Friday, March 07, 2008

Free as in Human

As Richard Stallman writes in his definition of free software:
Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.
This definition applies to far more than just software. Not every good, service, and asset needs to be privatized - that's not what democracy means. You can't, for example, sell your vote, or your rights. From Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas, here are some more:
Think of music on the radio, which you consume without paying anything. Or the roads that you drive upon, which are paid for independently of their use. Or the history that we hear about without ever paying the researcher. They too cost money to produce. But we organize access to these resources differently from the way we organize access to chewing gum. To get access to these, you don't have to pay up front. Sometimes you don't have to pay at all. And when you do have to pay, the price is set neutrally or without regard to the user, inside or outside the company. And for good reason, too. Access to chewing gum might rightly be controlled all the way down; but access to roads, and history, and control of our government must always, and sensibly, remain "free."
Private ownership is critical to democracy, but not all resources are created equal. Nor were all consumers; how many of us could win a bidding war against a corporation? The ability of large economic entities to pool money and focus it to acquire resources is one reason some must always remain free.

More controversially, think about legal representation. Our justice system is supposd to be blind, yet clearly some lawyers are much more skilled and connected than others. How fair is it that the best lawyers charge high prices, and therefore can only be afforded by the wealthy and the corporations? Why, for example, aren't lawyers assigned randomly, so that you have as much chance of getting F. Lee Bailey as O.J. Simpson did?

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