the Right to Fork

Leon Brooks blogged about the Right to Fork (an essential right for free software development) but notes that governments of countries don’t permit such a right.

One of the criteria for the existence of a state is the ability to control it’s own territory. Lose control of the territory and you lose the state, lose some of the territory and the state is diminished. Therefore preventing a division of the territory (a split after a civil war) is the primary purpose of a state. The other criteria of a state are the ability to tax the population, impose civil order, and to administer all other aspects of government. All of these operations are essential to the government and lead to the destruction of the state if they are lost.

It’s not that governments want to prevent forking, it’s the fact that the existence of the state (on which the existence of the government depends) demands that it be prevented in all but the most extreme situations.

With free software forking is not a problem as multiple groups can work on similar software without interference. If someone else works on a slightly different version of your program then the worst that they can do is to get the interest of more developers than you get. This competition for developers leads to better code!

With proprietary software the desire to prevent forking is due to the tiny marginal cost of software. Most of the costs of running a software company are in the development. The amount of work involved in development does not vary much as the user-base is increased. So doubling the number of sales can always be expected to significantly more than double the company’s profit.

One thing that would benefit the computer industry would be to have all the source to proprietary programs put in escrow and then released freely after some amount of time or some number of versions have been released. If Windows NT 4.0 was released freely today it would not take many sales from the more recent versions of Windows. But it would provide significant benefits for people who want to emulate older systems and preserve data. I expect that current versions of MS-Office wouldn’t properly read files created on NT 4.0, I’m sure that this is a problem for some people and will become more of a problem as new machines that are currently being designed are not capable of booting such old versions of Windows.

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