubt that this
software would sell at a higher price than the cost of the
diskettes, much less repay the cost of development -- not because
it is of low quality, which it isn't, but because the ideas
involved are experimental.

The trouble I have is not with fine ideas, such as Stillman's,
but with their unrealized subtext and with the way they work out
in the world. It seems to me a profound error to identify "open"
software with the Good and proprietary software with the Bad.
Things are just not that simple. It is a fine thing for someone
who doesn't need to make a living by selling his or her software
to give it away. But what about those who happen to be very good
at writing software, who dedicate their lives to doing that, and
who need to support themselves? What about software that is far
too complex to be developed by the odd humanities computing
centre, where resources are slim at best?

I have a good friend, a scholar by training and inclination, who
turned from an academic career to software development. To my
mind he has done more for his colleagues through his software
than most of them ever accomplish through their no doubt numerous
articles and books. He is, as we say, a genius in his chosen
pursuit. He also must earn a living, and having a small company
must charge a stiff price for his work to keep his co-workers
employed. His chief competitor is by comparison a financial giant
and so can afford to employ many times the number of programmers
and still charge much less -- for what I think is an inferior
product. My friend is frequently vexed by the unkind insinuations
of secure academics, who breezily assume that he must be making a
fortune -- but, then, having never tried the same, how could they
know what is involved? And he is troubled by the extent to which
his program is illegally copied, since that means a serious loss
in revenue and so threatens the very basis of his work. Most
North American academics whose salary is above the midrange of an
assistant professor's are better off financially than he is.

Shouldn't it be possible for us academics to pursue software
development when we can and to support those on the other side of
the wall, at least the like-minded ones? Darrell Raymond speaks
of "technology transfer" and so raises the interesting and
broader question of cooperation between universities and
industry. At Toronto we are just now concluding a very successful
"partnership" with IBM, whereby we received a good amount of
equipment in exchange for an unspecified number of "deliverables"
-- software, conferences, workshops, papers, etc. Unquestionably
the partnership was good for everyone. I am aware, however,
of the pernicious effect outside forces are having on academic
freedom, so far mostly in the sciences. Perhaps we steer a
dangerous course, the chief danger being that we lose sight of
the scholarship in acquiring the tools with which to enhance it.


Willard McCarty