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Why software should be free

In this article I try to explain to non-programmers why software should be free, why you should avoid proprietary software, why your organization should choose Linux rather than Windows or OS X as the operating system on your computers.

I also try to explain why this choice is currently not the mainstream and why you should nevertheless consider it.

Abstract

Software should be free because the more your everyday life depends on computers, the more it is important to ask who controls these computers. Proprietary software causes its users to depend on the software owner regarding decisions like when it makes sense to innovate or how to implement security controls.

Software should be free because it is a form of common knowledge and of published content. See A just salary for authors and distributors.

Software should be free because proprietary software is a collective sin. It won’t lead to a sustainable modern human civilization. This belief is neither new nor naive. There is a growing list of organizations devoted to Free Software [1]. Many developers feel that free software is fundamentally better than proprietary software [2]. Public administrations are increasingly aware of the important strategic advantages that only Free Software can give. See Free Software in public administrations below.

Free Software in public administrations

The Public money public code campaign explains why Free Software is important for public administrations: “Software created using taxpayers’ money should be released as Free Software. We want legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available under a Free and Open Source Software licence. If it is public money, it should be public code as well. Code paid by the people should be available to the people!”

The European Union is more diplomatic regarding proprietary software by using the neutral term Open-source software (OSS). The term Free Software can indeed cause allergic reactions if you don’t fully agree with the Free Software Foundation and their chairman Richard Stallman. But their Guidelines for creating sustainable open source communities show the importance of Free Software after removing the polemic parts. Some excerpts:

Public administrations should not merely reuse OSS (i.e. be consumers) but rather be active members and contributors to the communities that exist around this software.

The sustainability of OSS communities is not a one-off investment. Once you either successfully join or launch an OSS community, it is important for your public administration and your steering committee to keep nurturing and growing the community behind your software.

In the long run, your community’s sustainability will rely on the following key factors: a clear governance structure, the vibrancy and health of the community, continuous commitment of the public administration’s political hierarchy to the project, sustainable funding, and the maturity of your software.

Transparency is at the heart of successful open source communities. For this reason, as your community evolves and grows over time, its governance should remain clear and transparent. This will help you to attract new members, make it easier to promote your software, and ensure the commitment of key community contributors.

Sustainably Free Software

The question with Free Software is: when a software product belongs to everybody, who is going to care for it?

While Free Software gains popularity because of its technical and strategical advantages, its administrative and commercial challenges become more visible. Having the source code free and open is not enough. A software product is more than its source code, it also consists of developer resources, user documentation, training material, configuration files, installation tools, promotional documentation and a legal infrastructure.

Managing and controlling all these things for a software product with more than 25 users is more work than a single person can reasonably do. There will be a community around the product, which is more than the developers who write the source code.

The legal entity that controls the community of a software product is what I call the product carrier. And a product carrier, like every organization, needs a business model.

As long as that business model is based on the idea of increasing the profit of a limited group of humans (the owners or shareholders), we will remain in the vicious circle that leads to vendor lock-in or hijacking. A permissive Free Software license leaves the door open to such endeavour. An example is explained in 2021-12-12 Why I no longer use the MIT license for new projects

Even the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL), probably the most protective Free Software license there is, cannot fully protect a software product from getting hijacked. An example is what’s currently happening with WebKit Internet browsers (explained e.g. in 2021-11-28, Bozhidar Batsov, Firefox is the Only Alternative)

If we want Free Software to be sustainably free, we must consider the whole product as a common good. And we must govern the product as such. We must realize that software development is a res publica, a common issue, and as such needs to be governed in a transparent and democratic way. It becomes a public infrastructure, similar to roads, railways, water distribution systems, school buildings. That’s why Free Software belongs to the competence of public authorities.

Footnotes

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