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Educating Users about Freedom Zero
Wednesday, December 20 2006 @ 10:08 PM EST

I've written that some vendors don't comprehend the GPL. Groklaw member PolR wrote me an interesting email, in which he told me that the problem isn't that vendors don't comprehend it. They do. They just are not enamored. They particularly hate freedom zero, PolR wrote, "the freedom to run the program for any purpose, any way you like," as Richard Stallman has defined it. So some are deliberately trying to skirt around it, egged on by Microsoft and their mouthpieces, and joined by some in the community who don't much care or who care about "success" or money more than they care about end users.

He did some thinking about how to counter that pressure, and he suggests that the answer is educating end users. *They* are the ones that need to comprehend the freedoms that the GPL seeks to give them, because if they do understand it -- whether they are individuals, businesses, or government entities -- they are likely to demand them and they will deliberately avoid Brand X "Linux" substitutes, because they will comprehend what closed, binary blobs will do to them. And vendors, he points out, will never educate them about community ways, because they don't want to go there.

He sent me some ideas I'd like to share with you and ask for your additional refinements and additions, as we try to figure the way forward. How best can one explain to users why and how they benefit from the freedoms the GPL provides? He has a method he uses I thought I'd share with you, and perhaps they will trigger some methods or ideas of your own.

I tried something similar with someone the other day, although she had a Windows laptop, so instead I showed her the license for And her jaw dropped. She had found out that her new laptop with XP didn't have Word. And she didn't have extra money to go out and buy it. So when I showed her how easy it is to get an office suite, she was delighted, and she downloaded it on the spot. But I showed her the license first, because of PolR's email, which I took seriously. She was impressed.

Here's what PolR sent me, followed by Eben Moglen on the four freedoms, for those to whom it may be new or helpful to review:


I read your intro to the OIN CEO Jerry Rosenthal's article. You stated that "Corporate entities are unlikely to comprehend the importance of the GPL to FOSS development". I think they understand very well, at least those on the vendor side of the industry. It is just that they don't like the outcome.

The GPL protects freedoms. RMS and the FSF made no mystery about that. Among the freedoms, there is freedom zero that implies one does not have to pay royalties or ask permission to run software. Vendors hate that. They want to give the customers a reason to keep coming to them. They are busy finding ways to raise switching costs, so their customers can't go to the competition unless highly motivated to pay these costs. But they can't do that with free software. The user can obtain it from whoever they want when they want without royalties or permissions. In order to retain customers, the vendor must do the same thing as the competition but better and cheaper. This is a low margin cut-throat business. This is the situation every MBA is trained to avoid as much as he can. This is why there is so much energy spent circumventing the GPL.

The problem for the vendor is the GPL is too customer-friendly to their taste. But the customers are not fully aware of that yet. They have not grasped the consequences of the GPL yet. I think it is no longer productive to explain the GPL to vendors. They have been around long enough and GPL software had enough influence on the market to make sure every vendor knows eveything they need to know. If they go against the GPL, it is because they think they can get away with it because the customers don't demand their freedom yet. The move forward, then, is to educate customers now.

The greatest enemy is disbelief. When I explain freedom to my colleagues, they just can't bring themselves to think this is a viable approach. Freedom goes against a deeply ingrained instinct of customers that says they are not in the business of developing software. They prefer to purchase already made packages whenever they can. The reason is they want to conserve their time and resources for running the main business.

The task of developing and maintaining software is viewed as a distraction. And they think it is easier and less demanding to manage a contractual relationship, sometimes even if purchasing software is more expensive than developing in-house. Given this bias, they view the GPL freedoms, especially freedom zero, as an utopia. Freedom comes with responsibilities and the customers see this as a burden. You can't count on vendors to go tell the customers otherwise. You can't count on vendors to tell the customers how to do things the community way. They are too afraid customers will exercise their freedom.

I know a piece of software that is useful in reducing the degree of disbelief. I nicknamed it Visual Freedom Zero because it gives a WYSIWYG interface to freedom zero. You can see a screenshot here.

If you use Ubuntu, you will recognise it as the utility to add and remove applications. When someone thinks of freedom zero as an Utopia, I just show him this screenshot and explain what it is for. I stress that with Ubuntu Linux you dont need to go the computer store or call a salesman to obtain an application the way you need to do with Windows or a Mac. With freedom zero, you can use software without paying royalties or asking for permission. You just fire up Visual Freedom Zero and you can search for the software you want and install it. The other freedoms exist to allow the programmers to populate Visual Freedom Zero with more and better applications. Every year, the application set grows in quantity and quality.

When people see and touch freedom like this, they usually are impressed. At least they realize that this is for real, not some daydream.

This brings another of my pet theories about the GPL -- the concept of an ecosystem.

RMS once said in an interview something to the effect that one of the goals of the GPL was to promote the development of a universe or body of free software. This is a very important statement. Microsoft has invested a lot in the creation of the ecosystems of partners and third parties that rely on the Microsoft platforms. Customers are locked in Microsoft products partly because they depend on this ecosystem; and conversely, vendors are locked in partly because this is where the customers are. The emergence of a significant parallel ecosystem not locked in to Microsoft technologies is a Microsoft nightmare.

But the free software ecosystem is not defined by a platform. It is defined by the freedoms as protected by the GPL. The key to build such ecosystems was said best by Steve Ballmer: "Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers! ..." Free software can build an alternative ecosystem because the developers don't need revenue to develop. They just code and populate Visual Freedom Zero with more and better software.

"Freedom zero, the freedom to use software, is infringed if you are required to pay fees or make promises in order to use software, anywhere, anytime. FSF will never publish a license that violates freedom zero. Similarly, freedom two, the freedom to modify a program, and freedom three, the freedom to share, are violated if private modification is prohibited or sharing is required rather than permitted. You can always modify free software for your own use, and decide whether to share it with other people. If you share with others, the GPL says now and always will say that you have to give them the same freedoms you were given by others who contributed to the code you are using, modifying and redistributing." -- Eben Moglen, "Freedom Now".

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