The Four Freedoms

Eleven months before the U.S. declared war on Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone.” He articulated four fundamental freedoms that everyone in the world ought to enjoy:

  1. Freedom of speech.
  2. Freedom of worship.
  3. Freedom from want.
  4. Freedom from fear.

Fast forward 72 years: technology has advanced at dizzying rates and permeated every aspect of our lives, from how we are born to how we die and everything in between. In this co-evolution of society and technology, what it means to be truly “free” is no longer about just the country we live in, or even its laws, but is shaped by the products we live on.

As Marc Andreessen says, software is eating the world. It’s a creative gale of destruction that irreversibly changes every industry it touches, and if you don’t control the software, the software controls you. It mediates how and with whom you communicate, what news you see, and what other software you’re able to run. It influences the very way your brain works, as you process the creative gale of distraction that interrupts us all hundreds of times each day. With every ping, software burrows deeper into our lives.

In the early nineties, a prescient hacker named Richard Stallman — working at MIT, where today’s future had already happened — recognized this shift. He proposed a set of four freedoms that were fundamental for software in an enlightened, tech-dependent society.

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.

(Aside: I originally thought Stallman started counting with zero instead of one because he’s a geek. He is, but that wasn’t the reason. Freedoms one, two, and three came first, but later he wanted to add something to supercede all of them. So: freedom zero. The geekness is a happy accident.)

This is our Bill of Rights. Stallman called it Free Software. The “free” doesn’t have to do with price, as you’re still free to charge for your software, but with freedom to create. Or as we geeks often say: not free as in beer, free as in speech.

People are scared of free software, and I understand why. You’re taking the most valuable thing you have, your intellectual property, and granting the freedom you enjoy as a creator to anyone who downloads your work. It’s terrifying, actually. It’s releasing your ideas, and letting anyone build on them — in a way that might be better than your own work. It’s releasing your traditional understanding of ownership, and your fear of being out-developed.

The most experienced entrepreneurs can cling to the concept that your idea is something precious that must be protected from the world, and meted out in a controlled way. Lots of us hang on to the assumption that scarcity creates a proprietary advantage. It’s how many non-tech markets work.

Open source abdicates your flexibility as a developer to better serve the people who actually use your products. You can see that as a constraint… or you can see it as a door to iteration, innovation, and constant progress.

I’ve spent a third of my life building software based on Stallman’s four freedoms, and I’ve been astonished by the results. WordPress wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those freedoms, and it couldn’t have evolved the way it has.

WordPress was based on a program called B2/cafelog that predated it by two years. I was using B2 because it had freedoms 0 and 1: I could use it for whatever I wanted, including my zero-budget personal blog, and the source code was open. It was elegant and easy to understand, and anyone could tweak it.

B2 was ultimately abandoned by its creator. If I’d been using it under a proprietary license, that would have been the end — for me, and all its other users. But because we had freedoms 2 and 3, Mike Little and I were able to use the software as a foundation, giving us a two-year headstart over building something from scratch, and realize our own vision of what blogging could be.

We were just consumers of the software, volunteers in the forums, and occasional contributors to the codebase, but because (of the GPL) we had the freedom to build on B2, we were able to continue development as if it had been our own creation.

Ten years later, those freedoms are still embedded in every copy of WordPress downloaded, including the 9.2 million downloaded in the past month or so since our 3.8 release.

I believe that software, and in fact entire companies, should be run in a way that assumes that the sum of the talent of people outside your walls is greater than the sum of the few you have inside. None of us are as smart as all of us. Given the right environment — one that leverages the marginal cost of distributing software and ideas — independent actors can work toward something that benefits them, while also increasing the capability of the entire community.

This is where open source gets really interesting: it’s not just about the legal wonkery around software licensing, but what effect open sourced software has on people using it. In the proprietary world, those people are typically called “users,” a strange term that connotes dependence and addiction. In the open source world, they’re more rightly called a community.

The core features of WordPress aren’t rocket surgery. A handful of smart people in a room for a year could create a reasonable approximation of the software, and undoubtably improve some things — I see other startups do this three or four times a year.

What they miss is that WordPress isn’t a checklist of features. It’s over 29,000 plugins created by the community, from the in-demand things like SEO to niche features like using your 404 page to help adopt homeless dogs in Sweden. Every WordPress site looks different, because of the thousands of themes available. Instead of one event to outdo, there are more than 70 volunteer-organized WordCamps on six continents (and there’ll be more in 2014).

WordPress marketing has nothing to do with its website or logo, it’s the tens of thousands of people who make a living building WordPress sites and receive so much value from it that they proselytize to anyone that will listen, spreading the flame one site at a time. It works — as of December 2013, 21% of websites are powered by WordPress. One-fifth of the web is built with a tool that anyone can use, change, or improve, whenever and however they want (even more when you count other open source projects, like Drupal).

This approach to building isn’t an abdication of developers’ and designers’ responsibility to build beautiful, functional software. Design and forethought are more important than ever when every change sends millions of independent actors down a new path. Changes to WordPress have consequences today, tomorrow, five years, and ten years down the road, but the passion and talent of the community helps ensure that it always moves forward in a positive way.

The four freedoms don’t limit us as creators — they open possibilities for us as creators and consumers. When you apply them to software, you get Linux, Webkit/Chrome, and WordPress. When you apply them to medicine, you get the Open Genomics Engine, which is accelerating cancer research and bringing us closer to personalized treatment. When you apply them to companies, you get radically geographically distributed, results-based organizations like Automattic. When you apply them to events you get TEDx, Barcamp, and WordCamp. When you apply them to knowledge, you get Wikipedia.

William Gibson is attributed with saying “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The world is changing faster than any one person or organization can keep up with it. Closed off, proprietary development creates closed off, proprietary products that won’t keep pace in the long run. Open source provides another path — one that’s open to everyone, and can take advantage of the skills and talents of anyone in the world to build software that helps everyone.

As Bill Joy said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Good ideas aren’t the sole province of groups of people behind high walls, and software shouldn’t be either.

This was adapted from a talk I gave at the Life is Beautiful festival in Downtown Las Vegas. Thanks to Michelle, Ben, Davide, and Paul for help with this.

50 thoughts on “The Four Freedoms

  1. Fantastic article. Love it. Keep on sharing! This article would make an incredible infographic. I wish I had the design skills to pull it off. Anybody else want to take a shot at it? I saw an image of a long scroll of parchment with old english calligraphy and ornate illustrations of elvinish like images and wisping candle smoke trails weaving in and around the words.I can see it in my mind’s eye but getting it out of the end of fingers will have to be satisfied with mere words.

  2. Good post and definitely the reason I invested myself in the WordPress Community, both as digital strategist making a living from our work with WordPress to giving back by organizing WordPress Chapel Hill (and WordPress Westchester when I lived in the NYC area). When you think about what open source means and the community built around this and other software platforms, it’s amazing how many people have come together to embrace the philosophy. Good post and thanks for reminding us about where this all came from and what it means today.

  3. Wow, I never knew the story of the startup of WordPress. Really incredible to read that blog post from 11 years ago.

    I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I essentially owe my career to WordPress as well. I started learning to code (DIY) back in 2002, and picked up WordPress sometime in 2004. It became my tool of choice and I grew a small business building WordPress sites. Which lead to me getting hired by several startups, learning to lead product teams, building businesses, founding and growing open source and open standards projects, and now working in VC.

    I can’t thank you enough for having the foresight to believe in this vision. It’s certainly shaped my thinking on just about everything.

      1. And I should say, more importantly, that these freedoms are what make it possible to learn, build and create on the web. Whether you are building a software project, a career, or an ecosystem.

  4. Amazing article Matt. I really like the fact that WP is not a full wheel re-invention. I think there is a curse in our industry where every developer feels like they need to rewrite everything from scratch, because whatever was done before is just not good enough for them.

    It’s sad because software is probably the most re-usable tool we’ve ever had!

  5. Fantastic article. Love it. Keep on sharing! This article would make an incredible infographic. I wish I had the design skills to pull it off. Anybody else want to take a shot at it? I saw an image of a long scroll of parchment with old english calligraphy and ornate illustrations of elvinish like images and wisping candle smoke trails weaving in and around the words.I can see it in my mind’s eye but getting it out of the end of fingers will have to be satisfied with mere words.

  6. Great essay, Matt! And perfect timing for me to share with my community college composition students as they prepare to enter the world of blogging and on the heels of reading Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” and writing by MLK. (PS I post articles and essays instead of lectures on my blog/s and use a class blog for posting essays by others and other resources for my college students…)

  7. I am proud that releasing b2 under the GPL allowed so much to happen.

    If someone had told me in 2001 that my beginner code would evolve into something that powers so many websites and enables easy blogging to so many people in the world, I would have had a 0.00001 % chance of believing them.

    Matt and the team, thanks for making that unexpected dream come true.

  8. Great post Matt, thank you for getting all this going. I too owe the story of starting my business to WordPress so thanks for that.

    One question I have is how to do you handle it when someone says “PHP is an insecure programming language and therefore WordPress is insecure”?

    1. I haven’t heard that in a while — Facebook,, Wikipedia, Yahoo, and many more of the top sites in the world rely heavily on PHP, so I think most people now feel if it’s good enough for those, it’s good enough for them.

  9. Brilliant. Every time I hear or read you talking about open source I am blown away. I earn my living doing something I love because WordPress exists as it does. I’ve worked with other tools over the years and slowly turned more and more of my efforts and focus to WordPress, turning down projects built on other tools because of these principles and the community you have built.

    I’ve been lurking on the outskirts for years but some things you’ve said recently, specifically in your interview on Drad, but other instances as well have me trying to move in and find a place on the inside.

    Thanks Matt!

  10. Hi Matt,

    I’m loving your posts.

    And, it actually took me some time to understand the nuance between free beer and free software when I heard it the first time. But, Richard Stallman explained it well – our team were fortunate to interview him in person –

    Also, your previous post about WordPress has convinced me to shift my long standing blogger blog (5.5 years, 3000+ posts) onto wordpress. I’ve to figure out the technical difficulties of doing so this weekend.

    Thanks for the posts.

  11. This is an amazing post. I think one of the things I like best about WordPress is that, in a round-about way, what we do as part of its accessibility team will eventually benefit what happens around the rest of the web, given WordPress’s market share and the number of websites it controls. It’s also helping me build a business, something I think I would have had a lot more trouble doing without it. Thanks for all the work you do Matt.

  12. While free software has done great things for the industry, so has proprietary software. It is often said that one’s freedom ends when it infringes on another’s. i.e. my freedom to decide how and when to distribute my software. I think a healthy software industry encompasses and encourages free software, proprietary software, and everything in between.

  13. I love this post. The philosophy behind WordPress is definitely key to its large, vibrant community and its growing market share on the web. I instantly fell in love with WordPress when I discovered and started using it going on seven years ago. WordPress is helping me build a business in web design and web solutions consulting, and has also helped me get a job. It is because I believe so much in the project and in the community at large that I co-organize the WordPress Hampton Roads Meetup and I’m working toward building a vibrant local community of users. I appreciate all you do and please keep sharing!

  14. Matt, fantastic article. I came to your site to let you know that we have once again turned to WordPress to help with a community project. When we met in Campbell a couple years ago, I explained how a self-hosted WordPress site helped us organize a fundraiser relief for Japan in a matter of a few short weeks.

    Now, we are building a playground in an area where 35% of the kids are in households with poverty-level income. WordPress has been instrumental in organizing and communicating to the community at large, as we move through our tight time schedule. After the build, this site will be a centerpiece to keep the community organized.

    Thanks Matt and the incredible WordPress community for everything you have collectively done to help so many people.

  15. Thanks Matt it’s a great post, I love many of the remarks you’ve mentioned, yet I think the most important point for people who work with WordPress is to realize that before any code and prior to any application WordPress is a philosophy, as you mentioned it’s not a checklist of features. The philosophy has drawn a path and a community has been established to go through the path, from time to time your fair-often remarks and signals are important reminders to the community to keep on the path.
    Now as deep as I can see there are THREE major challenges within the community,
    1. How to handle the new or self-made translations of GPL or other sneaky moves when it comes to WordPress products, I know, to keep everything in order a huge amount of time and resources are invested ( such as what Mika explains about handling copyrights issues for launching the Font Awesome plugin But my concerns are how the community may help to meet the new challenges.

    2. The William Gibson quote “The future is already here it’s just not very evenly distributed.” really make sense. Last few weeks there was a series of blog posts addressing women and WordPress, The initial discussion started with a post by Jay Mylo comparing participation of women in WordCamps in 2012 and 2013. Without any hassle or doubt I insist that participation of women in any field including WordPress and WordCamps is an essential value. I did a small research on stats of the WordCamps, and in 2013 there were 61 WordCamps, 32 of them in US while share of US in visits is 26%, and only 14.6% of WordPress FB fans are from US. When it comes to women in US, both & receive a fair amount of female visitors, and I guess the number of female visitors in WordCamps central and WP.TV is higher than male visitors. I don’t mean we should stop encouraging women for getting more involved in WordPress, and I also don’t mean higher number of WordCamps in US is not fair. But I think we need to at least acknowledge much deeper issues in other countries. Indonesia for example has 9.8% of WP FB fans and 2.4% of visitors, India also has 9.8% of WP FB fans and 8% of visitors. Indonesia had only one and India only two WordCamps in 2013. I’m sure you have access to much more insights yet in this spreadsheet find sats related to the thirty most visiting countries for along with the number of FB fans and number of WordCamps: and you know it’s not only the WordCamps, there are many other barriers and limitations. There are Government suppressions in some cases, lack of financial services, non or limited specialized tech media, no funding, no angel investors, no VC of any kind, localization and language barriers, poverty and lack of minimum financial resources for even learning or providing the necessary resources, even a small hosting cost might stop some developers from launching their projects, Obviously many of these issues can’t or shouldn’t be solved by the community, but it’s a great start if we acknowledge them.

    3. Education, I believe education is what the community needs more and no proper solution or plan is provided yet. The resources in are useful, but there are no organized guidelines for non-tech people, and I think many of the users are non-tech and many more beginners are joining. On one hand it’s an advantage that someone with a very poor tech knowledge can launch a WP site but it’s a vulnerability. You see how WordPress suffered from bad publicity over security issues. I’m not a security expert, but I tried to understand the issue by observing the whole ecosystem, the major issue with the security of WordPress is not the software, it is uneducated users and poor knowledge. Here is a good point and bad point, The good point is that any one can launch a WordPress install within that famous 5 minute 🙂 but to maintain the site securely the person at least needs a set of skills and information that can be thought in 2 hours. In addition to usability benefits a proper education can transform the economy of the community to a higher level. It creates revenue for the current experts and helps the future experts to get jobs easier. There are many other benefits but since this comment is already too long I better stop here. Thanks again for your great remarks and excuse me for taking lots of your precious space here.

  16. Thank you Matt, for explaining so well the whole idea and philosophy of open source. I startet doing websites when all CMS were sooooo expensive and only reachable for bigger companies. And now I find it so important to share this concept of open source and the idea of all of us geeks helping each other. I am 45 and have a teenage son – poor guy has to listen to his moms lectures on the marvel of the online communities and the democratization of the web – brought on by open source.

    I guess the numbers you mention says it all, but here it is from a WP-creatrice “thank you, you really made a difference”!

  17. This is one of the best articulated essays I have read about OSS. The application of four freedoms and open-source philosophy in Industries apart software is really awesome, and so surprisingly true.

    “When you apply them to medicine, you get the Open Genomics Engine, which is accelerating cancer research and bringing us closer to personalized treatment. When you apply them to companies, you get radically geographically distributed, results-based organizations like Automattic. When you apply them to events you get TEDx, Barcamp, and WordCamp. When you apply them to knowledge, you get Wikipedia.”

    I makes a lot of economic sense for entrepreneurs and traditional industry alike to adopt these principles of freedom in the way they do business.