Free “as in freedom” Software supporters, including the Free Software Foundation love to talk about freedom. “It’s all about freedom”, we say, freedom of computer users to know and control what runs on their computers, to copy and share it with others and to modify it as they wish. The idea that software by nature cannot even be owned, is a popular one in the Free Software movement.
Yet there is a problem few seem to come even close to realizing yet if they did it could send shivers down their spine because it puts everything they think they know or believe on its head and makes this whole fervor around “freedom” seem somehow misplaced, like hacking the branches of a tree you want to cut down, and doing it for so long you can’t remember when you started.
And that problem lies in the simple fact evident in a logical following of the idea that “software cannot be owned”. If software cannot be owned then copyright is invalid as a tool of attaining freedom, period, especially if you actually use it to your advantage. At best your actions contradict your beliefs (in which case you act hypocritically). At worst, you aren’t even aware of the gross contradiction you are peddling while genuinely believing that you have it right and that the people whom you condemn as immoral should be punished for what they’re doing (as Richard Stallman said “Proprietary software should be illegal”).
Copyright by definition assumes ownership over what most Free Software supporters would claim cannot be owned, yet those same supporters cheer on GPL being successfully tested in courts, enforcing exactly the law which at its core contradicts their premises while calling it “brilliant” because it supposedly turns copyright on its head into “copyleft”.
Unfortunately, they do not realize that all they are doing is changing the terms, nothing more fundamental than that. They are simply enforcing their vision. They are NOT admitting people true freedom. If you should distribute a GPL program without the terms attached or without the source code, because you own the medium on which it resides and software itself is unownable, FSF or Software Freedom Law Center would condemn it as an illegal act and in some cases threaten extraction of money from you by means of a lawsuit.
Is that promoting freedom?
No it’s not. It’s just another variation of forcing other people to live according to your own opinions.
If you are truly about freedom as it relates to software, then you would at least admit that copyright nor copyleft are the means by which to achieve it. You would fully acknowledge that every transaction between two people is solely the business of those two people even when such a transaction involves sharing of a program written by you and originally provided under the terms of the General Public License. Even if you adapted GPL to be used as merely a contract between two people independent of the copyright law, the agreement to share under the same terms would still be solely between the one sharing the program and the one getting it. If you aren’t the one sharing it, even if you authored the original copy, you are NOT party to the agreement and thus have no say whatsoever as to how will other people share it with each other.
If 10th person down the line shares the program with 11th under same terms as agreed and then 11th person breaks those terms by sharing the program to the 12th person under different terms the only one 11th person is liable to is the 10th person, NOT the 9th person nor the 1st person (being the author of the original copy) or anyone else. This is not how FSF, SFLC etc. operate, however. If you get glibc from a random server somewhere on the internet rather than from GNU.org and then give it to someone under no terms whatsoever, it is still FSF who think they can sue you over it, which is completely inconsistent with the belief that software cannot be owned.
I made a late correction in the above paragraph. Instead of 12th person being liable to 10th person I should’ve said 11th person, since it is 11th who broke the agreement with 10th. That was corrected now.
What, then, are they supposed to do if they wish to maintain this consistency and to be able to truly claim that they support freedom?
They should support civil disobedience to copyright law while striving to operate independently of copyright law. They should thus release software either in public domain or explicitly state that they aren’t relying on copyright while providing programs to people under agreements which are solely between them and the user who downloads or obtains from them, without pretension of legitimate control over transactions which DO NOT involve them, and are instead between people further down the distribution line.
I’m gonna quote Kevin Dean from a recent article he was quoted in at LinuxInsider.com regarding the Mono controversy.
If information is not owned, then “systems proclaiming the ownership of information should simply be ignored,” Dean said. “Yes, I’m advocating civil disobedience. Just as the European Pirate Party encouraged civil disobedience, and then made that issue the forefront of their campaign efforts, so should Mono users.”
Accordingly, “I strongly encourage every distro to adopt and make use of Mono,” Dean said. “The number of applications that depend on it clearly demonstrate that it is a good tool.
“I also encourage every distro to stand strong in this decision, to contest the potential day where Microsoft sues and STILL include Mono, even if some court says, ‘You may not do this’,” he said. “We’ve seen this work with so-called ‘non-free’ formats like MP3 and encrypted DVDs (libdvdcss), and by simply refusing to cater to draconian restrictions, we’ve seen these technologies flourish and prosper.”
There may be some in the Free Software movement who are uncomfortable with rejecting the idea that the author of software is its owner, Dean noted — “the GNU project, for instance, might balk at the idea that they do NOT control how software they wrote is used by developers around the world,” he said. “But consistency and ethical conduct are the price of freedom.”
And if this seems too radical of a strategy for anyone then at least do not pretend to be “all about freedom”. Consistency, lack of contradictions, is the only way to be truthful and with integrity. Everything else is a fraud.