Originally Published: Monday, 31 July 2000 Author: Master Sibn
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Freedom: What it Really Is

Surely, Linux has many things in its favor: symmetric multi-processing, multitasking, multiuser, small memory footprint, kernel is customisable on a "per-unit" basis, stability and many others. Sadly, the cost of this software is sorely understated.

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During many discussions with friends of mine, Linux has the tendency to come up whenever the discussion turns to computers somehow. Be it computer games versus console games, somehow, I always manage to slip our favorite software in there somewhere.

Surely, Linux has many things in its favor: symmetric multi-processing, multitasking, multiuser, small memory footprint, kernel is customisable on a "per-unit" basis, stability and many others. Sadly, the cost of this software is sorely understated.

When most people think that Linux is free, they perceive it to be as in a gift; While it is certainly free in that respect, there is something even more important about it. This is about the difference between free speech, and free beer.

Often, I myself am guilty of perceiving free beer to be better than free speech. I simply cannot allow this misconception to spread further. If I could believe it, somebody somewhere else could most certainly believe it. Ignorance and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) assuredly keeps some person in the illusion that free stuff is better than freedom.

There are generally two types of freedom referred to, for the purpose of this discussion: Free as in Speech, and Free as in Beer. Linux just happens to be both.

Free as in Speech is a powerful analogy; Just as speech should be free and unrestricted (excepting obvious cases where it would be detrimental to an extreme degree), so is Linux free. Although we can't have nuclear scientists selling information to foreign governments, we should not say that a student on campus cannot mention God's name because the campus is government-owned.

This is an absurd restriction on free speech; the world is undamaged by this mention, so in the worst case it's not helping anything.

Free speech is "protected" by the Constitution of the United States. It is a necessary development kit for the human race. Without the ability to freely exchange ideas, we become machines. Indeed, without the freedom to say what we will, we simply have no incentive to do anything at all. How often do people quit their jobs because their boss ignores them? Or treats them poorly to his own benefit? I've been there once; a manager demanded me to forego a ten minute break so his performance would look good in his superior's eye. Although ten minutes is admittedly not much, I don't accept his authority to be above my human rights, so I quit.

In the meantime, we have the other variety of free things. Free as in beer doesn't really go anywhere in the long run. You can give a man a beer, and he'll be drunk for the evening. Teach him to brew, and he'll be pickled for the rest of his life.

The clearest difference between the two is that Free Beer is a gift; Free Speech is a right. Linux, for being free as in speech is not intending to imply that you have some right to the software. You have as much right to the software as anybody else. All men are created equal.

You don't just give somebody the right to speak freely; you do give somebody a free beer. Given the choice between free speech or free beer, I'd take the speech any day. Captivity simply isn't worth any amount of beer (or software for that matter).

Freedom of Speech allows you to say what you will. Likewise, Linux is free this way. If the software doesn't do what you need or want, you are free to change it out, or change the actual software itself. Not many organizations in the world are content to leave people with this privelege, many companies instead work hard to take away your freedom with their software.

I do not at this time recall the name, or even year of the analyst who once said, "when you buy software, you are not looking to purchase a program, box, or disc. You are searching to buy a bundle of rights." Whoever you are, thank you for pointing this out.

This is very true, sickeningly true, actually. You have only the rights that these people offer you. In effect, you are a sort of prisoner. Since many software packages have different rights, you also have more than one master to please. When you click "I Agree" (or in some cases, when you break the plastic seal) you are legally bound by the terms that software is demanding of you.

Linux is developed in the opposite manner. Rather than try to take away your rights, the GNU GPL (General Public License) is designed to give you more rights, both as a consumer, and as a developer. There is precious little, if any commercial software available today that you are permitted to change to suit your needs. If your needs go beyond the ability to italicize fonts, then you're stuck with what you have.

It only today occurred to me that THIS is what free software is all about. It's not about getting software at zero cost, its about your fundamental rights as a human being.

Yet for some strange reason, we overlook this when we say that Linux is free. We say that Linux is "Free as in Speech," but I really wonder: does the average computer user understand that expression the way they ought?

-msibn has a very large jigsaw puzzle to assemble, and has to stop writing now. He is expanding his expertise with Linux all the rest of the time, and is currently stymied by his PCI modem and the Linux 2.4 kernel which for some unknown reason don't work together.

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