Monday, February 21, 2011

Free as in Freedom

In his article about free software versus open source Richard Stallman expresses the importance of a focus on freedom:

I couldn't agree more. Freedom can be effectively applied as a solution to any modern problem, including software. On the other hand, freedom can also be ineffectively applied or downright misapplied and fail to solve problems in spite of the good goal and direction.

Some say Stallman's focus on freedom is dogmatic, other call it communist, and others utopian. I say Stallman doesn't go far enough.

When it comes to free software and open source I certainly started out in the open source camp where the utilitarian development was a higher priority than freedom. At the time I simply found the GNU GPL to be overly restrictive, and ironically because of that it is popular among commercial software companies who want a revenue stream from software licensing and also want to market their wares as "open source."

In the last decade my understanding of freedom and its importance in the world has changed, and I think I'm starting to understand Stallman's focus on freedom and his approach to achieving it. Understanding isn't agreement though, and in this case I don't agree with the approach at all. It doesn't really represent freedom at all in my opinion, and is in fact a misguided attempt to violently force people into freedom.

Violence? Force? Yep. The irony is the use of the "legitimate" force of intellectual property law as a means to promote freedom. The goal of freedom is spot on, but freedom must be chosen and anything that looks like freedom but is brought about through force will always have a hard time rising above mere compliance.

From a different perspective, namely that of law makers and enforcers, this idea is pure genius and because of that is promoted frequently and consistently in nearly all modern propaganda, including media and educational institutions. If you want something done, give someone the power to force it to happen. Those who want certain things done get to feel like something is getting done without doing much themselves, and those who want the power get what they want and usually have no liability or accountability to balance their power. The more we try to solve with force, no matter how legitimate it might seem, the more force and centralized power we'll get as a result.

Your mom was right: violence is not the answer. If your mom was really smart, she also taught you that government is little more than a monopoly on violence. In some cases, such as countering aggressive force, violence is entirely appropriate. In most cases it is absolutely not.

This is where we cross the line from ethics to morals. Ethics are morals within a certain context, and in the context of legitimate use of force through government violence is entirely ethical. In the more absolute context of morals, violence in response to the treatment of ideas (no matter how they are represented) is clearly not justifiable.

So which license is really the friend of freedom? Which open source or free software license rises above ethics into the realm of morals and does away with threats of violence? If the license is based on the concept of copyright, it is violent and antithetical to freedom. If the license tries to force people to do or not do certain things in order to comply with copyright law it cannot be a friend of freedom.

In general, and certainly with software, there is only one way to not feed the beast of centralized power: don't solicit it's services! If you want free software, with free as in freedom, then the only approach that is moral, and the only approach that will result in more freedom in the world instead of less is to not use copyright law at all. The only way is to disclaim your copy rights. Until there is no intellectual property law in the world, the only way is through no copyright and no license.

Let freedom start with you. Disclaim your copy rights. Put your works in the public domain. Don't feed the beast.

Not convinced this is a good idea? Consider what various corporations do that you don't like. Do you support the RIAA and the ruin of lives over copying of music? Do you support the big corps and their approach to protecting their "rights" with commercial software? Are you in favor of a $500,000 fine and 5 years in prison if you copy a movie, and the absurd amount of our money through taxes that go to enforce that? Are you in favor of DRM software, and laws against even revealing the details of DRM software? Do you think it's okay to throw people in a cage or steal money from them because they wore a t-shirt with a set of numbers and letters printed on it?

I hope your answer to those questions is no. If not, then why on earth are you reading this? So what is it that bothers you about those things?

All they are doing is applying copyright law to protect their interests in the "intellectual property" they own.

If you do the same, are you any better? Can you claim any moral, or even ethical, superiority? Why should people listen to you?

Let freedom start with you. Disclaim your copy rights. Put your works in the public domain. Don't feed the beast.

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