The Master and the Slave, the Open and the Free

The Open Source movement has been at war with the Free Software movement for over 14 years and at the heart of this fight are their conceptions of freedom. I want to argue here that the Open Source movement’s idea of freedom is drenched in historical violence which bleeds into our modern times. While the Free Software movement is on the correct side of history.

Software, unlike physical goods, can be copied with very little effort and energy. One of the Free Software movement’s core strategies is to use licensing to keep source code open down this line of copying and editing. These licenses are known as copy-left licenses and to ensure that people keep copies and modifications open, there are restrictions put in place on what you can do with the work. These restrictions are designed to prevent you from taking an open work and closing it. For example, taking a program like GCC and selling it as “Joe’s Compiler” without providing the source code.

It is these restrictions that are a thorn in the side of companies and individual developers. And they offend these people deeply, to their core. Why? Why are these restrictions anathema to the Open Source movement, who’s distinguishing feature is software licenses without these restrictions? It seems interesting that a modern social movement can spring up because of a contradiction on this one belief of what freedom is.

The reason Free Software’s idea offends the Open Source people is because the Open Source’s conception of freedom is deeply engrained in the western world’s privileged class and can be traced back to the Roman times.

Throughout human history, in most languages, the word for “freedom” essentially meant “not slavery”. In the English language, “free” traces back to the same root as “friend”. It is the freedom from masters. Freedom meant being around people who are equal to you. The ability to make friends, have a family, and make promises. And it is no surprise that slaves were treated as non human, or dead. They are stripped of all ties from their family and community and brought to a foreign place to live the zombie life.

Romans kept slaves and they had laws governing property. In Roman law, you can do absolutely anything you like with your property, except for those things you are not allowed to do. This was the Roman’s idea of freedom and it is a very strange one with a deep contradiction. If you can do anything you like, except for those things you can’t, then slaves must be free too, because they can do anything they like except for the things they can’t.

In other words, property rights are at the center of this conception of freedom, and property rights are often confused with a person and their relation to some thing. But in reality, property rights are relations between two people about some thing. If you are in a desert island, it doesn’t make sense that you own a tree, or a rock on the island unless there is someone else there with you. If you are alone, whether you “own” that rock or don’t doesn’t matter because there is nobody to stop you from doing what you please.

The reason the Roman law had this idea of property and freedom is because the magistrates in the Roman empire were imagining the relationship, not between person and thing, but between two people, where one of them is rendered an object or “thing”. This was the slave law and it shifted the idea of freedom as “not being a slave” to “having power as a slave owner”. In Roman law, a free person is someone who has slaves, or some private domain, where they can do whatever they please.

It is this Roman freedom that the Open Source movement advocates. That you have the right to do as you please in your private domain, and you have the right to become a master, by closing an open program and selling it as proprietary software. People who make proprietary software and their users have similar relations to that of a master and a slave. In proprietary software, the relation between the software creator and the software, and the relation of the user and the software, is different. The user does not have the same control over the software that the creator does. But more than that, the relation between the owner and user is not that of people who are equals. The software owner can send people with guns to the user’s house over the software, while the user cannot do the same to the owner.

Behind this Roman freedom is violence. Because after all, if I can own my modifications and sell them, I need a system to enforce the ownership. If I copy your modified software that you closed, you can send the police after me, who will come with real guns, that have real bullets. You can turn open bits and bytes into closed guns and bullets. Some would argue you are free not to use the proprietary software. But imagine a world where all software is proprietary, would the argument then be you are free to choose your master? Because the only alternative is to not use computers, which is not a satisfying, or often realistic, alternative.

The Free Software movement believes in the more conventional idea of freedom, that of friendship and brotherly/sisterly love. That freedom means your social relations with others are relations of equals. And that nobody can be a master over you.

This quite clear when you look at the history of how Richard Stallman was motivated to start this movement. It was his reaction when developers started distributing only runnable versions of software. He was working at MIT and a company Symbolics made modifications to MIT’s lisp machine. He wanted access to the modifications which Symbolics did not provide.

I believe in the Free Software movement’s idea of freedom because they are on the right side of history.

EDIT: Made some changes related to my use of language. https://gnu.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html#Piracy

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3 thoughts on “The Master and the Slave, the Open and the Free

  1. Does it really translate to “not slavery” though? From what I can gather, free in Latin is liberum, which can also mean “unrestricted”. While unrestricted sounds like “not in slavery”, in Latin it’s “apertum”. Slavery is “servitutem”. I’m no etymologist, but those seem like different things. In any case, you’re stretching this analogy out way too far.

  2. The word “free” in English comes from Old English “freo” coming which probably came from Germanic influence. In Latin it is different, but the word “free” in English does not appear to come from latin “liberi”.

  3. I believe that’s the definition of semantics though. Picking the root you want to use to define either movement is irrelevant of both movements.

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