(this page is just one part of my “Dangerous Copyright Myths” piece. Please also read the introduction and index for more context)
Free (as in Freedom) Software makes a very smart use of copyright for the common good. Copyright remains a much simpler way to protect or share software than patents, tradermarks and so on. It is also hard to believe that, if copyright didn’t exist at all or software were not copyrightable, there would be no need for the GPL or similar licenses.
Without the obligations imposed by those licenses, which are enforceable only if there is such a thing as author’s rights and it can also be applied to source code, it would be perfectly legal to modify existing software and redistribute or sell the resulting binaries without sharing any changes. In such a world there would be much less sharing of software design knowledge.
Now, while software design is just as difficult and creative as composing music or writing a novel, it is not equivalent to them at all. What works wonders for software, like the GPL, may be just stupid, or create serious problems, if we tried to apply it ‘as is’ to other creative works.
This would remain true even if software were declared not copyrightable and it became mandatory to publish the source code of every software program in existence. Note that the FSF itself offers, also for these reasons, a Free Documentation License which is different from the one recommended for software source code.
It is silly to treat, for example, literary works like source code only because both are combination of the same letters, spaces and punctuation symbols. Or, for that matter, to say, like Moglen, that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in digital format is undistinguishable by, and just as freely movable as, the number expressed by the same bits.
So? While I am writing this, I have on my desk a piece of wood I use as a paperweight and a really good book with almost the same shape and weight. They can be moved and passed around in the same way. They can’t be copied infinite times at almost null cost, but so what? Does external appearance alone make them undistinguishable and worth the same?
Source code is just an intermediate step, not the the final, finished and profoundly different stage of the creative work, that machine code is. The purpose of software programs is to help men to solve problems. The reason for their existence is to serve their end users in their executable form. They are just tools, as long as they don’t lock data into proprietary or undocumented formats.
Nobody downloads source code only to read it, without ever compiling it and using the resulting program (programming students don’t count, of course). Nor is a complete software program ever written just to publish its source code, without ever using its final result. Source code remains a way to build tools, a means to an end. A poem or a novel, instead, is the final result.
The objective quality of a program (that is, the benefits its existence brings to humanity) can be easily measured: if it runs faster, crashes less, takes less memory and so on… it is better. For the same reason it makes sense if the development process of that tool is open and everybody can contribute patches (as long as you still believe that users and developers are always the same people): it’s easy to see if a patch made the program better.
The fact that software just exists to serve end users as an executable also justifies the Free Software principle that you must not make money out of hiding information, but through related services.
Since source code is only useful by means of its executable form, hiding it with copyright or other means would indeed prevent others from sharing knowledge. When you buy a book, instead, nothing of the knowledge that makes it worthwhile is hidden (unless you bought it not to read the text, but to look how it’s bound).
Freely redistributable source code is good and necessary also because it can be ported to new processors. Books don’t need to be reprinted because some brand of glasses goes out of fashion. The fact that the knowledge in books can disappear when they go out of print is a separate issue with a separate solution.