Rhea Myers

BSD/GPL, Negative and Positive Liberty

At Manik’s suggestion I’m reading Isaiah Berlin’s essays on Liberty. Berlin describes two kinds of liberty; negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is essentially the freedom to lead one’s life without interference or coercion. Freedom from slavery. Positive liberty is the freedom to pursue one’s own ends and realise one’s potential. Freedom to create.

Berlin’s is a liberal freedom as opposed to more radical conceptions of freedom. The Freedom of Free Software is a liberal freedom, and so Berlin’s consideration of freedom may be useful in considering Free Software.

The major Free Software licenses are public domain fig-leaf licenses such as BSD, and copyleft licenses such at the GPL. Negative liberty is the freedom that the BSD license gives. Positive liberty is the freedom of the GPL.

In his essays, Berlin considers the limits of, and the disastrous historical consequences of misrepresentation of, both modes of freedom. But I think this simplistic comparison (BSD == negative liberty, GPL == positive liberty) is illuminating because it gives a historical context to the appeal and the dangers of both licenses.

And it gives yet more weight to the argument that BSD sucks. :-)

Do read Berlin if you’re interested in Free Software or Free Culture.

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