What is free software?

Vocabulary

The “free” in our context does not mean “free of costs” but “free of bondage”. Free software is when users have the freedom to run it, to see the source code, to modify it, and to distribute both the original software and the adapted versions.

Free software is not to be confused with Open-source software (software with its source code publicly available) or with Freeware (software with no monetary cost).

It’s not about short-term freedom

Richard Stallman’s Free Software Definition states that users of free software get the freedom to look at source code, to change it and to share their modifications.

The problem with this formulation is that normal software users don’t want that freedom. Normal users want to be able to phone their friend and ask “How do you do when you want to format this document in two columns instead of one?” And they want well-written documentation and a series of books about their software so that they can look up themselves how to solve their problems. That’s the kind of freedom they want. And that’s the kind of freedom they are more likely to get when they use wide-spread software products owned by some international worldwide corporation.

When we define freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” 4, then there is no need for free software because proprietary software does not violate this freedom more often than free software.

So free software isn’t about this kind of freedom.

But freedom also means “absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government” or “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved”. 5 These meanings are more difficult to grasp because they are less related to our everyday activities.

Think for example about a woman who enjoys wearing clothes which make her more attractive to men. There are probably not many such women in countries like Afghanistan. Most women in Afghanistan probably can’t even imagine that they are missing some part of life’s joys. If you asked one of them whether she would like to wear western clothes, you will probably get a negative answer. So they are free, aren’t they?

If you agree that women in Afghanistan are free, then proprietary software is for you. Don’t read on.

It’s not about money

A text titled “Unavoidable Ethical Questions About Open Source” 2 published by the Santa Clara Univerity in Silicon Valley expresses common arguments against free software. The text is formulated as a series of “ethical” questions. I perceive these questions as “wrong” because they are drifting away from the important point. However we need to answer such questions, so here they are, together with my answers:

  • Is human knowledge advanced by full and free access to all information, allowing engineers and developers to correct and improve on already existing systems? – Answer: Yes. “[T]he free sharing of useful information benefits the human community. This sounds so obvious as to not merit discussion, but when this point is applied to real life, it seems to stir up a lot of controversy.” 1

  • Or does a lack of strong protection for IP discourage innovation by removing the financial incentive for developing it? – Answer: Innovation is done by creative humans who act primarily because they love their work and not because they get money for it. Many modern slaves do some job just because they are getting money in return of the lifetime and energy they spend for working on some project which is not their’s. These are not usually the ones who bring innovation.

  • Classically, free speech is understood as a right, but is this a useful way to think about open source software? Is there anything in the nature of software that would give people a right to it in the same way that we have a right to speech? – Writing software is substantially the same activity as writing a prosa text. Prohibiting to share software is like prohibiting to share texts. Proprietary software violates the basic human right for free speech.

  • Is it fair to expect software developers to create and distribute their intellectual product without restrictions while we do not expect the same from other inventors or producers? – Free software does not mean voluntary work. There are many people who earn their living for writing free software. The free software industry shows that proprietary licensing is not the only way of making money using software amd that there are better methods to pay software developers for their work.

  • The Vatican document “Ethics in Internet” argues that “use of the new information technology… needs to be informed and guided by a resolute commitment to the practice of solidarity in the service of the common good.” Flowing from this view, the document says that “cyberspace ought to be a resource of comprehensive information and services available without charge to all, and in a wide range of languages. The winner in this process will be humanity as a whole and not just a wealthy elite that controls science, technology, and the planet’s resources.” Is this view applicable to software as well? – Answer: Yes. The Vatican’s document takes a beautifully clear position against proprietary software. Software is stored knowledge about how a given job can be done. This is information. It is comprehensive only in the source code form.

  • (…) But to others, “sharing” software is like having to consent to its theft because the sharer is giving away someone’s work product, which is the result of sweat and ingenuity and which has monetary value, as well. Will open source inculcate the virtues of friends or of thieves? – Answer: Yes, using proprietary software without permission is theft. Don’t do that. But it is “theft” only because the copyright holder refuses to share. Using free software is never theft because the author has publicly given their permission to share their work. Note that the “monetary value” is usually not owned by those who gave their “sweat and ingenuity”.

While my above answers –hopefully– give satisfying answers to the given arguments 3, all these thoughts are rather misleading regarding to our original question about why software must be free. Free software is definitively not about money, neither about the price of the product nor about the wage of the author.

It is about power

Free software is not about money and not about comfortability, it is about power. The real issue with proprietary software is that its copyright holder tries to gain power over its users. Non-free software makes the users surrender control over their computing to someone else.6

Vendors of proprietary software are skillful in finding ever and ever new tricks and whole technologies whose ultimate goal is to bind you to their product (vendor lock-in). They hide this fact more or less successfully, but it is a necessary part of the game.

Footnotes

1

Cody Cook: Open Source Jesus

2

Unavoidable Ethical Questions About Open Source

3

It is funny that catholic monks seem to be more concerned about money than about anything else.

4

First meaning of freedom according to Oxford dictionary

5

See most other meanings of freedom according to Oxford dictionary

6

Angela Watercutter in Why Free Software Is More Important Now Than Ever Before (wired.com 2013-09-28)