Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why Free Software Matters

In law school, I didn't focus my program based on IP or intellectual property law.  Many of my friends who had backgrounds in the sciences and engineering chose to do so and some of them are now patent attorneys.  Nevertheless, the subject does interest me.  Recently I've been learning more about the Free Software Foundation, run by Richard M. Stallman, founder of the GNU free software license, copyleft, and one of the founding fathers of the GNU/Linux operating system.  The areas of copyright, patent and trademark law are all critically important in the Information Age, because more and more of the economy is based on knowledge, not manufactured goods.  This means the laws governing how we regulate these areas will greatly affect human well being.  Instead of some arcane subject that has no relevance to non-geeks, this is an area that fundamentally affects who we are as citizens, creators, consumers, and workers.

Stallman is the founder of the GNU GPL license, which protects the freedom of the user of software against unfair power being exerted by the authors of software.  Usually, this means large corporations with large concentrations of wealth--i.e. Apple and Microsoft.

Here is the definition of free software coming from the Free Software Foundation:

When users don't control the program, the program controls the users. The developer controls the program, and through it controls the users. This nonfree or “proprietary” program is therefore an instrument of unjust power.
Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.
A program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:
  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Stallman makes the argument that as the world becomes more digitized, we become more and more dependent upon our machines.  When those machines are locked down by the makers of those machines, we become more dependent upon the makers.  This reduces our freedom.  An analogy he makes is that of a recipe for great soup.  What if a chef made a terrific soup, and you wished to make your own.  But when you ask him for the recipe, he refuses to share it.  Instead, he says "I will make the soup any way you want it, but it will cost you $50,000."  After all, he does have a monopoly over how the soup is made (this is what copyright does).  "Maybe I will get to making the soup the way you want it in two years.  I have a convention to cater so I may or may not get around to it."  You would think this is absurd.  Yet locked down software code creates a black box that makes altering the software impossible.  This alienates you from the devices which affect an increasing share of your life.  For tablet and cell phone users, this is no small power.

One of Stallman's biggest concerns is the erosion of traditional freedoms at the hands of technology by so called DRM or "digital restrictions management" technologies.  E-books are a great example of this.  A normal book cannot be locked out.  You are free to share it with a friend, leave it to your heirs, sell it, or keep it indefinitely.  Yet places like Amazon and Apple sell you e-books with DRM that limits all of these freedoms.  In fact, a few years ago, Amazon reached out to the owners of the Orwellian novel "1984" and took the title off their Kindles after there was a Canadian copyright dispute.  How ironic.  

Calling sharing "pirating" and equating it with theft is something that erodes the civility of a society.  "Piracy", says Stallman, involves the violent raiding of ships at sea and the murdering of the crew.  Equating this with sharing is a diseased way to think.  It is immoral.  It puts you in the awkward position of either being a bad neighbor or not using a software program.  Given this dilemma, you are better off not using the software rather than being a bad neighbor.

The other issue is that the sharing of software is something that improves society.  Traditional theft involves depriving one person the use of an object to the benefit of another who does not have the right to possess that object.  But with digital goods, the sharing of software is more akin to the sharing of ideas, and shared knowledge enriches everyone at the expense of no one.  In fact, it is less efficient to arbitrarily deprive the poor of useful software that might help empower them when sharing such knowledge is virtually at no cost to the software author.

But won't people stop writing software if people share their software?  This makes the assumption that people only code because they are getting paid.  Yet, like art and running, coding is fun.  Working on projects, even for free, is rewarding in itself.  Just look at the success of the GNU/Linux operating system, which is free, open source, and created mainly by volunteers.  The same goes for Firefox, the amazing web browser, Libreoffice and Openoffice are two rivals to Microsoft Office that function beautifully.  Thunderbird is an alternative to Microsoft Outlook, and Imgburn is a DVD/Blu Ray authoring program that is much more stable and less bloated than Nero Burning ROM and other crash prone programs.  GIMP is an alternative to Photoshop that is very powerful and useful.

While there may be an initial reduction in the amount of software due to programs being free, in the long run the additional collaboration, working out of bugs, and efficiencies built into the free software model will make up the difference.  

It is important to note, that Stallman is referring to "free" to mean "free as in freedom" not as in "free beer."  Programmers can still be paid for their work.  In fact, he envisions a future where programmers are still paid to code, making customized software for private enterprise and providing support for software products.  Unlike the Soviet Union where the ability to copy software and documents was heavily restricted and sharers of software were sent to Siberia, or in the United States, where recording industry trade associations send the police in riot gear to raid the homes of teenagers for making copies of Greenday albums, the free software movement is actually more pro-capitalist because it encourages openness, freedom, and customization because the source code can be viewed and modified.  It is pro-market and pro-capitalism.  It, however, anti-mega corporation.  It causes people to become less dependent on the corporation.

This is one of the reasons why I hate Apple so much.  Apple is the embodiment of anti-free.  The products themselves are locked down so you can't even change the battery without relying on the big brother Apple to do the work for you.  You can't change the software because the source code is hidden.  On the iPhone, you can't use apps that haven't been censored by Apple.  If they don't like something, you don't even get to see it.  You don't control the programs.  The programs control you.  And Apple controls the programs.

Stallman makes the important point that to lose your freedom in the name of convenience ultimately causes the user and society overall to lose.  Having your freedom is more important than having a new shiny gadget that is being used to maximize you as an economic commodity, not as a human being.

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