In February 2009, I enjoyed the privilege of attending a lecture series by Dr. Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, and main author of the GNU General Public License – a copyleft free software license. With his lectures still fresh in my mind, I would like to wrestle with a lingering question, for which I have not yet found a satisfying answer.
A backgrounder on the free software movement
Understand, first of all, that the free software movement aims not to abolish the sale of software, but to to protect a person’s freedom to use, inspect, modify, and share software. As they say: free, as in speech, not free, as in beer. In order for a piece of software to conform to the free software foundation’s definition of free, its license must grant users of the software the following four freedoms:
- 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 (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Source: “The Free Software Definition”
When use means use, and distribution means distribution
The share-alike provision of the GNU GPL is designed to prevent middlemen from stripping away any of the four freedoms from free software, on its way to the end user. To be clear, a person is free to build a piece of software atop someone else’s GPL code, and to use that software to conduct business activity for profit; this would constitute the exercising of freedoms 0 and 1 – the freedom to run a program, for any purpose, and the freedom to adapt it to their needs. To subsequently exercise freedoms 2 and 3 is purely optional, but if the user chose to exercise their freedom to distribute copies of their modified software, and distributed those copies under a license that restricts any of the four freedoms that they themselves were treated to, they would be in violation of the GNU GPL‘s share-alike provision.
When use and distribution go hand in hand
Intent only to use
De facto, though, the distribution is
Freedom isn’t free
Repercussions and implications
A world where all users are free, except those who happen to be less free than the rest
But after all, it’s about being free, as in speech, not free, as in a decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one NutraSweet.