Freedom Signed Zero: A Defence for Freelance Tech?
In a footnote to What is free software? The Free Software Definition, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) tells us:
The reason they are numbered 0, 1, 2 and 3 is historical. Around 1990 there were three freedoms, numbered 1, 2 and 3. Then we realized that the freedom to run the program needed to be mentioned explicitly. It was clearly more basic than the other three, so it properly should precede them. Rather than renumber the others, we made it freedom 0.
One very common view of Open Source software goes something like this: you do not have to do any tracking of how you use it. There are no compliance obligations for use.
Of course, that doesn’t correspond to the Open Source software licensing out there in the field. But what does ring true is that ‘Freedom Zero’ is generally regarded as being sacrosanct in what has become for many developers a non-negotiable, essential and incredibly important set of software freedoms.
If nothing beyond the first few paragraphs resonates with you, the fact that Freedom Zero is already abused by the flagship license program of the FSF, the GNU General Public License (GPL). Companies that want to develop code privately cannot use the code, thus the GPL defies the logic of the freedom it is meant to promote.
Okay, so let’s get into it.
What is missing from the footnotes is what I’ll call Mullenweg’s Misère which in French means “destitution” and German means “beggar”. It is used in various card games by a player who undertakes to lose all tricks, or lose as many as possible^1 in order to win the round overall. Confused? Well, it’s definitely a thing. Okay?
Mullenweg uses the ‘Unlucky at Cards’ slogan on his blog, a deliciously apt coincidence since playing Misère usually involves much more judgement than luck. Mullenweg plays out his hand meticulously by drawing the readers attention to how counting from zero is geek-chic. Drawing us in he then triumphantly loses the trick by judiciously linking to gnu.org, eventually winning the hearts and minds of his readers and winning all the F/LOSS chips at the close of the round. Bravo, Matt.
If Mullenweg had better cards, he would undoubtedly bid to out-geek the FSF by arguing that the freedom to use the software for any purpose, (‘Freedom Zero’) can be logically augmented through a close ‘family member’ in computer programming, the concept of the Signed Zero.
To win this game, the strategy would involve outmatching the FSF’s ‘Freedom Zero’ bid by first taking it at face value. This is the ‘Neutral Zero’ used in almost all indexing systems where position zero is the first index. Computer programmers know this well, and ‘Freedom Zero’ is obviously not being used as a value in the Four Freedoms texts I have seen, it is used as a symbolic reference pointer (or Index) to a value which, for the FSF and anyone that wants to agree with about Freedom Zero means, ‘use for any purpose’.
What I am going to attempt here is what I’ll call the Signed Zero defence!
Under the Signed Zero defence, the ‘Freedom Neutral Zero’ reveals ambiguity and contradiction that corporate lawyers love. ‘Freedom Neutral Zero’ neither explicitly allows or disallows use for any purpose. It leaves it up to industry practice and (rarely) the courts to infer ether a free or a non free interpretation of a license.
If Freedom Neutral Zero sounds somewhat arbitrary and ironic, that’s because it is. But this is exactly what has become established in the Open Source world. Copyleft licenses disallow companies from using software unless they share their modifications. Copyleft licenses are effectively skewing ‘Freedom Natural Zero’ (recall: it is an Index for ‘use for any purpose’) towards an interpretation that transforms that index to ‘Freedom Negative Zero’ (which by extension, is the freedom to add restrictions like disallow use for the purposes of making proprietary or ‘closed’ software, or ‘copyleft’).
‘Freedom Negative Zero’ would be better reserved for Free Software that explicitly DISALLOWS (-0) any purpose, or in simpler English essentially means ‘a freedom to add restrictions’ like copyleft (‘share-alike’) clauses. Likewise ‘Freedom Positive Zero’ would mean a freedom that is for permissive licenses that explicitly ALLOW (+0) use for any purpose, including sub-licensing, relicensing and so forth of closed source code.
And, the result of all this?
We now have three sets of four freedoms, a set with a Freedom Negative Zero, a set with a Neutral Zero Freedom and a set with Freedom Positive Zero.
The first set allows restrictions on use, the second set is agnostic (closest to the prevailing industry practice of using zero as an index for an ambiguous class of licenses that may or may not have restrictions) and the third set explicitly allowing use for any purpose, strongly implying that copyleft and other licenses with restrictions would not be compliant, leaving only the most permissive style licenses and public domain type licenses as compliant in this final set.
Just to recap, under the Signed Zero rubric, the GNU GPL licensing program and other F/LOSS licenses would only fit the Freedom Negative Zero set, or (suboptimally except for corporate lawyers and their clients) Freedom Neutral Zero set - and the Freedom neutral Zero set is how things stand right now by the way.
Unless the FSF moves to a Signed Zero rubric then it will remain something of a romantic curiosity as to how it is possible to justify the GPL’s inclusion as Free Software, let alone supporting compliance under the Open Source Definition and other frameworks like it, for example the guidelines published by Debian and Apache that all default to the flip-flopping we see that denies approval to non-commercial (NC) licenses but accepts restrictions included in other licenses.
The problem is F/LOSS licensing is defeating itself. A Signed Zero implementation makes it much clearer as to what kind of F/LOSS is being offered. Remember that the freedom to place GPL-like restrictions involves keeping track of how you’re modifying the software in your organization and this is a prerequisite for using the GPL’d code. This is a restriction placed on companies that do not want to share their modifications.
Freedom Signed Zero would end the sleight-of-hand where Freedom Zero means ‘Freedom Positive Zero’ in discussing compliance candidates but then when seeking to maintain copyleft licenses retrospectively the interpretation is to switch to ‘Freedom Negative Zero’. The FSF and OSI believe dismantling the business use case, (free-riding on collaboratively built operating system infrastructure) is unprincipled, and yet neither feels obliged to explain to software developers that want to restrict use cases that they are implicated in looping through what are, essentially three sets of four freedoms that are revealed by the Signed Zero rubric.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of software developers have become disenchanted with being taken for a ride downstream by big business and want to adopt some variations within the Freedom Negative Zero set for their own projects.
All the countermeasures to Freedom Signed Zero will come from big business because it is their investors that hate having restrictions placed on how they minimize the costs of developing infrastructure. It shows up F/LOSS for what it has become… high-minded, pro-business propaganda that exploits developers.
At some point, corporations realized that it’s a good idea to take Open Source software and just pay back if they attract too much criticism from developer communities. The giant cloud providers are not required to share any improvements to stuff they use in the cloud so copyleft is pretty much, business as usual. Copyleft is now a go-to solution for corporations wanting to reduce the costs associated with accumulating capital by not paying workers. It’s really no different in principle to the kind of antisocial politics of the Victorian era.
Infrastructure is best developed as cheaply as possible, and Open Source achieves that aim. What’s worse, Computer Science undergraduates internalize this and accept the exploitation right from the start of their careers as they busy themselves committing to GitHub to improve their occupational narrative for prospective employers and clients. This is nothing new, it’s the same capitalist mode as the mill, the foundry or shipyard. If you want some of the most useful insights and analysis on what is driving Open Source software today, you could do no worse than look back at what was happening with cotton, iron, wool or pottery around the late nineteenth century.
The similarities in terms of the mode of worker exploitation are remarkable.