“Have To” Is a Relative Phrase

Monday 9 August 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I often hear it. I have to use proprietary software, people say. But usually, that's a justification and an excuse. Saying have to implies that they've been compelled by some external force to do it.

It begs the question: Who's doing the forcing? I don't deny there might be occasions with a certain amount of force. Imagine if you're unemployed, and you've spent months looking for a job. You finally get one, but it generally doesn't have anything to do with software. After working a few weeks, your boss says you have to use a Microsoft Windows computer. Your choices are: use the software or be fired and spend months again looking for a job. In that case, if you told me you have to use proprietary software, I'd easily agree.

But, imagine people who just have something they want to do, completely unrelated to their job, that is made convenient with proprietary software. In that case, there is no have to. One doesn't have to do a side project. So, it's a choice. The right phrase is wanted to, not have to.

Saying that you're forced to do something when you really aren't is a failure to take responsibility for your actions. I generally don't think users of proprietary software are primarily to blame for the challenges of software freedom — nearly all the blame lies with those who write, market, and distribute proprietary software. However, I think that software users should be clear about why they are using the software. It's quite rare for someone to be compelled under threat of economic (or other) harm to use proprietary software. Therefore, only rarely is it justifiable to say you have to use proprietary software. In most cases, saying so is just making an excuse.

As for being forced to develop proprietary software, I think it's even rarer yet. Back in 1991 when I first read the GNU Manifesto, I was moved by RMS' words about the issue:

“Won't programmers starve?”

I could answer that nobody is forced to be a programmer. Most of us cannot manage to get any money for standing on the street and making faces. But we are not, as a result, condemned to spend our lives standing on the street making faces, and starving. We do something else.

But that is the wrong answer because it accepts the questioner's implicit assumption: that without ownership of software, programmers cannot possibly be paid a cent. Supposedly it is all or nothing.

Well, even if it is all or nothing, RMS was actually right about this: we can do something else. By the mid 1990s, these words had inspired me to make a lifelong plan to make sure I'd never have to write or support proprietary software again. Despite being trained primarily as a computer scientist, I've spent much time building contingency plans to make sure I wouldn't be left with proprietary software support or development as my only marketable skill.

During the 1990s, it wasn't clear that software freedom would have any success at all. It was a fringe activity; Cygnus was roughly the only for-profit company able to employ people to write Free Software. As such, I of course started learning the GCC codebase, figuring that I'd maybe someday get a job at Cygnus. I also started training as an American Sign Language translator, so I'd have a fallback career if I didn't get a job at Cygnus. Later, I learned how to play poker really well, figuring that in a worst case, I could end up as a professional poker player permanently.

As it turned out, I've never had to rely fully on these fallback plans, primarily because I was hired by the FSF in 1999. For the last eleven years, I have been able to ensure that I've never had a job that required that I use, support, or write proprietary software and I've worked only on activities that directly advanced software freedom. I admit I was often afraid that someday I might be unable to find a job, and I'd have to support, use or write proprietary software again. Yet, despite that fear, since 1997, I've never even been close to that.

So, honestly, I just don't believe those who say they have to use proprietary software. Almost always, they chose to use it, because it's more convenient than the other things they'd have to do to avoid it. Or, perhaps, they'd rather write or use proprietary software than write or use no software at all, even when avoiding software entirely was a viable option.

In summary, I want to be clear that I don't judge people who use proprietary software. I realize not everyone wants to live their life as I do — with cascading fallback plans to avoid using, writing or supporting proprietary software. I nevertheless think it's disingenuous to say you have to use, support or develop proprietary software. It's a choice, and every year that goes by, the choice gets easier, so the statement sounds more like an excuse all the time.

Posted on Monday 9 August 2010 at 08:11 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>