Thoughts on Freedom and Free Software

As I’ve written in various places, many users of open source are clueless when it comes to what various licenses are all about. Today, one hapless and muddleheaded chap decided to try and stir some shit and gave us prima facie evidence that users are confused over what “free software” — as defined by the Free Software Foundation — is really about.

This issue arose when the aforementioned person complained that I hadn’t yet submitted an extension even though I’d previously written that I was withholding it pending release of what’s now called dslcore. Because of his snotty, demanding attitude I decided that from now on I won’t submit anything unless users who want particular extensions are willing to support one of two projects used by DSL: either OpenSSH directly or vim (which is “charityware” with contributions directed to help children in Uganda). I chose these as my “bounty” targets because they’re worthwhile causes and supporting both of them further supports DSL and its community. I thought this was fair since the submissions cost me time away from things I value and are probably of some value to others.

Nope. Too many users see “free” software and demand it with respect to cost. (And rarely to freedom.)

The snotty, demanding person took exception to this and, as you can see above, suggested it was at odds with GPL. There are a couple problems with his analysis in the context of the particular libraries the thread was about: not one of them is under GPL. OpenSSH is BSD licensed, zlib has its own “permissive” (in the view of FSF) license, and OpenSSL has a relaxed license as well. All three allow their code to be used in proprietary systems without accompanying source code. Sell it, change it, do what you will, just give credit where it’s due.

The other problem is an error that is far too common among Linux users: the GPL is NOT against the sale of software. In fact, FSF openly encourages people to sell free software so long as it’s in compliance with the freedoms enumerated by the GPL. You can charge whatever you want for it, but you must not put an excessive or prohibitive cost on the source code (which must accompany GPL binaries).

That’s because “free” in the GPL has nothing whatsoever to do with cost. It has to do with freedom — whether the user has unfettered access to the source code, can use it as he or she sees fit, can change it as he or she needs, can redistribute it.

Unfortunately, this error persists and users don’t think in terms of freedom. It’s ironic the person quoted above raised the name and circumstance he did because the developer in question publicly offered his code under GPL and then attached strings the license doesn’t allow and complained there was some violation (nope) when users actually exercised their rights under the GPL. The offenses the developer initially stated were that the bindings had been separated against his wishes and then redistributed, but those are freedoms central to GPL. As it turned out, the only changes to the code were after the false accusation of GPL violation — DSL added copyright information where he’d never bothered to put it himself because he assumed he could control how users compiled the various pieces of the runtime he assembled.

When it came to that developer’s demands, many DSL users were open to compromise and even insisted that I be just like they are in that regard. No debate about what it means to compromise away your freedom, no discussion desired at all. I was called obstinate, told to go start my own distro, and to leave the forums alone and post my thoughts here on my blog instead. They didn’t care about the GPL. They didn’t care about their freedoms. They only cared about the cost.

What’s the cost in the long run, though, when you lose your rights to use code because you don’t stand up to a petty tyrant of a developer who offers something under the GPL and then pulls the rug out as soon as you use your freedoms that license allows?

I’m hardly one to defend the GPL. I have a list of entries categorized as “FSF sucks” reflecting some of my grievances against GPL. But the prevailing confusion over it — what it actually means — doesn’t serve the wider community who use and rely on software licensed under it.

Such confusion causes whiners like the person quoted above to whine even louder because they don’t understand GPL isn’t about price or money at all. Not only do they object to even a token “bounty” like he did, they’re willing to overlook the conditions beyond the GPL that a developer tried to slap on DSL and all its users. They’re more concerned that something is offered “without charge” than “with strings.” They’re offended when someone offers to do something for a few dollars that will benefit either a project they already benefit from or a program that helps children in a nation ravaged by HIV/AIDS; and they’ll roll over and give away their rights — not to mention their dignity because false accusations were leveled against DSL without any apology — as long as a developer will give them a freebie.

I think the free software movement has its work cut out when it comes to educating the masses. The masses aren’t software ideologues, they just want free (as in beer, as in price) software. And they’ll trade away their freedom to get it.

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