User:Tim Starling/Free software

Free software is an ambiguous term. As Debian's introduction to free software states:

Many people new to free software find themselves confused because the word "free" in the term "free software" is not used the way they expect. To them free means "at no cost". An English dictionary lists almost twenty different meanings for "free". Only one of them is "at no cost". The rest refer to liberty and lack of constraint. [1]

So why, given this extraordinary numerical advantage, are the unwashed masses drawn towards the incorrect term? The answer is simple: software is inanimate, without rights or a free will.

Richard Stallman explains that he does not want software to be locked up. But free does not mean that something is not locked up. If I park my bike next to a shop, not bothering to chain it up to a lamp post, is the bike free?

Say if I take my budgerigar outside in its cage. I open the cage door. "Go free, little birdie!" I say. The bird flies away, it is now free. But is its little plastic swing free? No, the swing can't jump out of the cage and go frolic in a puddle. No longer having any need for the cage or the swing, I put it by the road, with a sign above it saying "free swing". A passer-by would correctly interpret this to mean that the swing is available without cost. After all, the swing cannot be "free as in freedom", it has no liberty, it's just an object.

Free software is a pun, wordplay. This is hardly surprising, considering the subculture from which it comes. GNU/Linux is full of puns and wordplay, especially in software titles. One could almost call it a naming convention. "Bash" is short for "Bourne Again Shell", a play on the original Bourne Shell. GNU is a recursive acronym telling us what it is not (despite a striking similarity), and coincidentally the name of the animal in their logo.

But free software is more than a corny joke — it's propaganda, doublespeak. It's loudly proclaimed to have a nonsensical meaning, free as in freedom despite the fact that software can't have freedom. But in marketing, it's association that matters, not a solid factual connection between product and image. At the same time, the name "free software", subtly or overtly depending on the listener, conveys freedom from cost.

Freedom from cost is very important to the programmers who make up this movement. In Eric S. Raymond's Homesteading the Noosphere, he explains how hacker culture is a gift culture.

In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away. [2]

One can't give something away if one asks for something in exchange. Volunteer developers within the open source movement are committed to providing excellent software packages and giving them freely to whoever wishes to have them. To demand a material return would destroy the satisfaction they derive from the practice. It's fair enough to ask for compensation for the distribution costs, since the gift is software, not CDs or DVDs.

There is a good argument to be had for giving software away at zero cost, but for restricting the redistribution of the software in some way. To use the terminology of the movement, there is a case for making software free as in beer but not free as in freedom. This is because private companies, wishing to obtain a competitive advantage, may improve free software, but not make their improvements similiarly freely available. If we consider this to be a bad thing, then we might prevent it by restricting the freedom of the companies to do such a thing. This is the essence of the GPL — it is a restriction in terms of how software may be redistributed. The freedom of individuals and companies is exchanged for the mythical freedom of an inanimate object — the software, we are told, must be liberated.

The net effect of this restriction is to prevent the majority of companies from distributing customised free software. They would rather keep changes private, in house, than lose their competitive advantage by distributing their source code. Traditional copyright law allows this loss of competitive advantage to be compensated for by licensing fees.

Of course there are advantages to GPL software for companies and other users. The first is that it is cheap. The second is that the source code is available, so in-house modification is made possible. My point is merely that it is not without restriction.

My own work on free software, mainly on MediaWiki, has been motivated by generosity, and of course the satisfaction, reputation and esteem that comes from generosity. I don't want to change the world, I just want to give stuff away. Imposing restrictions on recipients would sully the gift. I'd rather give people cash for birthdays rather than gift certificates, and I'd rather not demand people agree to a license document before using my software.

I rarely make an explicit declaration that my work is in the public domain. The reason for this is an expectation of mutual trust. I take the lead in offering trust to people who download my source code. I offer it freely to them, in the hopes that they might follow my example and offer their own work product freely back to me, and that they will give me credit where it is due. I also hope that they will trust me not to sue them for copyright infringement.

This must seem like a hopelessly naive and idealistic view of the world. Inevitably people will betray this trust. When that happens, the only thing left for me to do will be to forgive.

Comments - Permalink