Way back at the dawn of the open source era, Richard Stallman wrote the Four Freedoms which defined what it meant for software to be free. These are:
- Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
- Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
- Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
- Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
For nearly three decades now they have been the foundation for our movement, the motivation for many of us, and the guiding principle for the decisions we make about what software to use.
But outside of our little corner of humanity, these freedoms are not seen as particularly important. In fact, the fast majority of people are not only happy to use software that violates them, but will often prefer to do so. I don’t even feel the need to provide supporting evidence for this claim, as I’m sure all of you have been on one side or the other of a losing arguement about why using open source software is important.
The problem, it seems, is that people who don’t plan on exercising any of these freedoms, from lack of interest or lack of ability, don’t place the same value on them as those of us who do. That’s why software developers are more likely to prefer open source than non-developers, because they might actually use those freedoms at some point.
But the people who don’t see a personal value in free software are missing a larger, more important freedom. One implied by the first four, though not specifically stated. A fifth freedom if you will, which I define as:
- Freedom 4: The freedom to have the program improved by a person or persons of your choosing, and make that improvement available back to you and to the public.
Because even though the vast majority of proprietary software users will never be interested in studying or changing the source of the software they use, they will likely all, at some point in time, ask someone else if they can fix it. Who among us hasn’t had a friend or relative ask us to fix their Windows computer? And the true answer is that, without having the four freedoms (and implied fifth), only Microsoft can truly “fix” their OS, the rest of us can only try and undo the damage that’s been done.
So the next time you’re trying to convince someone of the important of free and open software, and they chime in with the fact that don’t want to change it, try pointing out that by using proprietary code they’re limiting their options for getting it fixed when it inevitably breaks.