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Software cannot be free, but users can be

From: Gergely Varju
Subject: Software cannot be free, but users can be
Date: Mon, 5 Jan 2015 17:18:12 +0100



In an e-mail about LLVM/Clang this email address was provided for those who would argue about changing some goals of GNU projects. When you say Free Software is a Free a sin Freedom, is the software itself realy free in that sense? No. Software itself doesn’t have free will, and it would be hard to create a self aware AI with free will, that is free. At worst it isn’t free, because if it goes against our will, we can turn that computer off and uninstall it. Users, contributors, developers and the market can be free. And there are two possible goals there: maximize this freedom, or reduce it by giving more control to a privileged group. The smaller this privileged group is, the more control they have, the less freedom everyone else would have.


Of course the above isn’t new to you, but the question is: What kind of freedom an end user should have. GNU means GNU is Not Unix. Why? Because someone decided about the licensing terms for contributions of other people without their consent. And they did it to promote their own interests against those contributors. When the exact same thing happens with GNU project, you should ask yourself: What went wrong? And you can’t claim you do it for the right reasons, because developers of UNIX could point to good reasons they protect. Like getting paid for your work (as programmer), return on investment to make sure investors finance R&D. They have pretty good moral reasons, and once you are only against their property, against profit your agenda will be a communist agenda, and if you are willing to hurt other people to promote it you won’t be any better than Stalin.


Stalin had an interpretation of freedom too. And the moment people see that you can create any later version of GPL and even if they don’t agree with it, there can be legal reasons why it is forced on them (old license can lose validity due to changes in law) and you ignore them, you are equal to Unix. And a lot of people didn’t like GPL v3. And the conflict between so called Free Software which focuses on political ideas, and Open Source software which focuses on better products for everyone shows a lot of people are unhappy when you take their work and use it to your political interests. Too bad that it doesn’t matter how you change GPL in GPL v4 or any future version you do it without consent of numerous software developers, and without considering interests of the contributors.


You speak about commercial forks for LLVM/Clang. Let me ask a question: Why can’t GNU project create a GPL fork for it? After all you have a chance to do so. And as you can take away everything the non copyleft folks made, but they can’t take anything GPL folks make, and at that point, you can take away some of userbase, contributors, etc. and all the freedoms the original developers had, and use them as digital slaves to promote your political agenda. As you see that risk is there.


You might claim it is there for a good reasons. But that would be a lie. As you can’t make sure that all future decision makers of FSF would have any goals you or your supporters would considered noble… And GPL v6 might be a nonfree license that allows everything for preferred parties and nothing (without an additional license from the preferred party) for anyone else. So GPL Is a tool that lets a group to take over works of others. And in the end a single small organization gains total control over licensing of project they haven’t even contributed to. With a goal that say: certain people (programmers who make stuff for the public) shouldn’t have a right to get money for their work. They are free to ask, as slaves were free to ask for freedom, money… But they have no right to get it.  And digital slavers (People who make distributions and sell support) are free to use and abuse this rightless class of people.


At this point, GPL is bigger risk than the original problem it planned to solve, and the original problem didn’t work like a virus, there were no zealots or crusades spreading it. You see the difference?


You claim GPL is about the freedom you provide. But that freedom is quite limited:

·         You aren’t free to decide about what you want to do with your own work. Because of copyleft.

·         You aren’t free to decide what to do if the old license gets obsolete. Because your license doesn’t let them to switch if it is the case.

·         You aren’t free to back out if you don’t like the direction GPL takes, as there is no way to back out at new version.

·         GPL isn’t about a free market, as it works like a virus (see my argument for GPL forks) it tries to take over the whole software licensing in the world. Without exceptions.

·         So far linux works, and there are nonfree applications for it. But we know that calling Joomla API from SMF bridges was an issue. With free software you as end user aren’t free to decide which software you use on a GPL infested system. Free market and fair competition is impaired.

Why? Because you don’t want to see developers of the software to decide about their own work, but give total control to a third party even if they contribute nothing. And because you take over projects without consent of the developers and taking away freedoms of users you are no better than Unix.


Some of the ideology I heard was simple. It stated that with these rights everyone can check the source so the said software will be free of backdoors and security holes. Yet we discovered a huge backdoor functionality in bash this year. It would be much harder to notice an intentionally created but well hidden security hole. Yet everyone has a good chance to submit such code. Even the Islamic State, North Korea, etc.


All I see from you is more zealotry and  never stopping to ask: “what went wrong?” Is it easy to avoid another “Unix” incident? If you believe in free market it is. How? If your license doesn’t require them to use GPL, but require them to grant certain rights to all users with the same requirements as the original license if the law allows them to grant those rights that could help. In fact it would be easy to create a group of different licenses with different requirements that attach different rights to derivative works. So certain freedoms could be granted and enforced even for commercial software. If you allow commercial software.


You can say: “you can only use this piece of code in a commercial software if you will provide full, original, unobfuscated source code and related documentation to your customers and allow them to create derivative work for their own use”. The market shown the need for commercial software, as most people cannot contribute code, they cannot decide if the project will work and start financing early. But they can help the project by paying for the costs of development and for the work / investment as customers. You can protect many freedoms even if you acknowledge this need.

You can protect freedoms without creating a huge risk to them. There are good ways to promote freedom, and to close some of the gap between so called Open Source and Free Software movement. It is up to you if you would want to go with zealotry or seek a good and working compromise.


With the Bukkit incident a lot of people seen how GPL can stop the fun, they will be there to listen to some of these arguments, and learn how friendly licenses can protect their freedom with less risks, and they will be happy to discuss the problems with GPL. I heard some incident between SMF and Joomla. I heard a few cases when people started to go against GPL. More and more young developers are okay with any license except GPL. The moment there are more anti GPL open source devs who won’t touch GPL code, than GPL fans who only work under GPL you lost.

But if you understand what went wrong, create friendly license terms, etc. you can still protect key freedoms. It is up to you to decide if you want to grow with a really freedom focused path, or continue down the Stalinist road to its bitter end. Hope you understand these concerns.


-          Gergely Varju

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