Free Software as a Liberal Project

In the early 1980s a dispute over Xerox printer source code transformed Richard Stallman from a shy hacker to into a quixotic activist. Stallman had cut his teeth in a 1970s programming culture in which it was conventional for programmers to freely share source code with one another. When Xerox donated one of its early laser printers to the MIT lab where Stallman worked, he assumed he’d be able to get the source code in order to improve its functionality. But Xerox had not distributed the source code along with the printer, and it had required those programmers who had been given access to the source code to sign non-disclosure agreements.

In Stallman’s telling, his inability to get his hands on the source code—and his consequent inability to tinker with the printer—radicalized him. He began thinking deeply about the implications of proprietary software culture, and he decided he didn’t like where things were headed. And so in classic hacker fashion, he decided to do something about it: he started writing an operating system, from scratch, that would be free of legal restrictions. Today, the software he wrote, called GNU (which stands for “GNU’s Not Unix”), is an important component in virtually all non-Microsoft operating systems.

At the same time he was building his operating system, Stallman was founding the Free Software Foundation and developing the philosophical foundations of the free software movement. He articulated four software freedoms: the freedom of users to use, examine, modify, and share the software they used. Stallman recognized before almost anyone else the profound difference between the culture of freedom he had come to take for granted and the culture of control that was then taking root in some sectors of the software industry.

It’s worth pausing here to underscore the importance of what’s commonly described as the “free as in speech vs. free as in beer” distinction. One of the defects of the English language is that we use the same word, “free,” to describe both things that have zero price and things that are free of external constraints. “Free speech,” “free trade,” “free markets,” and “free will” are all examples of this second sense of free. “Free beer” is an example of the first sense.

Non-programmers have a tendency to mis-interpret “free software” in the “free as in beer” sense. Because software is an inanimate object for most users, like a chair or a pencil, the idea that freedom could be an attribute of software seems non-sensical. Non-programmers largely lack the ability to exercise Stallman’s four freedoms, and so I think it’s hard for them to imagine that anyone could really find them so important. This leads to a suspicion that Stallman’s talk about freedom is really a smoke screen, and that the real agenda is a hostility toward paying for things.

But this isn’t the way things look to programmers. For us, software isn’t just a magical icon in our start menu that we click when we want to accomplish some task. If you understand how software works, it’s natural to want to crack it open and see what’s going on under the hood. And for programmers of a certain bent, being denied the opportunity to do this is felt as a tangible loss of freedom. It means that they’re forced to passively accept that their computers will behave the way some programmer in a distant company wanted them to behave, rather than being able to customize them to suit their own needs. It means, in other words, surrendering some measure of autonomy to Redmond or Cupertino.

Stallman’s work has been tremendously influential. Not only is GNU a part of almost all modern operating systems, and not only is much of the software that makes the web work available under the free software license he created, but Stallman’s work has profoundly affected the way people think about culture and the law. Larry Lessig has credited Stallman for inspiring the ideas behind Free Culture and Creative Commons, a book and an organization, respectively, that aims to create a culture free of legal restrictions.

Stallman’s free software crusade is a quintessential example of the kind of liberal project I wrote about in my last post. The free software movement is philosophically individualist; it’s devoted to enhancing users’ freedom to do as they please with the computers they own. A world dominated by free software is one in which users have more freedom—more opportunity to do as they please without interference from third parties—than one dominated by proprietary software. And in my experience, the free software movement is second only to the libertarian movement in its obsession with freedom as its central value. One of the reasons I like the free software movement is that, like libertarians, they talk about freedom incessantly.

And as I’ve argued before, I think libertarians have particular reasons to celebrate the free software movement. When Stallman became alarmed at the rise of proprietary software, he didn’t run to Washington seeking legal privileges for free software or legal restrictions on proprietary software. He didn’t start lobbying for subsidies or tax breaks. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and started building an alternative. Stallman’s work is the kind of entrepreneurial success story that libertarians love.

Unfortunately, not all libertarians see things this way. Free software has attracted a considerable amount of misguided criticism from libertarian and free-market intellectuals. In my next post I’ll take a close look at the latest example and argue that it illustrates the perils of libertarians confining themselves to a “thin,” state-centric conception of individual liberty.

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5 Responses to Free Software as a Liberal Project

  1. Rhayader says:

    It sounds like you might end up touching on this in your next post, but I do have a question: is there much software out there that is free as in speech but not free as in beer?

    I love free software, but as someone who’s a novice (at best) when it comes to programming, most of the direct benefits I see have to do with the “free as in beer” side of things. I understand the distinction between the two types of freedom, but have a little trouble seeing how an open source project could generate profitable sales.

  2. Parker says:

    Hey Tim –
    Thanks for this little history lesson about the free software movement. A lot of this was new to me, and really helped put it into context.

  3. Rhayader,

    For a thorough answer, I’d refer you here. The thumbnail version: free software business models typically involve giving away software and selling a related product, such as consulting and support. The first company to do this was Cygnus, which was built to provide tech support for GNU. Cygnus was purchased by Red Hat, which has a similar business model. MySQL (now owned by Oracle) is another example of a highly success business built around free software. So yes, “free as in speech” software is almost always “free as in beer” as well. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make money from it.

  4. Oops, MySQL is still owned by Sun, which Oracle is trying to acquire. Also, IBM has a profitable LInux business that works by selling support and hardware.

  5. Excellent post and point. The MySQL saga began an interesting chapter recently when Stallman, among others, signed an open letter calling on the EU to block Oracle from acquiring MySQL as part of the Sun purchase. It is based on concerns about competition, which is an interesting position to take on GPLed software. Of course, we (libertarians) don’t love the “free software”-ites for their economics, but for other aspects of their idealism. 🙂

    The open letter:

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