Free as in Freedom

When RMS (Richard M Stallman) announced GPLv3, he talked a lot about the purpose of Free software. He says there are four freedoms the GPL is designed to protect:

Freedom 0. The freedom to run the program as you wish.

Freedom 1. The freedom to study the source code and change it so it does what you wish.

Freedom 2. The freedom to help your neighbor, which is the freedom to distribute exact copies up to and including republication when you wish, and . . .

Freedom 3, which is the freedom to contribute to your community, the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions up to and including publication, when you wish.

I completely agree with these four points where software is concerned. My question is, should these same Freedoms apply to things other than programs, and if not, why not.

Take a piece of literature. Substitute “program” wherever it appears in the 4 Freedoms with “book”.

Obviously Freedom 0 should apply to it. If you have the book, you should be allowed to read it and interpret it however you want. To say otherwise doesn’t make much sense.

It’s the same with Freedom 1. I see no reason the reader shouldn’t be allowed to change the story in their mind, or even rewrite the book so they like it better. Many people, for example, might want to do this with Harry Potter.

Freedom 2 is clearly more controversial. It sounds absurd to say you should be allowed to distribute copies of the book to whoever you want. And perhaps it is. But why is it so absurd? It’s perfectly legal to lend a book to someone for them to read. Republication is a bit more extreme than that, but it’s the same concept, I think. Perhaps the problem is that making copies of the book (as opposed to just lending the book itself) creates wealth. You’ve created two copies of the book when you had one, which is somehow wrong and evil.

Freedom 3 actually seems less controversial to me than Freedom 2. If I write a fan-fiction based on Harry Potter, why shouldn’t I be allowed to publish it and let other people who are interested in fan-fictions of Harry Potter read it? The issue would be that if the modifications are too slight then you’re essentially using Freedom 2, not Freedom 3. So everything comes down to Freedom 2, which we don’t allow because… because of the economics of it?

That seems to be the case. You can’t let people steal an author’s work (even though you’re not taking anything away from them) by copying it and giving it out for free! If you do, how is he supposed to make money?!

Well, it seems to be working all right for the Free Software peoples… lots of free software is being created under this regime of freedom. The difference between software and literature is what, exactly? Philosophically I support software being free because it’s just math. If you discover a mathematical formula you shouldn’t be able to keep other people from using it. But I don’t really see why literature is different; all you’ve done is discover a combination of words that have a certain significance, why can’t other people use those same words? And what about music, which is just a given combination of notes, and art, and…?

As you can see, I’m drifting towards the view that there should be no intellectual property. I think there’s a lot to be said for that position. Intellectual property never did make much sense to me…what makes a story mine after I write it, exactly?

The main objection to this seems to be that people won’t have an incentive to create if they don’t get something back from their investment of time and energy. I don’t like this argument because it seems to say that artists are in it only for the money. I realize that some are; and if our economy was such that they no longer churned out pot-boilers to support themselves, would we be that much worse off? I think not.

The stronger objection would be that even if they did want to create and wanted to put energy into it regardless of money, they wouldn’t be able to support themselves while doing so. Indeed, I’m not sure how such an economy could work. I’m not an economist. To find out, I would say, look at how the Free software people support themselves and, if possible, emulate that system for all these other systems.


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