Free as in Freedom!

“What is relevant now, though, is free software as an essential component of libertarian entrepreneurship. When we use free software, we depend on a community of developers who work on the program because they actually want to use it…[p]romoting free software values is about as difficult as promoting libertarian values because they, too, are very abstract. I do not know how to convince people to become excited enough about programming to worry about free devices. However, I think it is at least possible for libertarians to adopt free software values. Although the nonaggression axiom does not require anyone to own a gun, I think that most libertarians would sleep better knowing that their neighbors owned guns and knew how to use them. However, in today’s world it would make more sense to worry about whether their neighbors used GNU/Linux.”

Daniel Krawisz



Free software, simply defined, are computer programs where users have the freedom to change a program (because they have access to the source code), and to copy and redistribute such programs to others. This would be akin to any motorist lifting up the hood of his car (or going underneath the chassis) and performing maintenance or upgrades to the automobile. Another example would be modifying cooking recipes; instead of lasagna with meat & red spaghetti sauce, maybe you could substitute vegetables and a white sauce (like an alfredo)?

Proprietary software, by contrast, are computer programs where the source code is considered a trade secret legally protected by copyright laws; therefore, users do not have the freedom to copy, modify, or redistribute such computer programs. Acts like rooting or jailbreaking are considered to be at odds with the so-called “intellectual property” (IP) of Big Software, simply because they consider the equivalent of going underneath the hood or reading cooking recipes to be a criminal “offense.” The legality of modifying proprietary software has changed in recent years, largely on behalf of end users, typically provided that they don’t seek a financial profit or otherwise redistribute their modifications to others.

Origins of the free software movement, such as it is today, is ideally understood vis-à-vis a biography of Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). It is mentioned that:


“In talking to audiences, Stallman has made repeated reference to the incident, noting that the man’s unwillingness to hand over the source code stemmed from a nondisclosure agreement, a contractural agreement between him and the Xerox Corporation giving the signatory access to the software source code in exchange for a promise of secrecy. Now a standard item of business in the software industry, the nondisclosure agreement, or NDA, was a novel development at the time, a reflection of both the commercial value of the laser printer to Xerox and the information needed to run it…[f]or Stallman, however, the NDA was something else entirely. It was a refusal on the part of some CMU [Carnegie Mellon University] researcher to participate in a society that, until then, had encouraged software programmers to regard programs as communal resources. Like a peasant whose centuries-old irrigation ditch had grown suddenly dry, Stallman had followed the ditch to its source only to find a brand-spanking-new hydroelectric dam bearing the Xerox logo.”


This sheer lack of transparency, enforced by contract law as well as the federal government’s copyright statutes, infringes upon the freedom of information. Just as no one has a “right” to be forgotten, professional trade secrets do not have a “right” from being shared and modified, because to think that they do is an attempt to justify, in reality, censorship itself. The only way for professional trade secrets to remain as such, without infringing upon anyone else’s freedom, is to use strong crypto and to practice good security culture.

Often, I myself have referenced and supported the concept of free and open-source software (FOSS) in earlier articles, but what exactly is open-source software, especially when compared and contrasted with free software? It is explained that:


“Later in 1998, Stallman announced his position: ‘open source,’ while helpful in communicating the technical advantages of free software also encouraged speakers to soft-pedal the issue of software freedom. It avoided the unintended meaning of ‘gratis software’ and the intended meaning of ‘freedom-respecting software’ equally…[i]n addition, Stallman thought that the ideas of ‘open source’ led people to put too much emphasis on winning the support of business. While such support wasn’t necessarily bad in itself, he expected that being too desperate for it would lead to harmful compromises.”


Put another way, open-source software emphasizes practicality whereas free software is more concerned about where do the rights of one man end and the rights of another man begin? Free software is open-source, but it goes much farther by making software freedom a “civil” rights issue (or as I prefer to see it, an issue of natural liberty).

Speaking of “civil” rights, Stallman’s most pivotal contribution to the free software movement would likely be the GNU General Public License (GPL). As his biographer put it:


“As hacks go, the GPL stands as one of Stallman’s best. It created a system of communal ownership within the normally proprietary confines of copyright law. More importantly, it demonstrated the intellectual similarity between legal code and software code. Implicit within the GPL’s preamble was a profound message: instead of viewing copyright law with suspicion, hackers should view it as a dangerous system that could be hacked.”


Although I disagree with communal “public” ownership of anything (because it always degenerates into a tragedy of the commons), I must say I find the attitude of hackers trying to circumvent copyright law to be a breath of fresh air. I can say that as a propertarian with no contradiction simply because IP is not property, but rather, an invention of the State whose entire purpose is to stifle market competition through licensed monopolies called variably, “copyright,” “trademarks,” and “patents.”

Hard as it may be for some to hear, information itself is not a scarce resource, and to act as if it were is to make a mockery of catallatics; all that commercialized information is, at most, not the buying & selling of information itself, but rather, a trading in the service of delivering the information (speaking, writing, collection and analysis prior to dissemination, etc). Pretending as if homesteading a scare resource (original appropriation) is equivalent to writing fiction is like equivocating parental rights to breathable airspace; something that is abstract or abundant cannot be scarce and therefore it is unownable. Argumentation ethics, I think, backs me up on this upon the grounds that the arguers are themselves the scarce resource in question (“There is only one of me,” which is evident of individuality); therefore, self-ownership is argumentatively justified in the moment, despite the content of what the arguers are arguing might very well be abstract.

Sam Williams’ Free as in Freedom (2.0): Richard Stallman and the Free Software Revolution is a history book on the development of the free software movement itself. What I really appreciate about free software, and Richard Stallman in particular, is that a practical implementation of information freedom and property rights was experimented here as an expression of crypto-anarchy. My hope for the future is that privacy-enhancing technologies will serve as useful tools for securing our liberties, and the best way to do that is to develop and upgrade such tools as free software.

2 thoughts on “Free as in Freedom!

  1. Pingback: Free as in Freedom! • FPRN Radio

  2. Pingback: Black Box Voting? - The Last Bastille Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *