Freedom is central to American culture. So the Fourth of July is also a great time to celebrate the four freedoms of FOSS (free and open source software).
America is unique (beyond being the only place on the planet not distracted by the World Cup). Amid heaps of controversy over our national identity, freedom remains central to the American culture and spirit. And so as we in the United States enjoy our hot dogs, beers, and fireworks on the Fourth of July, it is also a great time to celebrate the four freedoms of FOSS (free and open source software).
Lawyers and pragmatists will tell you that open source software is simply software with a particular type of license. True, but open source licenses are a means, not an end. Richard Stallman, the founding father of open source, cleverly conceived of the public license as a way to subvert the tyranny of those who would imprison software under proprietary licenses and thus take away the freedoms Stallman believed were inherent in software. Furthering the parallel to the birth of our nation, you will hear the GPL (the GNU General Public License) referred to as “the de facto constitution for the free software movement.” The Free Software Foundation, modern-day dumpers of metaphorical tea in Boston Harbor (albeit rarely in Native American garb), says, “‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price”—that is, “free” as in “free speech,” not “free beer.”
Stallman started his software career at the MIT Media Lab and grew up at a time when freely sharing software was the norm. What really pissed him off was when the EMACS (still an extremely popular text editor) code he’d written ended up under a commercial license from a company called UniPress. His genius was in turning the suits’ legal weapons back on them and creating a license that would preserve what are referred to as the “four freedoms.”
They are, of course, numbered 0–3:
Freedom 0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
Freedom 1. The freedom to study how the program works and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Freedom 2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
Freedom 3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.
Free software purists will see irony in this piece being authored by a guy working for a company that employs proprietary licenses for some of its offerings. While I do truly appreciate whence they’re coming, my perspective is that authors of software should (and do, under our legal system and as evidenced by the GPL) have the freedom to decide how their software will and will not be used. You want your software to be perpetually open? Great, the GPL is a terrific mechanism for ensuring that. You want tight controls? Fine, go with a proprietary license. We have a free market of consumers out there, “free” as in free to decide from among the melting pot of software options.
So on the Fourth, keep your hands off the keyboard, but as you are sipping a free beer, take a moment to remember the roots of Independence Day and raise your glass to freedom.