software freedom

[ rjbs, March 2022: I don’t actually know the original date of this post! ]

In the realm of “free software” and “open source software,” there’s a lot of talk of freedom: software that is free (like beer), software that is free (like speech), and what freedom is, anyway. Freedom is a pretty important concept on its own, and people tend to get pretty worked up about even minor differences in definitions and implementations of ‘freedom.’ Now, I’m not complaining! I’m all for people having philosophical arguments. In fact, I thought I might throw my own hat into the ring.

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project, is one of free software’s most infamous crusaders. He said, in his free software definition that there are four kinds of freedom involved in software:

  1. freedom to run a program for any reason
  2. freedom to study the program's workings and modify it
  3. freedom to redistribute copies
  4. freedom to improve the program and release your improvements

If a program is licensed such that all four freedoms are granted, it is (says Stallman), free software.

In a recent column, Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly and Associates fame) wrote that he thought Stallman had gotten Freedom Zero wrong. More basic than the right for the user to run the program, he said, is the author’s right to dictate the terms of his program’s use and for users to accept or reject those terms. In other words, if I can’t choose to make my software non-free, I have been stripped of an even more fundamental freedom.

In their rebuttal, the FSF writes:

Tim O’Reilly says the most fundamental software freedom is: “The freedom to choose any license you want for software you write.” Unstated, but clearly implied, is that one person or corporation chooses the rules to impose on everyone else. In the world that O’Reilly proposes, a few make the basic software decisions for everyone. That is power, not freedom. He should call it “powerplay zero” in contrast with our “freedom zero”.

What they fail to address is that O’Reilly qualified his Freedom Zero as requiring that the user have the freedom to choose to accept or reject the license. If there really exists an opportunity to choose alternatives – and by this I mean software that is alternately licensed – then users have freedom. They may choose to give up some of their freedoms of use or modification for the sake of acquiring some high-quality software. Tim argues that the practises of corporations like Microsoft are objectional not because of their software’s licensing, but because the corporation conspires to deny users the freedom to choose alternative software. Under Tim’s scheme, users would not be “choosing between masters,” as the FSF claims, but choosing whether or not they needed total freedom to modify their software.

I cannot find any reason to believe that software must be released with all of Stallman’s freedoms granted, but I will grant that the software isn’t offerred entirely “freely” unless all five freedoms are granted. (That is, Stallman’s four and O’Reilly’s one.) These freedoms do not add up to the GNU Public License, however, because it strips users of the freedom to release their derived works under a “less free” license. So, if the GPL doesn’t exactly fit the bill, what should we use?

I’m not sure. There are a few issues that make it hard for me to see a clear solution to this problem. Firstly, while I don’t think that everyone should be required to grant all users unlimited access to redistribute their software, they should do it anyway. What’s at stake here is the commercial software industry. There exist, now, many companies that make their living by writing software that is useful to a large market (large enough, at least, to generate revenue) and selling it with a license such that it’s not legal for consumers to freely duplicate and redistribute the software. This business model likens the software engineers and programmers to authors, who make their living by selling copies of their works. For their works to generate revenue, free redistribution must be prohibited.

By creating (or supporting) corporations that do nothing but create software, the market homogenizes itself, especially as regards software that will be used by all parts of the market: operating systems, “productivity” software, simple utility application. When developers begin writing software for a large, generalized market, the needs of the small, specialized consumer go unmet. The specialized consumer is, then, forced either to implement workarounds or to develop their own software. Because proprietary software cannot generally be modified, extended, or redistributed, the small market customer can’t extend the generic product and contribute its extensions back into the product as a whole. While some proprietary products offer frameworks for developing modular add-ons, these are only useful if the special customization is a modular addition, rather than a change to the internal architecture.

A more effective model for development is to remove the generic software corporation from the picture and instead allow consumers to develop their own software directly. Projects are defined by working groups comprised of developers hired by potential consumers. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on generic software, consumers will use software that is available for free, and invest their money in the adaptation of that software for their own needs. Corporations that cannot afford full time programmers can contract development or can make agenda-influencing donations to freelance project developers. These developers would work on their project full time and be subsidized by donations made by parties that want modification or enhancements to the software but can’t justify the expense of a full time development staff (or of tasking their own developers with these modifications). Even companies that can’t afford even to make donations to the project are better off, because they are no longer paying for permission to install and run software that does not fully meet their needs.

To realize this scenario, free software projects must become large enough and supported enough to compete with proprietary commercial software products in the area of usability. Proprietary software is often believed to have a lower “total cost of ownership” because sufficiently skilled administrators for commercial software are less expensive to maintain. While I don’t know whether the total cost of ownership is lower with commercial software, an administrator for a GNU/Linux system will probably cost more to salary than a Microsoft Windows administrator because he requires greater knowledge and skill to accomplish many common tasks. A GNU/Linux (or FreeBSD, etc). administrator, though, will have a greater generalized knowledge of the system, and will be able to provide more customized and comprehensive solutions, especially because he will have a knowledge of other existing free products, which he can install and configure in lieu of his systems’s default solution.

The GPL, ensures that the software may be modified, reverse enginneered, and redistributed, and also ensures that all derivative works will be likewise free. This license eliminates the need for any form of complex legal contract between developers of the product. Competing products will be able to borrow directly from each others’ achievements, accellerating the advancement of all projects in one scope. The rights of the individual are not compromised because they choose to accept the terms of the GPL by using the GPL’d software. Microsoft objects that free software will destroy innovation because there will be no incentive to engineer better software. On the contrary, because the desire to have better software will exist, so will the desire to make better software, because the users of software will become, to a large extent, its creators. Because there will be no incentive to eliminate competition or obfuscate problems with code, those driven to create better software will be more free to improve the software, rather than its marketing.

I believe that Tim O’Reilly’s Freedom Zero is real, and should be respected. Non-free licenses seem sensible for software projects that are essentially works of art, such as games, audio/video displays (what we once called “demos”), and interactive fiction. For projects that aim to create operating systems, servers, and applications for productivity or general business-related functions, only professional software-writing corporation benefit more from proprietary software than from free software. Licenses like the GPL promote the lasting freedom of the software, and should be favored.

Written on January 2, 2002