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Freedom or Power?

by Bradley M. Kuhn and Richard M. Stallman

 [image of a Philosophical Gnu]

"The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves." -- William Hazlitt

In the Free Software Movement, we stand for freedom for the users of software. We formulated our views by looking at what freedoms are necessary for a good way of life, and permit useful programs to foster a community of goodwill, cooperation, and collaboration. Our criteria for Free Software specify the freedoms that a program's users need so that they can cooperate in a community.

We stand for freedom for programmers as well as for other users. Most of us are programmers, and we want freedom for ourselves as well as for you. But each of us uses software written by others, and we want freedom when using that software, not just when using our own code. We stand for freedom for all users, whether they program often, occasionally, or not at all.

However, one so-called freedom that we do not advocate is the "freedom to choose any license you want for software you write". We reject this because it is really a form of power, not a freedom.

This oft-overlooked distinction is crucial. Freedom is being able to make decisions that affect mainly you. Power is being able to make decisions that affect others more than you. If we confuse power with freedom, we will fail to uphold real freedom.

Proprietary software is an exercise of power. Copyright law today grants software developers that power, so they and only they choose the rules to impose on everyone else--a relatively few people make the basic software decisions for everyone, typically by denying their freedom. When users lack the freedoms that define Free Software, they can't tell what the software is doing, can't check for back doors, can't monitor possible viruses and worms, can't find out what personal information is being reported (or stop the reports, even if they do find out). If it breaks, they can't fix it; they have to wait for the developer to exercise its power to do so. If it simply isn't quite what they need, they are stuck with it. They can't help each other improve it.

Proprietary software developers are often businesses. We in the Free Software Movement are not opposed to business, but we have seen what happens when a software business has the "freedom" to impose arbitrary rules on the users of software. Microsoft is an egregious example of how denying users' freedoms can lead to direct harm, but it is not the only example. Even when there is no monopoly, proprietary software harms society. A choice of masters is not freedom.

Discussions of rights and rules for software have often concentrated on the interests of programmers alone. Few people in the world program regularly, and fewer still are owners of proprietary software businesses. But the entire developed world now needs and uses software, so software developers now control the way the world lives, does business, communicates and is entertained. The ethical and political issues are not addressed by the slogan of "freedom of choice (for developers only)".

If code is law, as Professor Lawrence Lessig (of Stanford Law School) has stated, then the real question we face is: who should control the code you use--you, or an elite few? We believe you are entitled to control the software you use, and giving you that control is the goal of Free Software.

We believe you should decide what to do with the software you use; however,

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