Free as in Freedom as well as Free as in Beer

I just came across Aaron J Siego’s post in his blog about the difference between free as in beer versus free as in freedom, and how the open source community has not done enough to espouse the benefits of the second form of freedom.

Well, I couldn’t agree more. It made me re-read my own Open Source Philosophy post written in March 2004 (and actually culled from words I had written several years before that) and I think that he makes the same point that I was making then (although in a considerable more lucid way).

It was only a few days ago that I replied to a post on Slashdot where someone was saying that because he wasn’t a programmer it didn’t matter to him that the source wasn’t available. My reply to him was yes it did. Maybe he couldn’t fix bugs, or add new features, but because of the availability of the source others could and he would reap the benefit.

What Aaron points out is that the traditional free software foundation view is that the it is a question of ethics, and that all their arguments about why software should remain free is couched in those terms and he thinks that is a mistake. I agree, I think it is the arguing from this direction, whilst technically correct, fails to really motivate the man in the street, who sees the free as in beer as the dominant factor. I think a more persuasive argument is one of enlightened self interest. Free as in Beer is the short term benefit. Free as in Freedom is the longer term. What those people who are choosing free (as in beer) but binary modules are doing choosing a short term benefit against choosing a long term benefit that far outweighs that.

What I think needs to be shouted about much more is that even though a user personally can’t programme, that fact that others have access to the source and can use it gives them

  • ratchet improvements in quality and functionailty over the long term
  • innovation driven from the multitude of difference viewpoints interacting with one another
  • innovation driven by amicable competition between teams who can also share with one another
  • support services that are often personalised and fast, provided you are courteous in asking for them