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The Use of Free Software as Anti-Copyright Libertarian Activism

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The Use of Free Software as Anti-Copyright Libertarian Activism

By  | Published: MARCH 29, 2012
Image is Copyright © 2005 Nicolas Rougier. Used with permission.For the sake of the simplicity of this blog post, I am going to assume all of my readers have at least a basic familiarity with both the ideas of free software advocates like Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen (though I try to link extensively to references within the post). For most of my libertarian readers, understanding the free software movement is very likely going to require a bit of reading unless you are a GNU/Linux geek. The page on the philosophy of the GNU project and Richard Stallman’s Wikipedia page are good places to start. Note that while free software and open source software have significant overlaps, they are not the same thing. For now, I’m going to focus on free software rather than open source to avoid further complicating this post.

I am also going to take as an assumption of my argument that the libertarian position is to be opposed to the existence of copyright. For some background on that argument see just aboutany of the work by Stephan Kinsella on the subject or for a more utilitarian approach seeAgainst Intellectual Monopoly by Boldrine and Levine.

Libertarian activist strategies range from on the most extreme, the idea of practicing full scale rejecting the system agorism as advocated by Samuel Konkin to the within the system political activism that ranges from full scale anarcho-capitalism a la Murray Rothbard to the stringently principled minarchism of those like Ron Paul to the steps in the right direction coming from more moderate or pragmatic libertarians. Efforts can range from education to campaigning to the actual act of voting.

Outside of the political system, there are few things other than education – which is usually just the means to a political ends – that a libertarian can do to create a more libertarian world. However, I believe that one relatively easy, and becoming easier by the day, thing that nearly everyone with some basic computer knowledge and a couple hours to spend can do to actively curtail the influence of copyright law is to start using free software.

Drawing on Stephan Kinsella’s ideas on the best copyright license for written work, the best software license is one that places as few restrictions on the end user as possible. The problems associated with removing all requirements or dedicated it the public domain means that only requiring acknowledgement of the author is the best solution. I don’t think it is a far stretch from his arguments the criteria that makes the fewest restrictions the best license can also be used to argue that fewer restrictions make a better license. In the context of discussing which license to issue your own work under, only determining the best license is necessary, however picking which software written by others to use doesn’t offer the same freedom and thus better rather than best will often have to suffice.

Starting with the assumption that everyone needs to use a computer with basic capabilities such as web browsing, word processing and the occasional game that they can operate without needing a computer science degree, there are really only 3 operating systems that are viable options, Windows, Mac OS X and Linux (well really GNU/Linux). With either Windows or OS X, using them merely consists of paying for the ability to use the software on one computer for your own personal use and not much more. They both leverage the full weight of copyright law to prevent you from doing basically anything beyond the bare minimum. It’s essentially the all rights reserved of the software world.

In contrast, Linux is licensed (mostly) under the GNU General Public License (GNU is a recursive acronym that stands for GNU’s Not Unix) is designed around preserving the four essential freedoms for software user (being computer geeks their numbering of course starts at 0):

(0) to run the program,
(1) to study and change the program in source code form,
(2) to redistribute exact copies, and
(3) to distribute modified versions.

In order to enable any user to do these things clearly this license is much less restrictive than the licenses under which you are permitted to run Microsoft or Apple software. The GNU GPL is not however a libertarian license and from a libertarian perspective is more restrictive than the software equivalent of the CC-BY license recommended by Kinsella for written work in two important ways through the power of copyright law.

First, that under certain it requires the release of the source code for software if an executable version is released which is a requirement of all free software. Secondly, that it is a copyleft license, which means that it requires programs that modify the code to also license those programs under the GNU GPL and is therefore less libertarian. In order to qualify as free software according to the Free Software Foundation, copyleft licenses are not necessary, but are encouraged.

There are examples of non-copyleft free software licenses that are more libertarian than the GNU GPL, such as the BSD license, and there are operating systems that largely use such licenses, I believe the most popular is FreeBSD. However, the community of Linux users is much more widespread and as a result the online support and information is much better. Plus, Canonical has spent millions of dollars working on a Linux distribution, Ubuntu, targeted specifically at non-technical users and from all accounts the next release, 12.04 due out next month, includes a much better version of the new Unity interface aimed at those users.

Shifting gears to discuss the implications of using Linux on copyright, there are impacts that switching to Linux has on the entire software market. First, the less that you use proprietary software, the less money that ends up in the pockets of proprietary software developers. Secondly, using free software creates a user base for that software which in turn makes that software more widely used for a number of reasons. For example, more users means that more software will be supported and developed for GNU/Linux operating systems allowing users who need or want access to certain critical programs like Adobe software or Netflix streaming to make a complete switch. A wer user base also facilitates the development of the documentation and help resources necessary for less advanced users.

As a closing point, it is important to note that while free software is more libertarian than proprietary software, for the bulk of free software advocates such as Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen are most definitely not libertarians. Their approach to copyright and politics in general is based much more in a leftist ideology than a libertarian one. See Stephan Kinsella on the topic here and here and Moglen on the subject here.

I realize this post inadequately covers a huge range of issues, but when I first thought of the idea for this post and began to research it, I realized that some of this is starting to break new ground from a libertarian perspective. As can be seen from many of the links above, Kinsella’s works which constitute by far the most numerous and in depth writings on the subject, focus mostly on the foundation of libertarian opposition to intellectual property and doesn’t get very far into applying it to software beyond basic discussions of the free software movement and the copyleft nature of the GNU GPL.

My hope is that this blog post will be the starting point for some feedback, more blog posts and hopefully eventually a longer more thought out essay, like the one I wrote on Ron Paul and libertarian history.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • alexp October 2, 2012, 6:59 pm

    I always found it hypocritical that Stallman opposes copyrights yet advocates the use of the a license (the GPL) that depends on that very same state granted privilege. FSF also engages in witch hunts to track down “GPL violators”, using copyrights as a weapon. Much more respectable approach is the Unlicense, more libertarian than the BSD, and which I did not see mentioned in your post. With the Unlicense, software authors do not need to include copyright licenses in their work. Back before the FSF dominated freedom-friendly software distribution, this was called the Public Domain.


  • Logan13442 November 21, 2012, 5:39 pm

    Stallman only opposes copyright on software and says if it were so there would be no need for the GPL and copyleft

To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.