First Monday gets Free Software movement wrong.

Matthias Klang’s article in First Monday falls into a common trap regarding free software because they have an absolutist position on freedom, Klang promotes propaganda instead of clear thinking, and fails to do proper research. I’ll just consider the conclusion and a couple other parts.

[Richard] Stallman’s position in the freedom debate arises from a realisation about the necessity of a software commons. However Stallman shares Hardin’s flawed views of the commons. The position that freedom is good may be acceptable but freedom cannot be enforced and limited in the way in which the FSF attempts to do so. Since users are controlled by the GPL and they are reliant on licenses any freedom which they may have or experience is on the whole illusory. True freedom would allow all to do as they pleased. However, Stallman shares Hardin’s view that uncontrolled freedom inevitably leads to ruin. Therefore the commons he creates is not a free one. It offers only limited freedom maintained and controlled by an elite. The GPL is controlled by an elite since only a very limited number have the power to affect changes to the GPL.

Allowing “all to do as they pleased” means the powerful can deprive you of the freedoms the FSF defends. One cannot have all freedoms simultaneously. Some freedoms conflict with others, so there are situations where one must choose which freedoms are more important and block efforts to squelch those freedoms.

We consider walking down the street in safety to be more important than driving, hence we make laws which compel drivers to wait for pedestrians and we don’t give drivers the freedom to drive anywhere they want at any speed. Drivers must keep to the roads and obey speed limits.

In the free software movement, we value the freedoms of free software more than another’s power to distribute non-free software. Hence, we distinguish between power and freedom, and we prefer copyleft free software licenses; licenses which prohibit distributing copies of programs stripped of their freedom. We want to make sure that intermediaries can’t take away the freedom granted by the initial distributor.

If one wants to, one can distribute public domain software or software licensed under a non-copylefted license such as the new BSD license or MIT X11 license. These licenses grant licensees the power to restrict others and do not attempt to account for new ways to restrict a user’s freedom such as software patents, Digital Restrictions Management, or remotely accessing a program’s functionality. This is why proprietors like non-copylefted free software licenses so much, and why the Open Source Initiative doesn’t do anything to distinguish between copyleft and non-copylefted licenses. In order to understand the concepts involved, we have to turn to the FSF.

This “elite” First Monday speaks of doesn’t exist; GPL derivatives are allowed, have been made, and one such derivative was even used to weigh a controversial clause concerning remote accessibility—the Affero GPL. There aren’t a lot of derivative copyleft licenses because they are naturally incompatible with each other—one can’t make a new work from parts of works licensed under two different copylefted licenses.

Klang gets the history of software freedom exactly backwards

The quest of the Free Software Foundation is to create a software commons. This is not about the recreation of something which was free but is now lost but instead the realisation that software is becoming an essential element of the modern world.

If you’ve ever heard Stallman talk about the story of the Free Software movement, you’ve heard him describe how when computers were new all software was free. There was no need for a social movement then to preserve freedom because that is how computer users all lived. It wasn’t until people became proprietors distributing only binary software under non-disclosure agreements that Stallman learned we needed a movement to regain the freedoms we had lost. In fact, the episode that jostled Stallman into this realization was his failure to get printer code in the way he had been accustomed to getting it.

Finally, Jefferson’s famous tapir quote more properly criticizes patents not copyrights. Copyrights don’t cover ideas, but Jefferson’s quote speaks mainly about ideas (“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”) but it’s hardly a surprise that Klang gets this wrong because he apparently thinks the term “intellectual property” is an effective explanatory tool (“Intellectual property controls the way in which property may be used insomuch as it controls all forms of use, even those which do not enrich or harm the original owner.”). This term is propaganda and interferes with clear thinking about the various disparate laws it lumps together. As Stallman points out on his personal site and in talks, “In general, anyone who uses the term is either trying to confuse you, or confused himself.”.

Klang’s First Monday article is not well-written nor does it adequately convey understanding of the issues it attempts to discuss.

One thought on “First Monday gets Free Software movement wrong.

  1. The restraint of the public’s freedom is a direct result of unethical economic meddling, e.g. a temporary restriction of people’s freedom being used to provide an economic incentive.

    The power to restore this freedom is of course in the government’s power, e.g. to abolish copyright, patents, DMCA, etc.

    Until that time each artist possesses the unethical power granted to it by the government.

    Therefore each artist can restore liberty to the public for each work they publish, by providing a contingent license.

    It is strangely difficult for people to grasp, but if copyright, patents, and the DMCA were abolished tomorrow then no artist would have need of these restraints in order to use the GPL to restore liberty to the public.

    We are talking about the public’s liberty, their freedom to enjoy work that is delivered to them – this is where the term ‘published’ originated from.

    To suggest that liberty means the individual should be free to enslave their fellows constitutes grievous semantic harm.

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