Dragging the Butter

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Tim O'Reilly
Nov. 25, 2001 12:24 PM

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Slashdot just pointed to Stallman and Kuhn's essay, Freedom or Power. A number of people have asked for my response, since the Stallman/Kuhn piece was a reply to my weblog entry, My Definition of Freedom Zero. I actually published a followup back in August.

I still stand by my response. Many people confuse proprietary licensing with abusive business tactics. My goal is to see as much good software created as possible, and for that to happen, we need a range of licensing models. But all of these models have their roots in the right of creators to set the terms on which their work is to be used. Richard Stallman uses the very same copyright law to achieve his aim of ensuring that users have the right to modify and redistribute the software they receive as Bill Gates uses to ensure that they do not have that right. Both rely on a law that gives copyright holders power over what copyright users do with their creations.

The Slashdot moderator noted: "FWIW, Stallman and Kuhn are right. Not necessarily in their advocacy of the GPL, but certainly in their description of whether licensing is freedom for the developer or power over others. All licensing stems from copyright law, a completely man-made creation whose sole purpose is to give the writer of creative works artificial power over what others do with those works."

I can't disagree with that point. But the GPL is just as much an expression of power over users as any proprietary license. But then Michael (not Timothy, as in my original posting here--sorry!) goes on: "If you take the canonical description of freedom ("Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins") and apply it to software, it's pretty clear that true freedom would not let one person control what another does with software."

This is just silly. The GPL absolutely controls what other people can do with software. Even the BSD license, which is very generous, places restrictions (e.g. attribution).

Copyright was originally designed as a compromise between the rights of creators and the rights of users. (Note: When I first wrote this, I said "Copyright is a compromise...", but as Michael pointed out in his Slashdot followup, this fact seems to have been forgotten, as all recent changes to copyright law have extended the power of copyright holders.) Our goal should be to find the right compromise, not to declare that one side or the other has all the rights, and the other none. I'm a firm believer in the original goal of copyright law, which was to maximize progress in the useful arts. And I know that sometimes throwing something to the winds (i.e. releasing open source software) is the best way to maximize progress, while at others, placing restrictions on its distribution takes you further towards that goal.

There's an old children's story I heard once, in which a village boy is sent to the market by his mother to buy a cow. On the way home from the market, it wanders off. She scolds him. Silly boy. Don't you know you should tie a rope to it and bring it home that way? The next week she sends him for a slab of butter, and sure enough, he ties a rope to it and drags it home. The story goes on as week after week he applies last week's lesson to new circumstances, with disastrous results.

We have to keep our eyes on our goals, not on the means we use to achieve them. You pick the hat to fit the head.

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.