From Out There

Thoughts from years of using Free Software in the wild

Freedom 0: The freedom to kill people

Continuing from my weirdly popular Windows 7 mini-review (someone actually read that? It’s a strange feeling for a blogging hermit like me) I’m trying to bang together a few articles about the four freedoms that are important to Free Software. On one hand, I always think that it’s clear what the distinction between “freeware”, “Free Software”, “open source” and “public domain” is. But often I find myself talking to people about one thing, with people hearing the other.


This became clearer than ever in the discussions that followed my Win 7 article. Of course the article was mainly about technical things and UI design, but at the core what’s important to me is the freedom.

Here is the first of four articles, each focusing on one of the freedoms of Free Software.

Freedom 0: The freedom to kill people

The first (or zeroth) freedom of the four freedoms of Free Software is:

The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

As so often with these freedoms, the sentence looks simple, harmless and obvious. “Hah, so what?”, you may think, “I can do that anyway with any software”. Let’s see if that’s true. We assume for the sake of the argument that any software we look at in this article is “free” according to the other three freedoms and only freedom zero is in question.

Let’s look at how a piece of software that is in millions of households cuts into freedom 0: Windows Vista. The end user license agreement for Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate contains many clauses that limit your freedom and prevent you from running it for any purpose.

For example in section 2:

c. Alternative Versions. The software may include more than one version, such as 32-bit and 64-bit. You may use only one version at one time.

Even though you have bought the software, you may only run one version of the software at one time. Running a virtual 32-bit instance of Vista inside a 64-bit instance is not allowed, for example. More on virtualization later.

In section 8:

you may not:

  • work around any technical limitations in the software;
  • rent, lease or lend the software; or
  • use the software for commercial software hosting services.

So the license prevents you from using the software in certain types of business (rental, software hosting).

In section 16:

Software Other Than Windows Anytime Upgrade. The first user of the software may make a one time transfer of the software, and this agreement, directly to a third party. The first user must uninstall the software before transferring it separately from the device. The first user may not retain any copies.

You may only sell the software once, if you are the first user. Any subsequent users may not sell the software.

In the addendum about Vista Home Basic:

DEVICE CONNECTIONS. You may allow up to 5 other devices to access the software installed on the licensed device to use File Services, Print Services, Internet Information Services and Internet Connection Sharing and Telephony Services.

So you may not connect from more than five other computers to the computer running this software to do one of the listed things. This prevents you from using the software for the purpose of building a network, e.g. as a proper file server.

USE WITH VIRTUALIZATION TECHNOLOGIES. You may use the software installed on the licensed device within a virtual (or otherwise emulated) hardware system on the licensed device. If you do so, you may not play or access content or use applications protected by any Microsoft digital, information or enterprise rights management technology or other Microsoft rights management services or use BitLocker.

If you are using Vista Home inside of VirtualBox, you are no longer allowed to play all of your purchased music/videos. If any of your music is under Microsoft DRM, you may only listen to it on a real hardware PC. Same for video.

And finally, from the export regulations:

In general, Microsoft products may not be exported to Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, or Syria.

You can’t sell the product to anyone in these countries. This is because Microsoft operates under US law, and the US embargoes these countries (please correct me if I’m wrong).

Now we’re always picking on Microsoft, and that’s not very friendly, so let’s pan the camera over to Apple for a second. If you thought Microsoft’s license is restrictive and bizarre, wait until you meet this product of the Apple legal department, the end user license agreement for Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

This software may be used to reproduce, modify, publish and distribute materials. It is licensed to you only for reproduction, modification, publication and distribution of non-copyrighted materials, materials in which you own the copyright, or materials you are authorized or legally permitted to reproduce, modify, publish or distribute. If you are uncertain about your right to copy, modify, publish or distribute any material, you should contact your legal advisor.

Okay, I confess. I just wanted to quote this oddity here because it’s so weird, not because it actually takes away your freedom zero. Isn’t it odd for Apple to explictly say “observe the law” in their license? They might just as well say “drive safely”. This sentence says “you may exert all the rights granted to you under the copyright law of your country (if any)”.

Of course the implied meaning is different: If you use our software to break copyright law (if any) of your country, we no longer license the software to you. Weirdos. Anyway, let’s move on.

you are granted a limited non-exclusive license to install, use and run one (1) copy of the Apple Software on a single Apple-branded computer at a time.

You may only run the software exactly once (like with Microsoft), but Apple has the additional restriction of forcing you to run it on Apple hardware. You may not run it somewhere else.

you may use the system voices included in the Apple Software (“System Voices”) (i) while running the Apple Software and (ii) to create your own original content and projects for your personal, non-commercial use.

You are forbidden from using the voices to e.g. read out text messages sent to a phone system your company offers.

I acknowledge that some of the points I’ve mentioned are not entirely related to the purpose of running the software, but also the mode in which the software is run. I picked license agreements used by two large software makers as examples. Smaller software makers include more bizarre restrictions on the purpose for which their software is used. You have perhaps encountered them before. The point is that there are restrictions on freedom number zero in non-free software.

The freedom to kill people

To give a counterexample, and this is where I take the title of this article from, Free Software will never tell you not to use the software for a particular purpose. You can run the software to kill people — the Linux kernel is used to kill people by being employed in weapons systems. You can run an abortion clinic on Free Software. No word in the license prevents you from doing this.

But Free Software is also used to save people’s lives. Computed tomography scanners made by GE run GNU/Linux. So do some MRI scanners, e.g. by Philips. I’m sure there are other medical devices that do as well, but I don’t know about those.

The point is that freedom zero swings both ways. You may use the software for good, you may use the software for evil, you may use the software for anything, even for helping a Syrian run an Internet Café. The freedoms are non-discriminating. There is no inherent ethical or moral component in the licenses. This ethical/moral part comes much later, when you look at the positive social and psychological consequences that Free Software has.

We must leave the licenses as ethically/morally clear as possible. We must not tell people to “drive safely” in a software license, like Apple does. I think a part of the reason for the success of Free Software licenses is that they are so completely pragmatic in themselves, not moralistic, not full of sermons.

Not about tree-hugging

If you believed that FOSS is mostly about tree-hugging peace-loving hippies and that surely the licenses must have some peace-and-happiness component, remind yourself of the weapons engineer that uses the exact same source code.

Military cemetary photo is CC-By Redvers