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Freedom or Power?

by Bradley M. Kuhn and Richard Stallman
08/15/2001

Related Links

Tim O'Reilly Responds to "Freedom or Power?"

My Definition of Freedom Zero

Shared Source vs. Open Source: Craig Mundie and Michael Tiemann

Shared Source vs. Open Source: Panel Discussion

OSCON Conference Coverage

Comment on this articleAfter reading Tim's weblog on Freedom Zero, and this response by the FSM, have you changed your views about how we should manage our software licenses?

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Editor's note: On July 28, 2001, Tim O'Reilly published a weblog titled, My Definition of Freedom Zero, that was inspired by a discussion that had followed the debate between Craig Mundie and Michael Tiemann at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. In that article Tim explained his preferences for BSD-style licenses over the GPL. This article is a response by the Free Software Movement to Tim's statements.

Freedom is being able to make decisions that affect mainly you. Power is being able to make decisions that affect others more than you. If we confuse power with freedom, we will fail to uphold real freedom. That is what Tim O'Reilly did in his essay, My Definition of Freedom Zero. He advocated a "basic freedom" which is really a form of power.

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".

We in the Free Software Movement want programmers to have freedom. Most of us are programmers, and we want freedom for ourselves as well as for you. But each of us uses software written by others, and we want freedom when using that software -- not just when using our own code.

In the Free Software Movement, we stand for freedom for all users, whether they program often, occasionally, or not at all. We look at what permits a good way of life, and at how useful programs can foster a community of goodwill, cooperation, and collaboration. Our criteria for free software specify the freedoms that a program must offer its users so that they can cooperate in a community.

We in the Free Software Movement are not opposed to business. But we have seen what happens when a software business has the "freedom" to impose arbitrary rules on the users of software. Microsoft's conduct illustrates where that power leads.

O'Reilly says that Microsoft has put its past behind it. The courts did not think so. He also says that the problem with Microsoft wasn't the proprietary software, just the monopoly. But a choice of masters is not freedom. Microsoft is an egregious example of how denying users' freedoms can lead to direct harm, but it is not the only example, and monopolistic actions are not the only way proprietary software can harm society.

Proprietary software is an exercise of power -- it harms the users by denying their freedom. When users lack the freedoms that define free software, they can't tell what the software is doing, can't check for back doors, can't monitor possible viruses and worms, and can't find out what personal information is being reported (or stop the reports, even if they do find out). If it breaks, they can't fix it; they have to wait for the developer to exercise its power to do so. If it simply isn't quite what they need, they are stuck with it. They can't help each other improve it.

Discussions of rights and rules for software use have usually concentrated too much on the interests of programmers alone. Few people in the world program regularly, and fewer still are owners of proprietary software businesses. But the entire developed world now needs and uses software, so decisions about software determine what kind of world we have. Software developers now control the way the world lives, does business, communicates, and is entertained. The ethical and political issues cannot be avoided under the slogan of "freedom of choice (for developers only)".

If code is law, as Professor Lessig has stated, then the real question we face is: Who should control the code you use -- you, or an elite few? We believe you are entitled to control the software you use, and giving you that control is the goal of free software.

Current copyright law places us in the position of dictator for our code, whether we like it or not. We cannot escape making decisions for others, so our decision is to proclaim freedom for each user, just as the Bill of Rights exercises government power by guaranteeing each citizen's freedoms. That is what the GNU GPL is for: It puts you in control of your usage of the software, while protecting you from "powerplay zero." This is the ethical choice, in a situation where laws give us and others such power.

Honest people can disagree. We believe, though, that with time, as more and more users realize that code is law, and come to feel that they too deserve freedom, they will see the importance of the freedoms we stand for -- just as more and more users have come to appreciate the practical value of the free software we have developed.

(A complete list of the freedoms we believe are fundamental for software is available in "The Free Software Definition" published by the Free Software Foundation.)

Bradley M. Kuhn advocates, documents, hacks on, and teaches about free software. He works for the Free Software Foundation.

Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU Project.

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