The Free Software Foundation has defined Four Freedoms related to software. These freedoms apply to users of software, not necessarily developers. In the view of the FSF, these freedoms are ethical in nature, so much so that they argue that software which violates these freedoms is unethical.
Like many other rights, the four freedoms are specific expressions of abstract freedoms in the context of software. They represent concrete examples of underlying notions of freedom. You can see this principle if you ask “Why should I be able to run my own printing press or weblog?”
If those underlying principles exist, then it should be possible to identify them. It should also be possible to extrapolate concrete expressions of those principles in new contexts… such as hardware, not software.
The Freedom to Use
Freedom zero is The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
This is the fundamental enabling freedom for the other three. The right of unrestricted use allows you to use the software as you see fit, even if the creator or copyright holder does not support that use.
The underlying principle seems to be that, once you have taken possession of a work in a legal fashion, the creator of that work has no moral right to govern how you use that work.
In the physical world, you have the ability to use a mallet and a flathead screwdriver to open a paint can. You can stand on a pile of encyclopedias or sit on a phone book if you need a few extra inches of height. You can put a different brand of motor oil or a different grade of gasoline in your lawnmower. You can buy a CD or a flag only to destroy it in public or private. You can even buy a book and sit it on your bookshelf where it will stay, unread.
With regard to hardware, you should be able to use a piece of hardware, if legally obtained, in any way you see fit. This confers no obligation on the seller or manufacturer to support how you use the hardware, nor legal responsibility for its misuse (within reason; manufacturing defects are still their problem).
The responsibility for any misuse of the device–legal or otherwise–rests with the user. If you modify a Wifi card and broadcast on a frequency to which you have no right, that’s your fault. Contrarily, if you have an amateur radio license and can broadcast on that frequency, that’s also your choice.
This principle argues against the use of unbypassable DRM, designed to prevent certain “objectionable” uses of the device. DRM capabilities in and of themselves do not violate this right–parental controls, notifications on non-free drivers, and kiosk modes give users the choice of which uses to allow. Macrovision, region locking, and other systems designed to limit the abilities of users oppose this freedom.
The Freedom to Modify
The second freedom is The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
This freedom is somewhat specific to software. Modifying software is, to some degree, easier than modifying hardware due to its virtual nature. (The practical requirements of modifying software are not necessarily any lower; though I’m a decent programmer, reprogramming a microcontroller in assembly language might take me a while.)
There are parallels, though. You should have the right to replace the battery in your device. You should have the right to open it and remove or replace other components or reverse-engineer schematics. You should even have the right to install a mod-chip, if you so choose, or overclock the device, or paint it blue, or short out a pin to unlock additional features.
This principle builds on the first. If the device is under your control and its use is your responsibility, you have the right to know what it does. The right to use the device as you see fit implies the right to modify the device; this freedom makes that right explicit.
Again, the manufacturer or vendor is fully within its rights to cancel any warranty. Again, the responsibility for any illegal behavior as a result of such modifications rests with you, and not the vendor. This covers the case where a hardware vendor must meet strict regulations regarding the use of a product in a sensntive environment such as a nuclear reactor, heavy manufacturing equipment, or medical devices. The user might have the right to modify the device, but any modifications would still fall under regulatory oversight.
If what the devices does or how it does it is unacceptable to you, you should have the right to change it to meet your needs. Access to the inside of a device is a precondition for this–if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.
The Freedom to Copy
The third freedom is The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
The underlying principle again relies on the idea of unrestricted use. I can lend a book or a DVD to a friend. Yet the nature of software versus hardware is very important when considering this freedom. Software may be difficult to create, but making a copy is trivial in comparison. Duplicating hardware course, requires far more than just enough storage space to hold a copy. Yet personal fabrication continues to get cheaper and easier; if you have the specifications, you can often build at least a prototype.
Beyond the difficulty of reproducing the physical as opposed to the ephemeral, the costs involved in the duplication are significant. Though I could build my own laptop, it’s likely that cost of doing so will be higher than buying from someone who can take advantage of bulk prices to offer a discount. There’s also the question of support and service to consider.
As an interesting side note, the relevant statues which may block the freedom to redistribute software are copyright, while patent law has more bearing on physical goods. There may also be trademark concerns.
It may be more helpful to consider the underlying principle in terms of information. If you have the right to know how a program works (freedom 1), you should have the right to share that information. Interestingly, when describing the workings of a physical device, merely describing its design and implementation does not infringe a patent; the patent itself makes such information public. (Further, if you’ve received the device and discover its workings yourself, spreading them does not violate trade secret–the secret’s out and has no remaining protection.)
The Freedom to Redistribute Changes
The fourth freedom is The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
This principle builds fully upon the three previous freedoms. If you should know what a device does and should be able to modify it and should be able to share that knowledge, you should also be able to share the knowledge of your modifications–or the modifications themselves.
Improvements, in this sense, may take multiple forms. You may publish guidelines on how to bypass hardware restrictions as a list of instructions, or you may produce and distribute a physical modification.
A more direct parallel may be buying, modifying, and releasing modified versions of the hardware yourself. All of the questions from the third freedom are in effect for this case as well. The cost of producing and distributing physical goods make this right someone less useful than for software, but not prohibitively so.
Analyzing the Freedoms
The first two freedoms seem most related to the idea of fair use, personal responsibility, and reasonable disclosure. Imagine signing a contract you were not allowed to read, or eating food without knowing the ingredients. If you have the responsibility for the use of code or a device, you should have the ability to know what the code or device does. (Of course, the reverse is true; if you produce code or a device that someone else modifies and abuses, that person must bear most of the responsibility for any consequences. There’s room for trademarks and proper attributions here to identify attributions and responsibilities appropriately.)
The second two freedoms revolve more around the idea of information sharing and cooperation as an ethical philosophy. They have much in common with the beliefs that provided a public education system as well as much of human progress. These ideas are well established in most political philosophies (promoting the common good).
Some of these freedoms are more difficult in the context of manufactured goods than in software. Resolving the duplication problem may alleviate this from a practical standpoint, though not a legal one. However, treating ephemeral goods as if they had the same scarcities and properties as physical goods has not worked for most of the market, nor most of the public good.
One missing part of this discussion is a sober consideration of how to make a fair profit by providing these four freedoms to customers. Perhaps that discussion will focus on the true notion of value. In a hypothetical world where all knowledge is free, what is the value of acting on that knowledge? Perhaps the best answer is that there can still be attractive business opportunities which provide the service of designing, implementing, manufacturing, and even supporting a device far more effectively than I could do on my own, while still respecting these freedoms.
The software world is gradually discovering this. Perhaps the hardware world will follow.