Tim Retout's www presence

Wed, 04 Jun 2008

Free software, fix it

Another potential response to online complaints about free software is "FSFI", meaning "It's free software, fix it". This is the next level up from asking someone to link to their bug report - it places the sole responsibility for fixing the bug onto the shoulders of those who complain. Sometimes this can be reasonable - but expecting every user to be able to fix every problem themselves is not.

There was a link today on LWN to an article claiming that it is strictly the software which is free, not the users - the users must abide by the restrictions of the licence, so cannot distribute proprietary derivatives, for instance. I would have claimed exactly the opposite; software does not have a will that can be frustrated. It is the users of proprietary software who are not free to study, to improve, to share. The term "free software" misleads in this respect; the ethics are all about what the users can or cannot do. On the other hand, we might reasonably talk about a "free society", and would understand that its citizens were free as well.

The "copyleft" terms in some licences are therefore a matter of some debate - they limit what the user can legally do with the software. In this ethical framework, the right of one user to restrict the ability of other users to use, modify and share software is comparable to their right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. This philosophical question goes back to Mill's On Liberty and probably before - according to the "harm principle", the only justifiable use of the law is in preventing someone from causing harm to others. We do not generally think of societies which outlaw murder, say, to be less free.

Often people think of the LGPL as not being a "copyleft" licence, but this is not the case. In all cases the distributor has to provide the source to their modified or unmodified version of the software. There are in fact restrictions on the licences that you can link against - the end user must be free to make local modifications, and have the right to debug those modifications. It would be best described as a "weak copyleft" - a combined work can be distributed under different terms, but the rights of the user with respect to the LGPL-licensed work are protected.

With both societies and software, you are free to fix your own problems. Sometimes this is more of a burden than a blessing - but usually you do not have to do it alone.

Posted: 04 Jun 2008 00:00 | Tags: , , ,

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