Freedom, and Software?

By Graham L. Wilson

Copyright (c) 2008-2012 Graham Wilson.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included at this link: see my profile page.

November 25, 2008

Computers are everywhere in the modern world. They regulate our lives, politics, economics and just about all else in this modern digital age. Yet, the power of computers, and who controls them, largely goes unchecked and unrecognized. The tools that control computers are called software, which are made up of commands that tell a computer's hardware what to do. Since software controls hardware, which controls so much, who controls software? That would be the software monopolies, powerful mega-corporations such as Microsoft, Apple, Intel, and formerly IBM. These companies demand certain "rights" to their software, in what they called "End User License Agreements" (EULAs). These remove other people's freedom to use, study, redistribute and modify software and its source code (the actual commands that make up software). These companies defend these practices by stating that they have a right to control what people do with their software, but is that "right" removing our society's freedom?

Computer code used to not be subject to EULAs and restrictive copyright, especially in the computer laboratories inside universities. It was a normal part of software development to share source code and allow people to use, modify, study and redistribute it as well as the compiled software, without restrictions in what is now defined as "free software" (free as in the sense of Ufree/Udom). All great works are built on top of previous great works, and therefore access to the source code helps this process, they claimed. However, in the 1980s the computer industry began to change, and companies began restricting access to their source code and programs. In an attempt to undercut the argument for source code availability, they argued that restrictions would allow them to retain more complete ownership over their products, and thus make more profit, which would go into innovation. Despite this, free software projects have continued to expand out at an accelerated rate, often faster than their "proprietary" competition, largely due to collaborative development involving millions of developers, that only works under the free software model.

Do people deserve to have access to the source code that runs their computers? A programmer working at the MIT university AI Lab named Richard M. Stallman (known as RMS) thought so, and in 1984 he began the GNU Project. Its goal was to create a complete UNIX-like operating system, and it was to be released as free software, the first real project to actively state software freedom as its goal. Corresponding to his work on the GNU Project, RMS wrote and published the philosophy behind GNU in "The GNU Manifesto", which would become the first of many essays on copyright ethics in computing and elsewhere. The GNU Project is mainly known now for the GNU/Linux operating system and its many distributions, which are a combination of the GNU Project's many operating system components (as well as lots of other seperate free software packages) and the Linux kernel, a free software operating system kernel written by Linus Torvalds of Finland (GNU/Linux, much to RMS's chagrin, is commonly shortened as just "Linux"). The project set out the framework for the free software movement, which continues to support the notion of "software freedom" (the term "open source software" is also used to describe "free software", although this is controversial and there are many other suggested alternate names. Also, the term "open source" is used as well to describe a specific software development methodology spawned from free software).

Why does GNU and the free software movement think that access to source code and the right to modify and distribute it is so important? Well, computer code is a bit like legal code. Computer code orders machines, just as legal code orders society. Due to the power the rule of law has over us in society, we demand that the laws are kept out in the open, for all to read. In the realm of computer code it is quite the opposite, we can not look at the source code of Microsoft Windows, or at the source code of Norton Anti-Virus. In this way, people are commanded by their computers, and the commands from the computers can not be read by the populace, only by the companies that release it. Also, free software supporters say, that software is not something that is to be "owned", but is a commodity to be shared, and modified when necessary. Take for example, if you have a copy of a piece of software, and a friend or family member could really use that software. Under the current proprietary model, they have to buy their own copy, while under "free software" you may just copy it and send it to them. This freedom of redistribution not only allows people to save money, but it helps the world use their computers more optimally. Though, free software does not require that the software be gratis (free of cost), software distributors may still charge for their efforts to bring the software to you. You may also charge a fee yourself when you distribute free software, even if it was not written by you – free software still allows programmers to make a living. Free software also effectively reduces the risk from software viruses and malware, since it is harder to hide a virus in software that is accessible and readable by all.

Computers currently control much of our lives, and it is likely that this will increase as the world becomes more and more digital. Currently the big software companies have a monopoly on power, except in the realm of the free software movement. These large powerful companies tell us what we can and can not do with our computers, a potentially dangerous situation. As humans in the modern digital age it is our responsibility to think about the direction that the software, and the entire computing industry , is heading. Do we want to be controlled by the companies that bring us software, or do we want to have freedom?

- Bibliography -

* "Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman". 24 Nov 2008, 14:16 UTC. 25 Nov 2008

* "Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software". 24 Nov 2008, 14:16 UTC. 25 Nov 2008

* "Free software". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Nov 2008, 14:16 UTC. 25 Nov 2008

* "Proprietary Software". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Nov 2008, 14:16 UTC. 25 Nov 2008.