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Free software without the freedom?

Editor’s note: This article was written by John Sullivan in February of 2006. While the date of original publication is old, the points discussed are still in play today. If you’ve never read this, or are new to the concept of Free Software, this short article is worth reading.

This is a response to an article by John Carroll, addressing his criticisms of the FSF’s opposition to Digital Restrictions Management (DRM).

John Carroll is correct in his article, “A utilitarian conception of the GPL”, that the GNU GPL is designed to uphold ideals. He is wrong about what those ideals are, and about what their relationship is to free software development models.

Carroll tries to concoct a division between the GPL’s practical application and its ideals. Apparently he wants to argue that the language about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) in the current draft of the GPL version 3 is just ideology needlessly slathered on top of a practical development model.

His analogies are accurate examples of such slathering, of arbitrary restrictions imposed by a licensor on what a licensee can do with the software she receives. But the current draft of the GPLv3 includes nothing like that; it does not place limits on what jobs free software can do. It does not try to advance the values of the pacifist movement, the push for fuel efficiency standards, or opposition to biotechnology. Let’s not forget that Freedom 0 is in fact, “The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.”

What the GPL does do, and what the GPLv3 does more thoroughly, is ensure that you can make modified versions of free software that work differently than the version you received, that you can use your modified version instead of the original version, and that you can share your version with others.

To the extent that it does “create red lines” ruling out certain ways of distributing GPL-covered code, it does so only to ensure your access to and control over the source code for the free software you choose to use.

With these freedoms, you can pursue whatever practical development model you like, as long as it respects the freedoms of others. Without these freedoms, you can only choose among the practical development models allowed to you by the manufacturers of DRM-laden hardware. It’s likely that they will allow you no development model at all.

Carroll seems to like the environment for software development fostered to-date by the GPL. But the creation of this environment was led by a commitment to freedom, and its continued existence depends on the strength of that commitment. If no hardware sold in the world will run a user’s modified code, then how will anyone learn to modify code? How will people share code?

Since distributing DRM involves denying the user’s freedom, it will inevitably be a “domain for proprietary software”. The question is whether free software authors want to allow their works to be distributed in this effectively proprietary manner.

That the current GPLv3 text seeks to prevent such distribution is not a sign of a new, dispensable layer of ideology being added. It is a sign of loyalty to a core principle of copyleft and the free software movement. To think that you can remove it, leaving only some useful development model behind, is to forget both the commitments that were necessary to enable the models we have now, and more importantly, the value of freedom itself.

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