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Tim O'Reilly Responds to "Freedom or Power?"

by Tim O'Reilly
08/15/2001

Editor's note: Bradley Kuhn and Richard Stallman recently published, Freedom or Power?, which was a response to Tim O'Reilly's weblog, My Definition of "Freedom Zero". There were a few issues raised in Freedom or Power? that Tim wanted to clarify or expand on, and he attempts to do so in this article.

Bradley clearly misunderstands my article and my argument. First off, if you accept his definition of freedom as "being able to make decisions that affect mainly you" versus power as "being able to make decisions that affect others more than you", then clearly the GPL is just as much about "power" as any Microsoft license, since it is binding on all who use the software.

Second, I did not say that "Microsoft has put its past behind it." What I said was that the market conditions that allowed Microsoft to act in such an abusive way have passed their peak, and that history is on our side in making them act in a more open way. It is really important not to make distorted distinctions based on temporary conditions, such as Microsoft's abuse of its monopoly position.

I want to be clear that I am in no way attacking the free software vision, which Bradley articulates so very well. I completely agree that a community of users who share software is a far better and more productive environment than one in which they are captive to vendors, especially if those vendors are doing things that are bad for users in order to maintain their competitive position.

Related Links

Freedom or Power?

My Definition of Freedom Zero

Shared Source vs. Open Source: Craig Mundie and Michael Tiemann

Shared Source vs. Open Source: Panel Discussion

OSCON Conference Coverage

Comment on this articleAs these "shared source" vs "open source" discussions unfold, we're seeing more people move their position to the middle rather than remaining on the extremes. Has your position shifted as a result of these conversations?

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But I believe that Bradley goes too far when he identifies any proprietary software as "harming users by denying their freedom." It's ironic that in defending the GPL against Microsoft's distorted claims that the GPL will "infect" other software, free software advocates point out that you are only bound by the GPL if you choose to use the software. Well, you are only bound by proprietary software if you choose to use it.

I believe that free software and open source are really a "better mousetrap" for all the practical reasons that Bradley outlines in his article. We need forceful licenses like the GPL because everyone doesn't realize that yet, and so it's a defensive move against proprietary vendors who treat harm to their users as "collateral damage" in wars against their competitors. Over time, I believe that the benefits of open source will become so evident that counter-productive activity by proprietary software developers will abate.

Regarding the question of code as law--this is a powerful argument. I agree completely that software is increasingly influential in all of our lives, and that making sure that users have the power to understand and change the software is absolutely essential if power isn't to be concentrated into the hands of a few. I can't deny that large corporations with self-serving agendas are chipping away at our basic freedoms in many different ways. But I don't believe that gives us license to take away their freedom in exchange.

I want to return to the idea of freedom zero as my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a "user" of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift. If that is power, so be it. Both Richard Stallman and Bill Gates exercise the very same power every time they release a piece of software. But the burden of power is to use it wisely and well.

Freedom is power, and those who use their power to reduce the freedom of others are not using it well. But if we take away the power of choice, and force people to release their work on terms not of their choosing, we do an even greater harm than someone does by offering their work on onerous terms that no one is forced to accept.


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