What is "Free Software”? Is it legal?


(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)

You may have heard of something called “Free as in Freedom Software” which is causing a lot of noise among ICT professionals. Why all this fuss on software given away? Can it be any good?

Free Software is a movement officially born in the early eighties in the USA. The word “Free” in “Free Software” is usually explained as “Free as in free speech, not as in free beer”. In general terms, the definition applies to any software on which the author has not forbidden changes or redistribution by default. In other words, the author may still make a living by directly selling or supporting the software, but each copy can be modified and/or installed many times by the end users, and redistributed too, under the same conditions, without paying any license fee. The reasons include mutual support, efficient development of better software and facilitating the sharing of knowledge.

This model doesn’t work just for toy programs. Many of the extremely stable tools and protocols that keep banks, military bases and the whole Internet running today have been created in this way, and are still available at no charge. These tools were originally developed by people and institutions who made a living in some other way, and who just needed to exchange data or knowledge amongst themselves.

The fact that nobody ever needed to sell these programs for a living is exactly the reason why they are so stable and powerful. They were never loaded with useless frills just to impress Wall Street, and nobody ever needed to put together too many bogus versions, just to release something, anything, ahead of competitors. This is also the same reason why this kind of software, and the communities around it, often appear less user friendly and more limited to specialists.

This is not a stupid question. Even such an apparently obvious freedom is far from being granted these days. The answer is that, within the limits of copyright, patent and trademark laws, what matters is the will of the software author, which is expressed in the license which comes with the software itself. If a software program is licensed under the terms of the General Public License of the Free Software Foundation or another license with the same or similar spirit, taking, modifying and redistributing it is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Is it bad for my country, or the economy?

The Internet and many, many fundamental concepts of computing have been around, always freely available, for much longer than advertising would like you to know. It is not only possible, but fully legal and quite often better-performing and profitable to use digital technologies which the mainstream media still often dismiss as toys, useless eccentricities or almost illegal tools.

A common argument against more open technologies is that they stop innovation, because in the future they may make it much harder to become the richest person in the world by only working in the software field. This would destroy any incentive to innovate and punish initiative: “What if some student here were a potential software mogul waiting to rightly become a millionaire? Would we be right in stealing his or her opportunities, to say that everybody could copy his or her software?”

This is the wrong way to look at the problem. First of all, there is no real need to force anybody to give away his or her work. Anybody can license his own creative work in any way he or she sees fit, as long as the relevant laws are respected. In the second place, this attitude is exactly what is closing the road ahead to many excellent programmers. It is exactly because the first comers were able to lock all the gates behind them that it has been necessary to start antitrust investigations, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another false belief is that the Free Software philosophy, or at least its followers, are in some way”communist”, i.e that adopting such a philosophy is some anti-historical attack on merit, free markets and private propriety. The truth is that really open communication technologies are an idea, first at the ethical and then at the purely practical and economic level, just too good to be ignored or boycotted. They are not again merit, initiative or profit, only against monopolies.

What is also true is that one “limit” of these technologies is that they demand more education and conscious thinking, but this is something which is much less of a problem than it looks as we will see in another chapter.

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