Libertarians And Linux

I’m sometimes asked, because of my Libertarian leanings, why I use Linux, and not some proprietary operating system like Microsoft. There is no such thing as a “Linux, Inc.” that makes money from creating updates for the Linux Kernel. It’s all Open Source, and some say, “sheesh Ian, that sounds like communism to me!”

I suppose some communists might indeed like the Open Source model. Certainly, those commercial entities like Microsoft probably do not. But as a Libertarian, I really see nothing communist about Open Source software at all.

There are a whole bunch of issues, and there’s no way that I could possibly even just touch upon them all; instead I’ll just discuss a few of my own personal reasons why, even as a libertarian, I prefer Open Source to that of a well known Redmond company.

1. It Ain’t Communism!

No one ever forces a programmer to create open source programs. No one says, “YOU must create this program and donate it to the rest of society.” A programmer that decides to create some program or application does it of his or her own free will. They may choose to write code, and they’re of course, always free to not write code that is open source.

2. Free Doesn’t Necessarily Mean No Money.

Ok.. this is a touchy subject, and there are a whole bunch of different “Open Source” licences around. I’m just going to explain MY understanding of the GPL, which has often been misinterpreted to mean everything should be ‘free’. This just ain’t so.

What is ‘free’, is the source code. In fact, this is even more libertarian than what other Washington companies do (see below – “What Are You “Buying?”). When you have the source code, you are free to do whatever you want with it. If you’re a programmer, you may modify it, change it, make it do something different that you need it to do for your own particular circumstances, or hire someone to do that, and pay them for their time and labour to do so.

However, it is totally ok to charge a fee for the distribution of packaged source code. If you want to come up with your own version of Linux, compile the source code, and provide binaries, you are able to charge a fee for distributing it to whomever wants it. However, you must also make available the source code for whatever the binaries are that you’ve created. (Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on the GPL – and this is my understanding of this particular part of the licence – I stand corrected if I’m wrong).

3. What Exactly Are You Buying?

When you “purchase” software from a big company in Redmond, what exactly is that you are buying? Do you now own property?

The answer is, absolutely not! You own nothing but the right to use the software. And basically, that’s it. You have no rights of recourse if the software doesn’t really do what you had hoped it would, either. Basically, you are paying a big company for the right to create data (data you may not even own, in fact!), on software they are licencing to you. And there’s no guarantee of any backward compatibility – if you create data in Version 1.2b, there’s no guarantee you will be able to access that same data in Version 3.7f.

Think about that for a moment. Because there’s more to this:

You go out and earn some money. Enough money to buy a computer, and for a ‘licence’ for an operating system. All computers need an operating system, for them to be useful to you. Without an operating system, the computer won’t do a darn thing except spin your electric meter and increase your utility bill.

So now you have an operating system. Your computer boots up. Now, you need some programs or applications to do much of anything. Today, most of us need at least a word processor, an internet browser, an email application, and possibly spreadsheets, in order to do any ‘work’ with our computer. When we work at a computer, we’re creating data.

Most of us want to be able to access at least some of the data we’ve created at some point in the future. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need hard drives and storage mediums to save our work to. It’s also likely that we’ll want to share some of this data with others as well.

If we create some data in a word processor, most likely what’s most important to us is the data inside the word processing program – not the program itself. Who do you think should own this data that you’ve created? You? Someone you give or sell the data too?

I thought so. It’s pretty obvious. Maybe you want to give the data to everyone. That’s fine. But maybe the data is a love letter, only to be shared with your lover. You own your copy, and your lover owns their copy of the data, right?

Ahhh… but what good is ownership of data, if you can’t access it? When you license (the time you thought you were purchasing.. but weren’t) a program to create and access data, there’s no guarantee offered to you that you will always be able to access the data you create in that program.

Now, this in itself is probably to be expected with the ‘progress’ forward in technology. Who wants to try to use a PC that is 15 years old to access data that was created on that old PC? Is that old PC even still around?

But when you ‘licence’ proprietary software, you’re stuck. If that old PC is no longer around, and somehow the licenced application you created the data in is destroyed, you’re basically out of luck.

Furthermore, you’re not even allowed to change the new version of the program in order to access old data that the new version won’t recognize that which was created in an old version. So, under these kinds of licensing terms, who really owns the data you create? You sure don’t. Not in any realistic way.

If a famous company in Redmond comes up with a new version of a word processor, and a bunch of people create data in this new version, they are unable to share this data with those that are still using the old version, in some instances. In order for you to now be able to do anything with the data that someone else created, and wants to share with you, you will need to purchase a new recent updated version as well.

This, in my opinion, is far closer to Communism than Open Source software ever will be. For in effect, what you are being told is, “In order for you to take ownership of this data we’ve created in Version 32X, you must also spend money on Version 32X – money that comes from your hard earned labour and time – in order to accept our gift of data to you.”

Bare in mind that the actual data has nothing to do with Version 32X. Version 32X is simply the tool that was used to create it. So now, it’s not simply the data that has value to you. You are now also forced, with no choice, to put value on a particular version of software, when in fact, the software itself has nothing to do with what you originally valued or wanted.

If you do spend money on software from such a proprietary company, remember that you have bought nothing other than the ‘right’ to install that software and create data in it. And that may be fine for you. But personally, I’d prefer to own outright my own data that I create.

Open Source software on the other hand, gives you specific rights not only to the data you create, but how you may access that data that you created in the software. If the software doesn’t quite do what you want it to do, you are free to modify it (and publish your modifications), you are free to change it, make it work if you can, on any system you want, and basically do whatever you would with any other property that you own. The fact that it was ‘free’ has nothing to do with communism whatsoever.

If you send data that was created in V32X of SomeWordProcessor to someone else, who has V19X, that person has the ability to upgrade to version V32X without paying a single dime to the creator of V32X. In other words, you are free to sell or share that data with anyone.

As a libertarian, I far prefer the Open Source model over that which comes from Washington. Open Source programmers respect my property and my data.

1 thought on “Libertarians And Linux”

  1. An excellent overview of the issues of free vs. proprietary software. You’re right that there is no conflict between libertarianism and free software. While the reward for writing free software isn’t always cash (don’t underestimate the reward from writing an excellent peice of code and having it seen by others in the community and industry), plenty of commercial companies benefit from contributing to open source projects. They make money from associated services; and of course because open source code is so re-usable having a large base of it around makes software as a whole cheaper, which benefits everyone. It’s also worth noting that there are two camps: Richard Stallman calls it Free Software and seems to start from the principle that there’s no such thing as intellectual property. I’m not sure I go along with this. Then there’s the Eric S. Raymond camp, who call it Open Source, and they start from the principle that open source results in better quality code because many eyes review it. They all agree, though, that GPL style licences result in the free-est software. Eric, incidentally, is an anarcho-capitalist, and has an interesting blog and other assorted writings.

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