Free Software Dilemma

© Copyright 2000 by John Halleck

Note that this is a real case, but the names have been changed to avoid fingering the company, and some of the facts have been altered to make the positions somewhat more equal.


One can buy a "head mounted mouse" that moves the mouse on the screen based on the movements of your head. With a little thought you will see that this could a boon for quadrapalegics.

In the early days of the Macintosh, the "point and click" interface was a wonderfull "new" idea (actually most of the idea comes from Xerox...), and it was not long before people thought of combining the two ideas.

There were, however, several problems that made it a non-trivial problem. [You can skip the rest of this paragraph is you aren't interested in programming details.] There were lots of places where the system put up a dialog box that you had to type into, and programs that dealt with text also required you to type. There was a utility that could put a keyboard up on the screen, but if you clicked on the keys the typing was handed back to the same utility instead of to another window. Attempting to put another program's windows in front to get the keyboard events failed because as soon as you clicked in the keyboard window it brought it back to the front and it once again got the keyboard events.

I was assigned the task of writting one (to support the occupational rehabilitation program at this University. There were also other efforts at other places, and unknown to us, at least one commercial effort. I wrote a program called KeyMouse. (Called, in house, the Mac Key Mouse)

After the program was written, the University agreed to distribute the program without cost to anyone that could make use of it.

Some time after that we received a letter from the lawyers of a company demanding that we cease doing so. For the sake of this discussion we'll call the company "Screen Keyboards Inc". (SKI) and we'll call their program "ScreenMouse""

There was an initial round where they claimed trademark infringement because the program here "looked the same" as their program. But since they both looked just like the original Macintosh utility that issue was dropped.

There are, however, several ethical (rather than legal) issues that remained.

Company's Side:


SKI is a company that was started to create products like ScreenMouse. It was their main product and a (and possibly their only) commercial success.

They priced the program rather high ($7000 a copy) to recover their costs. They sold their program to those who had insurance that could cover the cost. Those people bought it because the cost was worth it because of the improvement in quality of life that compuer access gave them. There were even cases where it meant the the person could become employed.

Arguments the company could make:

[I hasten to add that nobody at the company made these, these are just those that the company COULD make.]

We've invested many man-months into the product and into marketing. We have a right to recover our costs, and a publicly funded organization like a University has no right to compete with us.

Selling ScreenMouse allows us to fund the writing of further programs that will benefit the handicapped community for years to come. By killing the market for the program you are killing future programs, and since the University is not planning any followon programs you are doing a disservice to the community.

University's Side


The program was produced in responce to an internal need, so the cost of producing it was already covered. The program only took a few man-weeks to write.

Since the program was distributed mostly over the network (ftp in those days and not the web) the distribution costs were trivial.)

Most of the people who's lives could be improved by the program were poor, and couldn't afford high cost programs. The University felt it worthwhile to allow those people to just have a copy.

Arguments the University could make:

[I hasten to add that nobody at the University made these, these are those that the University COULD make.]

If you spent man months writing a program we wrote in man-weeks, that is your internal problem.

If the University stops distribution of the program now, they cause many people to have a much worse quality of life than they would otherwise have. Most (but admittedly not all) of the people we distribute the program to would be unable to afford the company program to begin with.


Why is this a COMPUTER ethics problem and not just a common ethics problem?

Computer Science is one of the few areas where things can actually be distributed for free. In other areas no company can afford to give their products away for free, and therefore they don't have to worry about their market "going away" because someone gives the product away.

In the field of computers it is still possible to find areas where there is a single commercial product and distroy its market by distribuing a free product. I hasten to add that this is not easy, but it can often be done by someone that wants to spend a some time on it. (Sometimes just a few weeks.)

Free software raises many issues that other fields have not had to deal with. There are laws in the commercial arena that prevent you from killing competitors by selling below cost. But there are no laws that prevent you from distribuing products for free if your distribution costs are free.

This case drags in Public institutions vs Commercial companies, and drags in the emotional issues of the quality of life of the handicapped, but there are still ethical issues that remain about the social responsibilities that go with free software.

There are even specialty areas that will NEVER have a commercial product because there are free programs there. Whether this is good or bad depends a lot on what your ethical views of companies happen to be.

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© Copyright 2000 by John Halleck
This page was last modified on March 13th, 2000