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Eric Raymond: Freedom, Power, or Confusion? [ESR on debate between O'Reilly and FSF]

Aug 17, 2001, 17:38 (195 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

In a reply [1] to Tim O'Reilly [2], Bradley Kuhn and Richard Stallman illustrate once again why the FSF's use of the word `freedom' is...well, I'll say "confusing", though stronger terms suggest themselves.

They begin by writing "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." Thus far I agree with them.

Tim asserts that the most fundamental software freedom is the freedom to choose any license you want for the software you write. Kuhn and Stallman reply "Unstated, but clearly implied, is that one person or corporation chooses the rules to impose on everyone else."

There is a curious logical reversal here. In the world of Tim's Freedom Zero, nobody gets to choose the rules under which developers will release software -- they make their own choices. Yet Kuhn and Stallman say they don't like this world. It appears that they would prefer a world in which people who write software cannot choose the proprietary licenses that Kuhn and Stallman dislike.

In other words, Stallman and Kuhn want to be able to make decisions that affect other developers more than themselves. By the definition they themselves have proposed, they want power.

Perplexing, isn't it? Tim and the FSFers both claim to stand for `freedom'. Both assert that each others' definition of "freedom" is actually a covert form of control, a claim of power over others. The only difference is in who the victims of "Powerplay Zero" are, users or developers.

Some words (like "freedom") make this kind of semantic ping-pong game way too easy. They obfuscate more than they enlighten, they cloud the issues rather than clearing the air. This is a major reason I have spent the last three years trying to get open-source developers to stop talking about "freedom". The way we use the word doesn't merely confuse others, it confuses ourselves.

Witness Tim on one side, and Kuhn & Stallman on the other, bashing each other with perfect rhetorical symmetry. Is there any way we can break the deadlock here? Any way to analyze Tim's premise vs. the FSF's premise without getting caught up in the unhelpful emotive fog surrounding words like "freedom" and "power"?

I think there is. I'm going to invent a nonsense word now: "flerbage". And I'm going to define it. I have the condition of flerbage when I can behave in the confidence that nobody will take my life, my physical property, or my time without my consent. (Observe that I am not prejudicing the discussion by assuming that the software I write is my property.)

I am pro-flerbage. There. I've made my moral commitment. I like it when people aren't killed to serve the ends of others, or robbed of their goods to serve the ends of others, or made to surrender their time (the irreplaceable time of their lives) to the ends of others. It's good when these things don't happen. It's evil when they do.

How do the respective prmises of Tim and the FSF meet the flerbage test?

First, say I'm a user. Gill Bates of Sicromoft releases yet another bloated, buggy operating system under a proprietary license. Kuhn and Stallman would have it that he is "imposing rules on everybody else". But is my flerbage affected? Not obviously. I don't have to use Bates's bloatware. I've got Nulix, a wonderful operating system developed by people who like to write code that has a friendly aardvark for a mascot. The odds that anyone is going to come to my home and kill, me, or rob me, or force me to labor for their ends rather than my owm, are not increased by Sicromoft's license.

There are certainly things Sicromoft could conceivably do that would decrease my flerbage. For example, they could get a law passed that would make it illegal to issue software under open-source licenses. Then I might face a choice between spending my time coping with Sicromoft's bugs for Sicromoft's benefit or having police come to my house to drag me off to jail, or kill me if I resist arrest.

But someone's mere act of issuing software under a proprietary license doesn't change my flerbage. Tim's premise seems benign enough to me as a user.

Now let's suppose I'm a software developer. I write open-source software to have fun and make money. I write proprietary software to have fun and make money. Part of my flerbage is that I can offer people a license that says "I trade you my software on the condition that you (a) pay me some money, and (b) don't give a copy to anyone else." If they accept, fine. If they don't, also fine; I wander off to find another customer, and they wander off to find another developer. Again, Tim's premise seems pretty benign.

Stichard Rallman releases a piece of software under an open-source license that is superior to one of my proprietary products. Has he decreased my flerbage? No. The time I spent coding my product has decreased in tradeable value, but he hasn't forced me to labor for anyone else's benefit. Nor has he measurably increased the odds that I will be killed or robbed. Tim's premise is good for both of us.

But now let's suppose that, after years of lobbying, messrs Kuhn and Stallman get a law passed that makes proprietary licenses illegal. We are now in the world of the FSF's premise.

As a user, my flerbage doesn't change. I never wanted to issue software under a proprietary license to begin with, so the new license doesn't touch me.

But as a developer, things are very different now. If I walk up to someone and offer them the same proprietary license that I did before the law was passed, police may come to my house to drag me off to jail, or kill me if I resist arrest. My flerbage has seriously decreased.

The situation is not symmetrical after all. We have broken the deadlock, and suddenly the FSF's premise doesn't seem so benign any more. See how much clearer things are when you avoid using slippery ping-pong-ball words and focus on actual behavior, and especially on the question of who gets to use force and when they get to use it?

I'm not going to make any claims about "freedom" here. I'm just talking about flerbage. But if you the reader agree with me that more flerbage is a good thing and less flerbage is a bad thing, then there are some questions we may want to ask Bradley Kuhn and Richard Stallman.

Here's the first and most important one: if you two could get a law passed making proprietary licenses illegal, would you do it?

If their answer is "no", then the dispute with Tim is over. Because that will mean they do recognize a right for developers to choose licenses as they will without being killed, jailed, or threatened for choosing the "wrong" one.

If their answer is "yes", then there are many, many other moral questions we could ask them -- and should, if only so that we can get some idea if they're too dangerous to have as neighbors.

I shall await their answer with great interest.

[1] http://linux.oreillynet.com/pub/a/linux/2001/08/15/free_software.html

[2] http://www.oreillynet.com/cs/weblog/view/wlg/526

-- 
                Eric S. Raymond

.. a government and its agents are under no general duty to 
provide public services, such as police protection, to any 
particular individual citizen...
        -- Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. App.181)

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