My Definition of Freedom Zero

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Tim O'Reilly
Jul. 28, 2001 03:47 PM

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Craig Burton captured my off-the-cuff redefinition of Freedom Zero in the Q&A period following the debate between Craig Mundie and Michael Tiemann at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. I was responding to Brett Glass's comments on why BSD-style licenses are preferable to the GPL. After an initial statement of agreement that BSD-style licenses are my personal preference for many of the same reasons that Brett has given, here's what I went on to say:

"Freedom Zero for me is to offer the fruit of your work on the terms that work for you. I think that is what is absolutely critical here. Let there be competition in the marketplace; that is the answer. Let people use whatever license they choose and if their customers don't like it they will have other choices. Because of the technological changes, we are entering an era of greater choice. The fact is, Microsoft's past history is past. We are entering a new era, not of just open source but of profound technological changes. The future is open and we can make that future be what we want it to be."

Some people might not recognize the reference to "Freedom Zero" as a takeoff on the first of Richard Stallman's four freedoms from the Free Software Definition:

  • "The freedom to run the program, for any purpose. (freedom 0)"
  • "The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this."
  • "The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2)."
  • "The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this."

I love the concept of "Freedom Zero", which sounds to me like it ought to be the absolute foundation on which all the other freedoms are based. But at the risk of sounding like "warmed over Ayn Rand", I don't think Richard got Freedom 0 right. There's an even more fundamental freedom that underlies the work of both free software advocates and the most proprietary of software developers, as well as anyone else engaged in creative work. And that is the freedom to offer your work to the world on the terms that you choose, and for the recipients to accept or reject those terms.

It is this fundamental right--and the desire for others to respect this right--that is the real backbone of the GPL. Those who wish their work to be distributed with the protections of the GPL are exercising this freedom, as are developers who use university or public domain licenses, and even those who choose strict proprietary licenses.

My biggest beef with Microsoft is not that it offers proprietary software, but that it uses anticompetitive tactics and its monopoly position to take away my right to use non-Microsoft software through the introduction of deliberate incompatibilities and other roadblocks. If Freedom Zero for developers is the freedom to offer software on whatever terms the developer sets and a user will accept; Freedom Zero for users is the right to choose whatever software they like, without interference from platform vendors who try to deny that choice.

In his remarks at the conference, which were recapped in a letter to Microsoft employees that was leaked almost immediately thereafter, Craig Mundie emphasized the importance of choice. I was glad to see that Microsoft has backed off their earlier attacks on the GPL and now admit that users should be able to choose to use software under any license, including the GPL. But I hope they think more deeply on the meaning of true choice. What we most need from Microsoft is a deep respect for interoperability and a level playing field, because only then will both developers and users be able to exercise their most fundamental freedom.

Editor's Note: The Free Software Movement has published a response to Tim's weblog titled, Freedom or Power?.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.