Yes, Give It Away

Editor's note: This text was found in a file dated May 1983, though it is not clear whether it was written then or earlier. In May 1983 Richard Stallman was privately considering plans to develop a free operating system, but he may not yet have decided to make it a Unix-like system rather than something like the MIT Lisp Machine.

He had not yet conceptually distinguished the two meanings of “free”; this message is formulated in terms of gratis copies, but take for granted that this means users also have freedom.

One of the important reasons for giving software away free is to enable the users to change it. This allows them to make better use of it, and also encourages and enables them to contribute to the effort. Furthermore, they develop self-reliance, confidence, and a sense of responsibility.

I've often heard that Americans will think something is worthless if it's free. It might be true, but it's not rational. People have a right to be neurotic but we should not encourage this. In the mean time, giving software away is not “treating it as worthless” just because some masochists might conclude it was worthless.

Users would not change software if it were worthless; rather, because it is worth more to them as changed than before. Some central maintenance is also useful, but there are other ways to provide for this aside from hassling the users.

I have a lot of experience with sharing software and having the users change it. I find that

  1. there is little tendency to believe EMACS is worthless
  2. users change EMACS a lot
  3. users' changes contribute to EMACS development
  4. centralized maintenance of EMACS continues

I approached users in a non-manipulative cooperative spirit, and they reacted enthusiastically and cooperatively. When told that restrictions are being imposed to trick their neuroses or because they are assumed in advance to be incompetent, they feel justifiable resentment. They also tend to become incompetent and neurotic as a result.