How to make free software as popular as recycling

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 20, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Joe Brockmeier, my one-time colleague at, has been blogging recently about how to present free software to non-technical users. He suggests that the community approach the problem as a marketing exercise, emphasizing benefits rather than the ethical issue of freedom.

My own take is somewhat different: The problem is not so much talking about ethics as the fact that we have not been talking about the benefits of ethics. Instead of the four freedoms that appeal to developers, we need a similar list that explains what advantages free software offers for ordinary users.

Much of my thinking on this issue stems from an interview I did in 2006 with Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). At the time, the FSF was launching its first social campaigns, and Brown said that he wanted to see free software become as much of a mainstream issue as recycling.

"So what’s recycling about? Is recycling about the most economical way of treating garbage? Is that what recycling is about, or is about protecting the environment?" Brown asked rhetorically.

What Brown was emphasizing was that, in popularizing recycling, you do not talk about the mechanics, such as the temperature a smelter has to reach to melt down aluminium, or how much maintaining separate recycling bins is going to cost an average city. Instead, you talk about how recycling improves the average person's quality of life or ensures a future for their children. By taking this approach, you convert recycling from an abstract good into a concrete one that has immediate benefits for the listener.

Forking the four freedoms

Unfortunately, this approach is nearly the complete opposite of the one that the free software community usually takes. Asked to explain free software, we are apt to refer to the four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The trouble is, to non-developers, this manifesto is about as exciting as cutting their toenails. Freedom 1 and 3 probably seem irrelevant to them, while 0 and 4 are too brief and abstract to be worthy of interest.

The challenge is to reword and modify the four freedoms to produce a set of freedoms that means something to users.

For example, I would suggest that freedom 0 could be modified to read: "The freedom to use and copy the software for any purpose without any need for activation, registration, license renewal or any other mechanism that prevents you from treating your software as freely as you would any other consumer purchase." This wording says much the same thing as the original, but spells out why an average user might be interested in the freedom.

Similarly, I would suggest modifying freedom 1 to read: "The freedom to improve the program, either through your own efforts or those of a developer whom you sponsor, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits." Without suggesting that users might want to enlist the help of a developer, freedom 1 is meaningless for the average user.

Freedom 2 could almost stand as it is, except that I would add at the end, "and to install on multiple devices for your own convenience." In much the same way, I would suggest modifying Freedom 3 so that the opening reads, "The freedom to improve the program through your own efforts or sponsorship."

These four freedoms would encompass most of what free software is about. However, to be as explicit as possible, I would add the following two freedoms:

  • The freedom to use the software without any unauthorized surveillance, digital restrictions management, automatic updating or any other mechanism that restricts your control." I use "unauthorized" here because users might want to waive some control in order to use an online service or a private network.
  • The freedom to choose the software you use, and not to have it restricted by a hardware manufacturer or a software vendor.

Benefits and other freedoms

These six freedoms, I suggest, could be the basis of making the ethics of free software attractive to average users. But, naturally I would not suggest presenting them in these forms to users. These are the outlines for talking about ethical benefits, not the appeals to average users themselves.

For example, instead of quoting the modified freedom 0, I might talk about "the right to control your own computer" for freedom 0, and about "consumer choice" rather than "the freedom to choose the software you use." The more that such user freedoms could be condensed, the greater their appeal is likely to be, and the greater chance of free software entering the public consciousness as recycling has done. But the exact wording of appeals is perhaps a topic for another day.

What I am not sure of at this point is how complete this list of freedoms is. For now, it seems complete to me, but I could easily be missing something.

So what do you think? What am I missing? What other freedoms does free software deliver for average users?


  • re

    I think it is important to keep a technical definition. This allows you to tune your arguments for your audience. If you talk to generic average users. If your talk to a mother or father than you can tune your arguments a little bit and also talk about benefits for education, equality for all pupils etc.
  • Beyond the Freedoms


    The ideas that you set forth in this post go in the right direction, and they are basically consistent with what I was asking for in my comment in the previous post. However, even if I think that the approach of focusing on the user is the correct one, I remain unconvinced that the comparison to recycling is adequate and that the focus on freedoms is the most productive one.

    My point of departure is, as I said in my previous comment, that FOSS use is a political act. That is perfectly clear, I believe, from the focus on 'freedoms'. You have gone one step beyond by spelling out how the freedoms can be translated into a language that is appealing to users. But my point about 'knowing your users', I believe, is still valid. Instead of starting from the freedoms and then trying to reach users, it would make more sense to try to understand what users want and value, and then try to see what FOSS can do for them in a distinctive way. It is in that respect that I think that the comparison with recycling does not really work. Here you are talking about an activity dealing with what to do with refuse. People dispose of things, and getting them out of their houses takes place irrespective of whether recycling takes place or not. Yet people still have a connection in their lives with what happens to refuse: air and water contamination, global warming, etc., are things more and more people care about because they can feel their effects in one way or another, even if not always directly. In that sense, there is a certain cost to recycling, but through public investment that cost is lowered to the point in which, for the user, taking into account HER needs and preferences, it makes sense to recycle. Recycling itself is the way in which waste disposal makes more sense and generates the best outcomes for people. When it comes to FOSS, the freedoms can be valued by the user, but do they really make a positive difference on the core needs that software use fulfills? What do users really want their software to do? Are they getting that from their current software choices? Again, this is an issue of costs and benefits, and the (translated) freedoms, even if beneficial, do not seem to weigh more than the costs of transition for most users because they do not affect the core needs they fulfill when using software.

    I honestly do not believe that there is any problem with FOSS use as a political act. I think it is an important one that I, as a user, value as worthy of its costs. However, I do not expect that to be the case for most users. I am hoping that it will be one day, but I believe that to get there we need to develop FOSS beyond the freedoms. The freedoms should be the core of what we do, but we need to think about the users and what they want, and develop FOSS in the direction in which we will manage to make them prefer it to the other options, even taking into consideration the transition costs. It is impossible to make a convincing case for what specific form this development will take. Precisely because of the nature of FOSS its future direction will be the collective product of millions of individual decisions and discussions. Yet if I had to bet I would say that it is the advantages of openness for collaboration, social connection, and customization that will one day make FOSS stronger than proprietary software. Even if I am wrong about the specifics, I do believe that in order to make FOSS more than a political act by a politically conscious minority, we need to develop it in a way that affects software use beyond the freedoms themselves. The question we should be asking ourselves is: what aspects of openness can change not just how we produce software, but software itself in a direction that will make users' experience better?
  • I like your thoughts

    I really like your thoughts but not that much your conclusion.

    Recycling also isn't defined as most people think of it and talk about it. There is a technical definition of recycling and than there is recycling how people talk about it.

    I think the same is true for Free Software. With the four freedoms there is a "technical" definition and than of course if you talk to people you explain the four freedoms and in general talk much more than just list the four freedoms.
    For example if you talk to normal people you can explain the four freedoms like you did in your "new definition". You can say "Free Software is defined by 4 freedoms, freedom 0 the freedom to run the software as you wish this means to use and copy the software for any purpose without any need for activation, registration, license renewal or any other mechanism that prevents you from treating your software as freely as you would any other consumer purchase. Freedom 1 ... etc."
    Maybe in some situation you can skip the "technical" definition entirely and start directly with the explanation.
    In fact that's how I do it now for many years and for the average user I use more or less the same arguments you described in your article.

    But I think it is important to keep a "technical" definition. This allows you to tune your arguments for your audience. If you talk to generic average users. If your talk to a mother or father than you can tune your arguments a little bit and also talk about benefits for education, equality for all pupils etc.
    If you talk to more technical people you can tune your arguments to talk more about source code, new development models that you can gain by using Free Software etc.

    What I try to say. A generic and "technical" definition like the 4 freedoms allows you to start from there and than tune your arguments for your audience. If you have a definition which is already tuned for a special audience it's much harder to move the arguments to another audience especially if the new audience don't like the arguments you have put in the definition for the generic average user.

    So, you are entirely right that we have to tune our arguments for the average user (and also every other audience) but I disagree that therefore we have to change the "technical" definition of Free Software.
  • Freedoms

    Great thoughts here!

    In my opinion, shorter phrases are better because they make good slogans. Here are the ideas I thought of:
    1. Choose the software your computer runs
    2. Be able to use the software for any purpose, anytime
    3. Know and control what it does (e.g. be able to remove antifeatures/viruses)
    4. Pay for features, not restrictions (or Pay for the features you want)
    5. Be able to distribute copies to help your neighbor

    These still need to be polished up quite a bit. I suggest treating sharing equally regardless of whether the software was modified: most people will not be able to see a profound difference between the two. I also changed study/modify to knowledge/control because those two are more relevant to users.
  • You should worlk with the FSF

    You should contact and work with the FSF because you have a good point here. Theorems usually seem useless but corollaries really make sense. Nice article!
comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More