Must all software, be free, or all proprietary?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

One of the main themes of this book is that there is a strict relationship between software and your civil rights. As we already said, “technology is legislation”. We have already seen that we all pay a much higher price than we would ever have suspected for the software used around us.

The answer to the title of this chapter, however, also depends on the kind of software and hardware involved. Keeping a word processor, or at least its file format, Free as in Freedom is a must. The same may be said for almost all the formats and protocols used to communicate through general purpose computers. Keeping closed the software inside a special, single-purpose device, like a cell phone, may have less harmful consequences for society instead. In some cases, as with wireless devices, it may be better not to disclose, or keep it illegal to modify the software controlling them. Hacking the software inside a radio transmitter to increase its transmitting power, so that it can reach your neighbor’s computer to play together, may be harmful for the health of other people or interfere with other radio devices that they own.

Should commercial software die?

Free Software doesn’t at all mean promoting software piracy and/or imposing any restriction on market economy. Whoever creates software (or any other kind of creative work, for that matter: books, music, video..) is fully entitled to dictate any price and/or restriction on its use within the bounds allowed by law. Not paying the required price and/or violating the license terms is illegal, and must be prosecuted.

This said, Free Software is an excellent thing for all the reasons listed in the previous chapter. Does this mean that the current model of commercial software, with license fees for every copy of the program is wrong and should be abandoned? Does this mean say goodbye the market economy, at least in software, or that software “piracy” should be institutionalized?

Many people, starting from the members of the Free Software Foundation, believe that all software and digital technologies should be Free (as in Freedom of speech, regardless of their price). That could certainly be a good thing, which would also change the nature and geographical distribution of many software related jobs, not necessarily their number.

At the same time, the availability and widespread usage of really open technologies is just a decisive, irreplaceable instrument for achieving much more important goals. As the many examples in this book prove, a world where digital technologies are really open and correctly regulated is a world with more freedom and personal or business opportunities for everybody, not just programmers.

Computers and the Internet are becoming essential to practice freedom of speech: asking for open and affordable communications technologies and fair laws means asking for a world where everybody who can speak online can do so, at the smallest possible cost, and all other human beings can freely choose, at the same cost, to listen at the same time.

In this context, a free software market is needed and good, but only when it is actually free and open, i.e. not spoiled by any monopoly. What matters is to make competition, profit and innovation possible without forcing anybody to use any specific program, even if it’s Free Software, that is, again, to use non-proprietary formats and protocols. In such an environment, Free and proprietary software could coexist, to each other’s advantage and without real harm to society.

Which Free Software is the most needed?

Software-wise, the most practical and freedom-loving way to a better world is to make sure that everybody should have the freedom to use whatever software he or she wants, and to ignore what software others are using. Trying to force people to use any kind of software is wrong. Besides, in the real world, what really restricts people’s freedom are file formats. Breaking such chains for good might not even require any action or (self) training effort from most end users, at least in Public Administrations, which is where a lot of our money is spent. As far as office documents are concerned, for example, it could be enough to just add some component capable of supporting OpenDocument to their office software, if it is still missing, and configure the program so that, by default, they only save documents in that format.

This would be great for people (no need to buy a new computer to read a document issued by their Public Administration) and for all computer users, because in this way they arrive, without effort, at the point where they can really freely decide whether or not to keep paying for the next version (and nobody suffers from their decision).

Such software components already exist, even if they are still being polished. What remains is to make it mandatory that such components are used, that is to demand that only proper file formats like OpenDocument are used when communicating with Public Administrations, or for archiving all public documents.