Freedom vs Power

Alexandre Oliva

This was written in response to Rob Weir, to clarify the meaning of freedom and power, rights and privileges, and how copyright and copyleft fit into this picture.

Some definitions and premises:

  • freedom is the ability to make decisions about yourself and your own future, and to carry them out

  • power is the ability to make decisions about others and their future, and to carry them out

  • one's freedom ends where the neighbors's freedoms begin

  • software users and developers deserve freedom over each program they use to carry out their computations, specifically:

  • the freedom to run the program for any purpose

  • the freedom to study the source code of the program, to learn from it and to verify that it behaves as intended, and to adapt the program so that it does what the user wishes

  • the freedom to make copies of the program, and to distribute them

  • the freedom to improve the software, and to distribute the improvements

  • rights are freedoms recognized and defended by social institutions

  • privileges are power granted and enforced by social institutions

  • copyright is the power to prohibit others from copying, modifying, distributing and/or publicly performing a work of authorship

  • copyleft is a technique, first developed to defend software users' freedoms, by curtailing power while respecting freedoms

So you see, copyright is a misnomer, for it is does not amount to a right to copy. It is rather a privilege, that empowers its grantee to stop others from copying (and more). Therefore, copying is not a right, for it is not defended (it is rather attacked) by social institutions, and copyright is a privilege, but not a right, for it is power (decision over others), not freedom (decision over oneself).

Copyleft was first implemented through copyright licenses, using the restrictive power of copyright to permit the distribution of software only in forms that respect recipients' freedoms. The conditions set forth in copyleft licenses do not prevent anyone from running, studying, adapting, copying, improving or distributing the software or improvements over it, so they don't interfere with freedoms. The conditions rather refrain from granting recipients a privilege: the power to deprive other recipients' of their freedoms.

The effects of copyleft do not depend on copyright; that's confusing specification with implementation. Although GPL, AGPL, LGPL, MPL, EPL, etc implement copyleft through copyright license, similar effects could be attained in the absence of copyright through distribution only under contractual commitments, through consumer-protection laws (empowering consumers to demand respect for their freedoms), or through preservation of freedom of expressions.

Now, per copyright laws worldwide, authors of works of authorship are granted a privilege, the legal power to exclude others from various uses of the works. Recipients, without permission from the authors of a work covered by copyright, cannot distribute the work to third parties, so as to exert power through selective (e.g. sourceless) distribution, nor can they, without permission, become co-authors, by modifying the work, and then distributing modified copies to third parties, so as to exert copyright powers.

Copyright law grants to each (co-)author of a work the power to veto others' freedoms as to the work, and the power to extend (or not) the privilege to potential co-authors of derived works. Copyleft uses neither power: it grants permissions so as to respect freedoms, and it refrains from extending the privilege to co-authors, so that they don't get to veto others' freedoms. Permissive licenses, such as the X11 license, variants of the BSD licenses, and the Apache licenses, don't use the power to veto others' freedoms, but they do extend to others this power to veto.

Therefore, for recipients, the difference between copyleft licenses and permissive licenses is not in the freedoms, but rather in the power to not respect others' freedoms. Now, given that one's freedom ends where the neighbors's freedoms begin, this is an illegitimate privilege. For uses grounded on legitimate rights and freedoms, copyleft and permissive licenses make little or no difference. Thus, permissive licenses don't respect more freedom than copyleft licenses; they rather enable illegitimate power over others.

Of course, ethical recipients won't abuse this illegitimate power, but why take the risk of granting this power to recipients in the first place, if you can avoid the tragedy of the commons through a credible commitment that keeps unethical recipients honest, such as copyleft?

Copyright 2011 Alexandre Oliva

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