In order to live in a free society the protection of one’s freedoms is of the utmost importance. One of the best ways (if not the only way) to keep one’s freedom’s is to constantly keep an eye out for things that take away your freedoms (with or without your knowledge or consent) and actively resist them. Even though my last few posts were all about permaculture and natural systems, free software has become a very serious focal point of mine. It wasn’t until a little over a year ago that I became heavily exposed to the free software movement and realized how important it continues to be as we continue living in this digital age. While I believe that many people have heard and understand the term open source, free software is a much bigger and more important topic.
What is “Free Software”?
“Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.” – Richard Stallman
As the title of the post indicates, free software is a matter of freedom and not free as in price. The quote above by Richard Stallman (the founder of the free software movement, and the Free Software Foundation), is really an all encompassing explanation of what free software means and I’m sure to many, is quite obvious, however, many have been trained to have a hang up regarding the copy and distribute aspect in particular. There has been some big news (and some important that is not so big) regarding the sharing of software particularly with regards to music. I will first discuss what actually is freedom and then show how the quote above fits into living freely.
Philosophical Arguments for Freedom
Property is an extension of your thoughts, energies and work. These are fundamental to living in a free society (one with the least coercion). If you do not own your thoughts, energy or work, then you are not free, but merely a slave for the those who do own them. One’s right to choose their own outcome can only be removed by force, and in many ways their unwillingness to resist it.
A free individual picks and chooses how to apply their efforts, for whatever their intended purpose is. If I decide, for example, to use my extra energies to produce a garden to feed my family nutritious food, I should by, the nature of my choice, be entitled to the fruits of my labors (I was not coerced into doing the activity, other than my free choice). This would be different if somebody was pointing a weapon at me and said “work on my garden or else”. In the first case its obvious that I felt there was a problem, and chose a solution to that situation, whereas the second was a choice that was not decided by me (I could only choose to comply, or find out the “or else”).
The same goes with commerce between individuals. If I decide to part ways with some item, or my labors, in exchange for another persons’ I should/do have the ability to do what I will with my new property (after all, I worked for what I exchanged of value). This is generally coined as “Value for Value”. If one goes to Lowes to buy a shovel, nobody questions that the person could use the shovel to dig a garden, to open a paint can, to lean on when chatting with a neighbor, to change the handle for one that fits better, or to lend to buddy when in need. After all, you bought it, now its yours to do with.
In our daily lives we are very intimate with this topic and generally needs no deeper explanation. For some reason (perhaps propaganda and overwhelmingly slanted exposure) software and anything digital seems to be utterly confused, even though all the same things apply. “Value for Value.”
The freedom to run software means that software that you traded, value for value, should be allowed to be used by its owner and therefore controller. In many situations today, if you did not purchase software, through some particularly decided pathway by the producing company, you would be legally liable for even running the software. So regardless of how the software got to you, regardless of value for value, you would not be allowed legally to use the software. This makes no sense in any other aspect of our lives. If a friend purchased a leaf blower and the friend lent it to you (or even sold it to you), there is no way that we would think it to be reasonable for the leaf blower manufacturer to have the ability to say “You cannot use that leaf blower because you did not buy it from us”. Its quite understood that when you make an exchange for something, unless its very explicitly stated and understood by both parties, you are parting ways (generally one with your money, and you with their product).
It is like the producer of a product, can sell it out, and maintain full and complete control over the items, regardless of the situation. It can be argued that this mentality has turned many aspects of the world into purely rent seeking and a parasitic relationship. I can assure you I don’t want to be attached at the hip with every single person I’ve ever done a transaction with. Imagine a soap company telling you, you have to wash your arm before your legs, and if you don’t, you could be fined or arrested.
Copy & Distribute
The ability to copy and distribute really are the same issue. The fundamental problem with not allowing these, is you’re restricting what the person can and can’t do with their own faculties, energy and manpower. This does not mean that I would advocate that its OK to break use contracts between two parties, or that I believe that an individual within a company has the OK to release private software to anyone whom he chooses (it wasn’t his to distribute, it was the companies, that he illegally acquired). But the reality is that the control of the work that one produces (such as a company) ends the moment their product leaves the store, (after all you traded your value, for somebody elses, why o why would you think its OK that you then get to continue to dictate what they do next?) Especially if the store is one where it deals business with any person regardless with unsigned, non-contracts. (How can you agree to a contract, that you can’t see, sign, is written to restrict you, and nobody can be held accountable on the other end?)
Copying and distributing are argued to erode the ability for the producing company to produce their product. This is complete nonsense. You’re making no restrictions on them, and their ability to stay afloat is dictated by their ability to provide a superior service. In addition if companies can purchase the “rights” (how ridiculous I know) to copy and distribute software, then how does it make any sense that you can restrict somebody else from doing it if they received the software through either a “value for value” transaction or the will of another individual who did? Once software is published and leaves the door out into the world, restrictions on who can and cannot copy and distribute it, are ridiculous.
Copying and distributing requires an individual to exert energies and work in order to produce and then give to another. Often times in today’s world this revolves around paying for a hosted server, where they must pay for the electricity costs, the fans to cool the server, and the access to the local ISP. None of this is free, as in free money. Not to mention the individual has to set it up, maintain it, and everything else with running a server. They don’t HAVE to share it with somebody, for free or for any price. They CHOOSE to do so (for any of a multitude of reasons).
I believe this to actually be the most important them all (if I had to choose) and extremely important in our day. This freedom isn’t necessarily needed to be done and enacted by the person, but it could be by a trusted source (a friend, a network of individuals). I view studying software as a safety issue. It has been proven in many cases today of backdoors to existing in things like operating systems so that even though they’ve sold you a product, they still maintain control over it, and can do anything they desire, without your consent or knowledge. How on earth can you even enter into a contract where one side has the carte blanc authority to do anything without your consent or knowledge without even telling you that they have the ability? They might make some extremely generic statement that they will monitor to make sure that there is no abuse of the product, but don’t tell you how (since they want the ability to do anything they want). That in it of itself, is fraud. It’s like a security company sells you security cameras, and when they set it up in your house, they set up another one hidden looking in your bedroom. You didn’t happen to ask about it, and they certainly never made you aware of it. I think we might say this is quite troublesome. “We need to be able to make sure the cameras work.” Right…
Study does have other importance beyond security, such as just one’s ability to understand what they’re using. Restricting this ability is like selling a product to you and then when you look at it closely they come in between you and go “WHOA, we didn’t sell you this so you could look at it closely, just use it how we say, trust us. No nobody not even somebody independent can look at it, but just trust us.” … Yeah right. What if you find out that this could help you with another aspect in your life that you didn’t know without finding out more? If you own your mind, then you have the right to analyze and understand.
Change & Improve the Software
The ability to modify the software is extremely important. Software exists as a tool. It does something for the person using it. One buy’s or creates software to solve a problem. This is one of the biggest problems with mass produced software by large companies. The software is designed for a large audience, and if your problem just slightly doesn’t fit into that situation “tough shit” is basically your choice. Also the ability to change goes into the ability (either you, or somebody you choose, such as a 3rd party developer) to keep the software working in an ever changing world. Currently if it breaks you have no choice but to ask the creators to fix it (since nobody is capable of doing it, by design). Good luck getting Microsoft to fix any problem you ask about, (such as massive holes and bugs in the .NET framework that have been around since the beginnings. ) Proprietary software removes your right to get another person to help you solve a problem, using something that you legally acquired.
I know I went a little long on this one, but its a pretty important topic, and I really have haphazardly quickly touched on a very deep topic. I have noticed the unbelievable amount of free software that is coming up and how the attitudes are definitely changing in favor of free software (generally called open source, but its not the same, you may be able to read the code but not allowed to do anything else with it). In fact in today’s world you can literally get by extremely comfortably without using any non-free software as many people do today. I am still working on getting rid of certain free software, and my current position requires that I use many Microsoft products.