Free and Software – definitions.
The fact that the word free in english has more than one meaning makes a preliminary explanation of what ‘free software’ means necessary.
The ‘free’ in free software refers to freedom more than to price (Winstanley, 2003). The Free Software Foundation, founded by Richard Stallman in 1985, refers to four freedoms: freedom to use, to distribute, to examine, and to modify the software. That is the ‘trade mark’, as there are other programs that are freely available, but are not free to examine and modify.
As for software, it is a bulk of instructions that make the computer work. Those instructions need to be written in a programming language. The source code of a program is the underlying programming instructions, the blue print of the software. (Canarias 2004, Moody 2001)
Free software is that for which the source code is openly available. Hence the new term, less equivocal, open source. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded to make Free Software compatible with business people’s thinking, and the word “freedom” has been considered harmful for that purpose (Richardson 2001).
In the 60s and 70s, computer programs and their source codes, like any other scientific method or formula, circulated freely in investigation laboratories. Programmers, or hackers as they were commonly known, improved the software, and companies could incorporate the improvements into update versions for the commercial marketplace (Canarias 2004).
Hackers exchanged the sources, but no one spoke of free software because there was no restriction in this aspect. Great part of what is nowadays Internet emanated of this epoch and this form of co-operation.
In the 80s, with the arrival of the personal computers, software development businesses began to emerge and they began to release their software products only in their binary form, not giving the code source, thus hiding their programming techniques from the competence (Canarias 2004).
In these circumstances appeared, in the year 84, the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, prompted by Richard Stallman, who wanted to create programs available for free. This was simply not possible in a corporate environment. So he quit his job and set off to create a unix-like operative system from scratch that could be shared freely (Canarias 2004 & Moody 2001).
When the new system was available for release, he created a legal license to preserve the freedoms inherent to his operative system and the software.
The GPL. All rights reversed.
The GPL is based on the concept of sharing your work away instead of making it your property and making every one pay you in order to use it (Canarias 2004). It was concieved to counteract the corporate interests and software secrecy overtaking the computer industry in the 80s (Dafermos 2004, Moddy 2001, Williams 2002).
Other licenses with the same “copyleft” (as opposed to “copyright”) spirit have appeared, for instance Creative Commons. These are ideologically somewhere in the middle between copy right and copy left. They are not ‘all rights reserved’ or ‘all right reversed’. They are ‘some rights reserved’ (Indymedia Canarias 2004, Chroome 2003.) See: http://creativecommons.org
The GNU Project and its license not only meant to produce a free alternative to an existing corporate operating system, but it attempted to re-create an open community whose ideals, norms and ethics would be cut off from corporate agendas (Dafermos 2004).
They propose an alternative economic model: free software is no object of exchange, and is available to whoever needs it. In this new economic model available products are not subject to a price, there is no scarcity. An exchange of valuables is no longer needed and still the provision of goods is guaranteed (Di Cosmo 1997, Goetz 2003, Oekonux 2004).
Anti capitalism in Action.
There is a so-called anti-globalisation movement with which the free software movement converges. According to Dafermos (2004), this is self evident in the widespread usage of Free/ Open Source software by tactical media activists. The Independent Media Center (IMC), also known as Indymedia, is a syndicated news network that emerged during the roar of the movement in 1999 to bypass traditional media (see www.indymedia.org).
Authors like Winstanley (2004) doubt that Free Software would lead to a feww society for itself, as it does not act on issues like general wealth-sharing.
Others like Goetz (2003) argue that the method, being proved revolutionary, is spreading to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts. Biologists, the NASA, publishing organisations, have adopted open source principles. The (Goetz 2003).
Moreover, Richard Stallman has expressed his notion that this new way of production is but one part of a broader struggle for a better society:
“(…) the more well-known and conventional areas of working for freedom and a better society are tremendously important. I wouldn’t say that free software is as important as they are… (…)
(Richard Stallman quoted in Williams 2002)
As of today, the open source movement is a real challenge to Microsoft, and, according to Moody (2001), to the entire software industry, and maybe beyond. Some of the causes for this were articulated by Roberto di Cosmo in 1997:
Software benefits from the same liability protection as a work of art. This means that you can not sue Microsoft for any damage that its software could cause. And there ‘are’ programs that can cause such damage: Debugger and Scandisk. Added this to the fact that Microsoft does not offer any customer service and that both the cost of any repairs plus the installation of the software in the computers lies on the hardware manufacturer, consumers may be tempted to purchase their computers without the software. But this is not possible.
For many years the largest pc vendors have not permitted the purchase of a computer without Microsoft software. You can’t even determine the price of the software because the prices are part of nondisclosure agreements. So, even if you are goin to de-install it, you have to pay for it.
Alternative: freely accessible software.
Instead of a proprietary system that crashes very often, changes version all the time and for no reason, and for which the source code is not available, we can select a freely accessible, open and stable system.
It is also preferable to rely on software that comes with source code and documentation, is constantly verified and updated by a technologically competent community, and can be adapted to every one’s needs at little cost.
Free Software is, steadily and surely, changing the way Information Technology operates, with implications that were unimaginable only a few years ago.
The fact that windows users can now use Free Software programs in their machines without having to format their hard drives is making the numbers of Free Software users soar.
Linux commands a growing share of the server market, but the free software movement is not only about the operative system but of all sorts of software. Altogether, more than 65,000 collaborative software projects click along at Sourceforge.net, a clearing house for the open source community. (Goetz 2003).
The success of GNU/Linux is not going unnoticed to giant software corporations. In the light of the GNU licenses, their secretive philosophy seems obsolete. For a start, why would people pay for a certain piece of software if another certain piece of software has the same functions and is available at no cost?
Contrary to capitalist logic, what companies are facing is not powerful competitors taking their business away, but a bunch of [thousands of] hackers ignoring their imposed rules and eroding their empire as if by accident. Big corporations are learning to see this movement as the true end for software-for-money business. And they are taking action, each in different ways.
SCO is suing companies that use Free Software components, because those components use bits of programming that once belonged to Unix, which now belongs to SCO (Reuters 2004, Delio 2004). Unix having been born within a culture of freedom of software too taken for granted to need a name, the case consists a good example of corporate illogics.
Google is simply using free software software and servers (O’Gara 2003), IBM is investing in GNU/Linux and Hollywood special effects specialists are turning to Free Software too (Hispalinux).
But what’s amazing about Linux isn’t its success in the market. Yes, there is joy when a new piece of software is completed, or when the community learns of a University somewhere in the world that has installed Linux in all its computers. But the revolution is in the method, not the result (Goetz 2003). People learn to interact with each other in a non hierarchical environment, decisions are taken by consensus. Leaders are respected because of their merit, their knowledge, the work they or a combination of all, not because they have been elected.
It is true that, as Winstanlty states, Free Software does nothing to change other aspects of society. In fact, it suffers from inequalities of the society in which it lives. In a speeches given by Stallman in the 90s, the average gender ratio in the public was roughly 15 males to 1 female (Williams 2002).
Gender and all other equalities will need to come through other structural changes. Free Software is doing its bit in showing that another way of social relationships is possible. Most probably, the people who are already dedicating most of their their free time to create a new society are using Free Software as part of their daily struggle.
Chroome, C. (2003). mail posted to a linux email list. http://springnight.burngreave.net/pipermail/aktivix/2003-October/000055.html
Dafermos, G. N. (2004). Global Pessimists or Global Optimists. How the Free/Open Source Software Community responds to the Global Pessimists and the Counter-Globalisation Movement. Accessed on: http://radio.weblogs.com/0117128/oekonux/free_software_and_radical_multitude.html; last revision 3/8/2004).
Delio, M. (2004). Wired. http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,62544,00.html/wn_ascii
Di Cosmo, R. (1997). CyberSnare. http://gnuwin.epfl.ch/articles/en/cybersnare/index.html
Goetz, T. (2003) Open Source Everywhere. Wired magazine, Issue 11.11; Nov 2003 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.11/opensource.html. Accessed 15 March 2004
Indymedia Canarias. ¿Qué es el software libre? http://canarias.devel.indypgh.org/mod/info/display/software_libre/index.php. Accessed 15th March 2004.
Moody, G. (2001) Rebel code. Linux and the open source revolution. Allen Lane. The Penguin Press.London.
oekonux. Title: free software. From oekonux, the Economy and Free Software forum. Http://en.wiki.oekonux.org.uk/Free_software#free_software_as_an_economic_model. Last Changed: 20.10.03. Accessed 25 feb 2004.
O’Gara, M. (2003). Source Claims SCO Will Sue Google. Linux World. http://www.linuxworld.com/story/38045.htm
Portefield, K.W. Information wants to be Valuable: A report from the First O’Reilly Perl Conference. What would happen without free software. The Twilight Zone. http://www.netaction.org/articles/freesoft.html. Accessed on 15th March 2004.
Reuters 2004, News Service http://www.forbes.com/markets/bonds/newswire/2004/01/09/rtr1205268.html
Richardson, J. (2001) Free Software and GPL Society. Interview of Stefan Merten of Oekonux. November, 2001. http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors0/mertentext.html
Williams, S. (2002) Free as in Freedom. Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software. O’Reilly Online Catalog. Published under the GPL at: http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/
Winstanley, A (2003): The Free Software Movement – Anarchism in Action. Indymedia UK.http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2003/12/283113.html, seen on 15 March 2004.