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"Freedom Zero" and "Freedom or Power": Tim O'Reilly and FSF Leaders Debate

Aug 17, 2001, 12:28 (33 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tim O'Reilly)

Tim O'Reilly:

"Craig Burton captured my off-the-cuff redefinition of Freedom Zero in the Q&A period following the debate between Craig Mundie and Michael Tiemann at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. I was responding to Brett Glass's comments on why BSD-style licenses are preferable to the GPL. After an initial statement of agreement that BSD-style licenses are my personal preference for many of the same reasons that Brett has given, here's what I went on to say:

"Freedom Zero for me is to offer the fruit of your work on the terms that work for you. I think that is what is absolutely critical here. Let there be competition in the marketplace; that is the answer. Let people use whatever license they choose and if their customers don't like it they will have other choices. Because of the technological changes, we are entering an era of greater choice. The fact is, Microsoft's past history is past. We are entering a new era, not of just open source but of profound technological changes. The future is open and we can make that future be what we want it to be."

Some people might not recognize the reference to "Freedom Zero" as a takeoff on the first of Richard Stallman's four freedoms from the Free Software Definition:"

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Bradley Kuhn and Richard M. Stallman:

"Freedom is being able to make decisions that affect mainly you. Power is being able to make decisions that affect others more than you. If we confuse power with freedom, we will fail to uphold real freedom. That is what Tim O'Reilly did in his essay, My Definition of Freedom Zero. He advocated a "basic freedom" which is really a form of power.

Tim O'Reilly says the most fundamental software freedom is: "The freedom to choose any license you want for software you write." Unstated, but clearly implied, is that one person or corporation chooses the rules to impose on everyone else. In the world that O'Reilly proposes, a few make the basic software decisions for everyone. That is power, not freedom. He should call it "powerplay zero" in contrast with our "freedom zero".

We in the Free Software Movement want programmers to have freedom. Most of us are programmers, and we want freedom for ourselves as well as for you. But each of us uses software written by others, and we want freedom when using that software -- not just when using our own code."

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O'Reilly's Response:

"Bradley clearly misunderstands my article and my argument. First off, if you accept his definition of freedom as "being able to make decisions that affect mainly you" versus power as "being able to make decisions that affect others more than you", then clearly the GPL is just as much about "power" as any Microsoft license, since it is binding on all who use the software, and has the explicit goal of "world domination."

Second, I did not say that "Microsoft has put its past behind it." What I said was that the market conditions that allowed Microsoft to act in such an abusive way have passed their peak, and that history is on our side in making them act in a more open way. It is really important not to make distorted distinctions based on temporary conditions, such as Microsoft's abuse of its monopoly position.

I want to be clear that I am in no way attacking the free software vision, which Bradley articulates so very well. I completely agree that a community of users who share software is a far better and more productive environment than one in which they are captive to vendors, especially if those vendors are doing things that are bad for users in order to maintain their competitive position."

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