Owned Software vs Servant Software

26th November 2017

Hi guys. Do you think your computer is a servant or a slave?

This may seem an odd question but I think it’s actually a very pertinent question in an age where computers increasingly permeate our lives.

creepy laptop

Is a computer a slave to your will; doing exactly as you wish it to? Or is it a servant? Providing you a service on the behalf of a commercial entity such as Microsoft or Apple?

The Free Software movement calls software that is enslaved to the user “Free Software” because the user is free. The Open Source community calls it “Open Source” because it can be studied and modified. But for this article we will try using the terms “Owned Software” and “Servant Software” to allow us to look at the subject from a different angle. The idea is that if you own something then it is your slave, and if it provides you a service then it is a servant.

We will imagine a few hypothetical people. All of these people like the same type of software, but for different reasons. I’d like you to think about whether you agree with each of their points of view.

lady wearing suit

Open Source advocate

The Open Source model of software development has many advantages over closed source. It allows collaboration between different organisations with similar goals, for the mutual benefit of all.

By building on top of a shared code-base, organisations can focus their development resources on differentiating their products, rather than re-inventing the wheel.

A variety of open-source compatible business approaches have gained prominence in recent years; notable examples include dual licensing, software as a service, not charging for the software but for services, freemium, donation-based funding, crowdfunding, and crowdsourcing.


Free software advocate

Free software respects our rights to study, modify and share it. This means the source-code is published, and under a copyright licence that allows studying, modification and redistribution.

Free Software means that we (individually and as a collective) can be in control of our computing. This is important for society because we have the right and responsibility to control our computers.

The alternative is to use non-free software that is under the developer’s control. The non-free program can spy on you and abuse your rights!


Owned Software advocate

Owned Software is software that is enslaved to it’s owner. This means the owner not only reaps a benefit from it, but can modify or even destroy it if they so choose. This is appropriate because a machine has no soul and should be entirely submissive to it’s owner.

Contrast this to Servant Software, which provides the user a service on behalf of another entity (usually a mega-corporation such as Microsoft or Apple). The user cannot study, modify or redistribute this software, only receive a service from it, on the terms of it’s proprietor.

Next time you use your computer, ask yourself this: are you it’s owner? Or it’s customer?


I’ve felt for a long time that the Free Software movement doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head with the terminology it uses to discuss the modern computing situation. See these contradictory articles 1, 2 about terminology I’ve written before.

I think that there is a big advantage of using the terms “Owned Software” and “Servant Software”, because I think that there are legitimate niches for technological services, and this terminology makes it easier for us to discuss that in an objective way. For example on the web where the lines are blurred between data, software and services. My article "A response to The JavaScript Trap" would have been simpler to write had I been using this terminology.

portrait of me

“I think that there are legitimate niches for technological services, and this terminology makes it easier for us to discuss that in an objective way.”

Here is a clear-cut example that is easier to discuss using the new terms: Imagine a hypothetical future where the roads are populated exclusively by self-driving cars and self-driving taxis. If they both run “Servant Software”, then the only difference between the “car” and “taxi” in how the vehicle is financed and where it’s parked.

self driving cars

However if we have cars running “Owned Software”, then we truly own them. We can repair them ourselves. We can trust them, as the code can be publicly audited. We can modify their behaviour. Then we know it’s not just a Taxi but truly “ours”.

Thus rather than just saying "all my stuff must run Free Software" we can have a mature discussion about whether it's ours or if it's a service. And, if it is a service, we can discuss whether it's being payed for and regulated in a manner appropriate for a service.

As always, I hope you found this article inspiring!

P.S. Of course people who believe in all that “AI” bullshit will probably say that the computer has rights and it should be able to serve us on it’s own terms. e.g. Read what the EU’s legal affairs committee thinks. But such people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what computers actually are. If you are the EU’s legal affairs committee please read my article about AI: "Computers are stupid".

If you want to own your software then please read my article "How to use Free Software".