Freedom, glorious freedom.

Once upon a time, I took a class based on a single question: “what is freedom?”  We meandered through US history, identifying several distinct stages in the evolution of the definition of “freedom.”  I was horrified to learn, during a discussion, that so many of my classmates wanted what I will call “freedom from information.” Ah yes - Professor Sandage had a way of bringing the ugliest truths to the surface, for all to witness.

On the one hand, I can understand this desire for freedom from information: telemarketing, advertising, spam, the scrolling headlines at the bottom of a newscast…  well, any unsolicited attempt at selling things you don’t care about.  On the other hand, I think we need more information instead of less, and we need effective tools to filter and manage that information so we only see what we care about.

The term “freedom” is muddied by historical contexts, but also through the process of etymological erosion.  With that said, I want to take a moment to discuss the expression, “free as in speech, not beer.”

Free as in speech, not beer

Free as in speech, not beer” is an expression that comes up in open source discussions all the time.  It’s a little hard to unpack, unless you really dig into the dual meaning of the word “free.”  Thanks to Wikipedia, we’re part of the way there: the word “free” is used to mean two things: Gratis versus Libre.  We call both of these terms “free” nowadays, but once upon a time, there were different words because they are totally different concepts.  Gratis means “without charge” whereas Libre is more like “liberty” or “freedom.”

So what is free speech?  Of course, that’s the freedom to say what you want (so long as you accept the consequences for what you’ve said).  And free beer?  Well, that would mean beer that is provided at no cost.  I think the key is this: although you are free to say what you want, you could well end up in court for it (e.g. slander) and your expression won’t come free of charge.  On the flipside, you can provide beer free of charge, but not to someone who is 15 years old, so you may not freely provide beer to anyone you wish.

In other words, speech embodies Libre (but not necessarily Gratis) perfectly.  Likewise, beer embodies Gratis very well, at the same time that beer is so closely regulated by many governments that it is hardly “libre.”  Nevertheless, everybody likes a good party with some beer pro gratis.

The Free House, and the Public House

Speaking of free beer, the Free House is definitely not a place to find such a zero-cost beverage.  For starters, the term Free House is mostly British, and always beer-related.  It refers to a Public House (which you may know as a “pub”) that will sell any kind of beer they can get people to buy.  Contrast this with a Tied House, which sells beer manufactured by a single brewer, and you find that the Free House will have several brands on tap.  Here, the term “Free” is more like Libre, and is used in the context of the “free market.”  …and we all know that the free market isn’t composed of things that are zero-cost.

When I was living in Berkeley, California there were two particularly good “Tied House” pubs that brewed and sold only their own brands of beer: Jupiter and Triple Rock.  I should also mention Pyramid, which had a pretty cool restaurant with their own beverages on tap.  This kind of pub is fun because they’ll often have a sampler option to let you taste a small glass of everything they brew.  It’s a great way to experience the full spectrum of beers, but a word of advice: start with the lightest stuff and progress towards darker.  The one exception to this rule is for hoppy beverages (e.g. IPA or APA), which might be light but which may have a pronounced bitter taste.  You might want to close it off with an APA, even after drinking the stouts.

Open Source Software

There’s nothing that goes quite so well with open source software as a tasty hoppy beverage.  I like pairing Stone Brewing Company’s Arrogant Bastard with GnuPG, the open source implementation of Phil Zimmerman’s PGP (pretty good privacy) software.  Another favorite of mine is the Spaten Optimator paired with Wordpress.  More recently, I’ve taken a liking to Unibroue, the French Canadian brewer, who offers such brews as Tres Pistoles, which is an excellent complement to Python.  This last combination is probably the most dangerous of the group, because you might end up with excellent code, and you might end up with British comedy.

Monty Python

In the end of the day, free speech and free beer have a lot to do with open source software.  You see, licenses such as the GNU General Public License actually permit developers to charge for their software, while simultaneously requiring all GPL software to be published with its source code.  In this sense, the “free beer” part means the software isn’t necessarily without cost, and the “free speech” part means you are required to publish the source code.  In other words, the Libre aspect of the GPL has an important restriction: you are not free to not publish the source code, which in turn provides the most fundamental tenet of open source software: you are free to read and distribute the source code.

I want to hedge my previous statement: the GPL is a famous topic of debate, so there’s plenty of room to criticize anyone who says anything - at all - about the GPL or about open source software, either according to the letter of the license, or according to the spirit of the movement.

Let me sum it up like this: “free” means many things to many people throughout many time-periods, but for some reason, it almost always comes down to a matter of speech and beer.