The Four Freedoms Applied to Software as a Service

by chromatic

The Free Software Foundation has defined Four Freedoms related to software. These freedoms apply to users of software, not necessarily developers. In the view of the FSF, these freedoms are ethical in nature, so much so that they argue that software which violates these freedoms is unethical.

Like many other rights, the four freedoms are specific expressions of abstract freedoms in the context of software. They represent concrete examples of underlying notions of freedom. You can see this principle if you ask "Why should I be able to run my own printing press or weblog?"

I've argued before that I don't care about Google's source code, for example, but if those underlying principles exist, then it should be possible to identify them. It should also be possible to extrapolate concrete expressions of those principles in new contexts... such as software run by vendors to provide a service to users.


Simon Hibbs
2007-10-04 09:57:47
One of the most interesting cases is that of services that are intended to work with specific, custom client software, because this is where the freedoms of software user and service user intersect.

The Four Freedoms say that the user of the services should have access to the source code of the client application, and be able to modify it in whatever way they see fit. On the other hand the service provider may have reasonable expectations of the behaviour of a service client. Imagine a world where all MMO client software was all open source and could be hacked at will.

Kelly Jones
2007-10-04 10:37:27
Do you think software as a service is a slippery slope with regard to the four freedoms? In certain contexts all software is a service for the end user. Does it really matter that I interact with Google through a browser versus some sort of software providing a service installed on my PC? I don't think it's a big stretch for a company to say that their proprietary software provides a service and that you can use the service in any way you please, but you shouldn't care or need to know about the software that provides the service. Maybe someone could point me to an article that deals with this sort of scenario.
Simon Hibbs
2007-10-05 02:54:20
@Kelly: The difference is that the software is running on your computer, consuming your resources and possibly using other services owned by you running on it.

I can agree with the Free Software guys that this is a distinct situation from using a remote service and that as the 'owner' of the software you should have some freedoms unique to this situation (the right to have backup copies, the right to transfer the software to another computer, etc) without necesserily subscribing to all the four freedoms as fundamental rights.

You see, I don't look at these freedoms as being inalienable rights. However I do believe there should be some basic consumer protection standards for software purchasers or users, but that these should be in place for practical reasons and need to balance consumer and producer interests, not because Richard Stalman came down from a mountain bearing them inscribed on tablets of stone.

2007-10-10 13:06:46
I hope this post is not a joke. I didn't read the whole article yet (no motivation after the first paragraph) but your explanation for the first freedom makes me wonder if this article is really a joke. Do you realize that the arguments you give in the case of service for the first freedom also applies in the case of proprietary world? Do you also realize that the freedom can be implemented even in the SaaS world by means of open standards and open platform, which will open up vistas which you can't even imagine. Please tell me that your article is just a joke.
2007-10-27 03:03:24
See also: Open Data Commons license -