Rights of the Free Software Movement

Rights of the Free Software Movement

Richard Stallman has written an article about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program and OLPC XO, its machine. According to him, this program was created with the intent to assist children in impoverished countries, in the spirit of liberty, and that children benefiting from this should not thereby be tied to any entity. Stallman was pleased with the progress made in achieving this - until a deal with Microsoft, to have Windows installed on these machines, was broken.

This whole movement has for a while been rather a hot topic amongst computer users and professionals, and now this issue in particular has become a hot topic amongst the FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) community. Reactions have varied from disgust to praise, and a number of epithets have been hurled ("Communist in Disguise"). As a consequence of this the movement has been split into two factions - the Free subgroup, which still ardently supports the original policy of liberty, and the Open Source subgroup, which is more concerned with the more practical aspects of the movement. Interaction between the two groups can be painful to observe - they often regard each other as the enemy, and neglect their real opponent, the software tyrants.

The question now becomes: how important is the 'freedom' that Stallman so ardently espouses? Some argue that OLPC and GNU programs should allow proprietary softwares, that the right to hide source codes is in itself a freedom. Others argue that allowing proprietary software, such as Windows on OLC computers, would drive home the superiority of FOSS to proprietary counterparts, and reinforce the belief that FOSS should be used by everyone. Both arguments appear to have some legitimacy.

Imagine if Bill Gates were to address the nation. Imagine if he made a speech claiming that because of the obvious superiority of his company, and because of his status as one of the most wealthy individuals in the world - well, obviously he is a better manager than anyone else, and so should be in charge. Imagine if he claimed that his trillions of dollars out him in the unique position of best being able to serve the people, and that he would immediately be assuming the role of benevolent tyrant. Should he not be free to do as he pleases? Why let petty details like law stand in the way, and encroach upon his personal freedom?

How do you think people would react?

"Right, he should be free to do as he chooses."

"Let him try, and then everyone will see how obviously superior a democratic republic is."

Right?

Obviously not. The immediate reaction would be "Thanks for the offer, but no thanks. You're a great manager, and a skilled administrator, but we cherish our hard-won political freedom. We shall never surrender it, not to you nor to anyone. We shall protect it with our lives, honor it as our heritage, and ensure its existence into perpetuity. A part of that freedom is the responsibility to protect the freedom of others - therefore we decline, and shall take any measure to protect our freedom, including the punishment of those who encroach upon it."

I believe that both the supporters of the Microsoft/OLPC deal, and also the opponents of the FOSS movement, are both missing an obvious yet important point, which is that software does not equal material goods. Everybody should know this. When you buy software on disc, the CD you hold is material, and it is your property. The information, however - the actual program - is not material goods, but knowledge. A program consists of collected knowledge which enables you to accomplish something. It may not be expressed in any spoken language, but it is still knowledge.

What are the implications of this? In a historic context, knowledge is freely exchangable. In fact the best way to create slaves from a race of people is to deny them the acquisition and exchange of knowledge. This was always the method used by nobility to rule the masses: knowledge was only possessed by the nobility, and the peasants were kept illiterate so that the nobility could be the ruling class. Therefore, in order for a society to be free, knowledge must be freely available and freely exchanged. The ownership of material goods is undisputed, but information and knowledge cannot be property. This is the fundamental basis of political and social freedom.

You can yourself produce some material goods, for example you can collect wood and manufacture furniture - a table, chairs, and so on. But it is impossible for you to create knowledge. One program today is the end result of many years of developing chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science, with one building upon another. So if it's legal for Microsoft to own Windows, should it not be legal for Dijsktra to own 'his' algorithm? If that were so, every existing software company has a debt to those early computer scientists - Knuth, Dijkstra, Turing, etc. And in their turn, those scientists have a debt to the ancient philosophers and mathematicians who paved the way for their own discipline.

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