Whose Software Freedom? A 20-year perspective.

According to Google's archive of gnu.misc.discuss, 1992 was the year I became active in the Free Software movement. While the earliest posting I can find appears to be a naive copyright question about the public domain, other messages from the first few months of 1992 suggest I was already engaged in some of the discussions. With the new year approaching, I wanted to offer some thoughts on one of the conversations that has been constant the last 20 years. I then invite you to offer your own thoughts in CLUE's discuss@ mailing list.

There are a variety of different persons who could be seen as users of software, including software developers, computer owners, as well as other users of software who are neither the developer nor the computer owner (such as users of a network service). From what I've observed, most of the disagreements we have had within the community come down to a question of whose Software Freedom are we focused on in a narrow set of circumstances where the rights and interests of these software users may come into conflict.

In our community, license agreements are not simply about permissions and conditions for use of copyright and patents. They often form the constitution which a software community is built upon, and the values that motivate participants. There are broad types of licenses that can be seen as "best" depending on which software user is of greatest concern to that community.

Software Authors

If your focus is on the freedom of fellow software authors, then you are likely to gravitate to a non-Copyleft license. (Examples: Modified BSD, Apache) This has also been described as offering the "freedom to" do things, meaning that the software author is given the freedom to do anything they want with the software: including incorporating it in a larger solution where the software freedom of recipients of the software are limited (including, but not limited to, proprietary derivatives).

Computer owners

If your focus is the freedom of computer owners, then you are going to choose a copyleft license similar to the GNU General Public License (GPL). In this case all the recipients of the software receive the benefits of software freedom, whether they are software authors or not. Limits on software authors are required such that a software author can't deny software freedom from software recipients.

End Users

If your focus is the freedom of end users of software used in a network service, then you are going to choose a copyleft license similar to the GNU Affero General Public License. In order to protect the freedom of these end users, this type of license limits not only software authors but the owners of the computers the software is running on as well.

My personal focus

My focus is on the rights and freedoms of computer owners, something that can be seen by my interest in the Petition to protect IT property rights. I consider software code to be a form of policy, and believe publicly distributed software demands the transparency and accountability that we demand of government and other public policy. When it comes to non-FLOSS used by government (especially elections commissions) I don't consider that to be a valid business model, but a form of government corruption.

Looking back to the archives of discussions in 1992, I can see my discomfort with contributing to software where a fellow software author could make proprietary derivatives. In the last 20 years I have always favoured Copyleft licensed software, whether I was a contributor or only an end user of the software. This isn't to say I avoided non-Copyleft software, but that I had a preference.

I have also expressed concern about the Affero GPL from a strategic point of view. The specific conditions of the Affero GPL don't restrict me, considering I would always want to make any of my own software modifications available to all other computer owners as well. What concerns me is the idea that a remote user of my computer should have influence over the software I run privately on my computer, thinking as someone who hosts services available to other people over the Internet.

To understand the emotional impacts of this idea, we have to ask ourselves what we would feel like if anti-FLOSS proponents wanted to impose similar conditions on us?

What if the copyright owners of content I may wish to access on my computer could condition my legal ability to do this on my usage of non-FLOSS software? I know how I would feel, given this is a description of DRM.

I've now spent over half my time as a Free Software advocate fighting against DRM (Digital "Rights" Management, Digital Restrictions Management, Dishonest Relationship Misinformation).

Copyright holders are being legally protected if they encode their content such that it is only interoperable with specific brands of technology, forcing people to choose between lawfully accessing that content and owning computers where their full ownership rights (including software choice, a precondition of software freedom) are intact. I don't believe copyright holders should have any more influence on what hardware I buy or software I use than they do what brand of eyeglasses I wear. I believe this influence by copyright holders over my hardware and software choices should be legally prohibited, not legally protected.

I am a user of Affero GPL licensed software, as is any other user of Identi.ca. This is a service that should be being used by any proud Canadian instead of, or along-side their use of , Twitter :-).

While I have mellowed on my opinion of the Affero GPL since 2008 when I wrote my critique, I am still a skeptic. What this skepticism has done is enable me to better understand those people who have a preference for non-Copyleft licenses. It is a question of different ideas on political strategy.

I still believe we need to limit the freedom of software authors in order to protect the rights and freedoms of computer owners, but far better understand those who disagree than I did 20 years ago. Strategically I could be wrong on the Affero GPL, and maybe an "eye for an eye" (do unto others because they already do unto you) approach is necessary given how successful the anti-FLOSS lobbying has been with misinformed governments.

I invite you to post your thoughts to CLUE's discuss@ mailing list. I know what I have written is controversial, both to those whose focus is on the freedom of fellow software authors as well as those whose focus is on the freedom of users of software who aren't the owner of the computer. I am always interested to hear from fellow Canadian FLOSS supporters on this and other related policy issues. As I wrote earlier, for all the emotion we invest into these debates it really only impacts a narrow set of circumstances where the freedom of all these classes of users aren't aligned.

Best of the season, Happy New Year, and hope to hear from you soon.