Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why Free Software Is Important

I use Linux (or GNU/Linux, if you prefer) every day.  Because of my job I use Windows and Mac OS most days as well.  In a perfect world, would I be able to exclusively work with Free software without changing jobs?  

I think a lot of people who use Linux and other Free Software don't really grasp its importance.  They appreciate their freedom in choosing a Linux distribution and then customizing it to their heart's content.  Developers also enjoy access to all of the code, but even for ordinary users isn't there more to it?  The reason I regret using Windows and Mac OS in my job is not just because I like Linux or how many versions of it I get to choose from.  It is because all the proprietary software in my workplace fundamentally compromises my freedom and the freedom of everybody I work with.

I know that sounds hyperbolic but it isn't.  Proprietary software like Windows, by its very nature, artificially limits what you can do with a computer.  Regardless of whether this is a King Midas[1] matter (Is all proprietary software always bad?[2]) I think it is worth thinking about why Free Software is not only good, but important.  

If you have read my piece on why I adopted Linux and Ardour for music production or heard my talk at Ohio Linux Fest 2012 you know that I did not switch based on principal.  I switched because Apple, Microsoft, Ableton and other technology companies were wasting my time, time I wanted to use for making music.  I was struggling to install and run software I had paid for, on hardware I had paid for because deliberate restrictions and obstacles were built into the software to limit my use of it.  

I won't fully reiterate the Four Freedoms that define Free Software here, but they boil down to this: software is Free if the user can use it for any purpose, examine it, copy it, change it and share it (with or without changes).  These things affect our everyday use of computers.  Under normal circumstances they won't govern whether or not you can send a given e-mail message, but once something goes wrong they certainly can.  

Blackberry smart phones are a good example.  They have a good user interface and they have been popular with certain businesses since before most people knew what a smart phone was.  Blackberry recently "broke up" with Google.  Their phones no-longer easily work with Google's calendar and email systems[3].  I don't know the whole story behind the change but I feel safe saying that a solution would be more likely if all the software in question were free and open.  Then any developer capable of fixing it would have all of the information to do so.

This specific problem with Blackberry and Google has cost my department a great deal of time in recent months.  My employer has Google Apps For Education (with heavy email and calendar use) and a number of Blackberry users.  While there are ways to make Blackberrys work none of them are ideal and they all require an additional password (Blackberry ID) for our Blackberry users.  Add to this that the only time they need that password is when they change their university e-mail/Google Apps password and you can see where this is going.  Openness would solve everything.

That's two examples.  Free software allows me to run my music production software on any computer I can make it work with and do whatever I want with it once it is installed.  This is unlike educational versions of some software where you are not allowed to sell what you create with it; that requires a different, more expensive license[4].  Were Blackberry's software free and open someone could create a better way to interface Blackberry smart phones with Google services.  In all likelihood Google would simply continue updating and supporting the previous solution.

Another thing to think about is the problem of patent trolls.[5]  Even if you don't follow these things, you may know about the court case between online retailer New Egg and semi-fictional[5] technology firm Soverian Software.  Soverian claimed to own a patent on electronic shopping carts for online stores.  If you know how patents are supposed to work you can probably think of a few reasons that this is an unreasonable claim to start with.  That didn't stop Soverian from demanding compensation from all sorts of online retailers. New Egg decided to fight them and eventually won.  Unfortunately, this happened after a lot of time had been wasted and tremendous amounts of money had changed hands.  Read this ArsTechnica article for the full story.

Many supporters of Free Software are also categorically against patenting software.  Along with various arguments about whether or not software patents should be legal in the first place, there is the belief that the copyright system is sufficient for software.  I see two different ways this debate connects Free Software to the patent troll problem.  First, what if along with making all software Free we also did away with software patents?  This kind of sweeping reform is very unlikely, but the future of software patents is in flux.  If software patents went away (perhaps along with all business process patents) patent trolls would be restricted to abusing the system with claims to physical inventions.

Any electronic shopping cart that existed before the one to be patented would be considered prior art [definition][PTO document] and thus invalidate the patent.  The advantage of the pre-existing shopping cart being Free and open is that it would be easier and more likely to be proven to be prior art.  One reason is that really good Free software tends to proliferate, thus making itself visible.  Also, by definition Free Software can not be a trade secret because the source code must be made publicly available.  Trade secrets typically can not be used in a prior art claim, while any otherwise patentable idea that has been implemented in Free Software can be.  Deploying an electronic shopping cart for public use also isn't compatible with keeping a trade secret.  However, it could be a trade secret while in development, in internal use, being held back for use in a future product or marketed privately to prospective customers.

Free Software isn't that answer to all of our problems.  You can see from just these examples that it has a lot of reach.  It is important.


[1] "It is good that some things are gold.  It would not be good if everything were gold."  Other morals ("greed is bad,"  "be careful what you wish for") are associated with the classic King Midas fable but I think this one is more profound.  I think I first heard this moral in a talk by Stephen Carter.  I don't remember it from when I was a kid.

[2] I'm not going to address this question for multiple reasons.  The most important being that absolutes tend to also be dead ends.

[3] Unless you work for a company with a Blackberry Enterprise Server.

[4] This was the case with a copy of Logic Express I used to use.  Logic Express and Logic Studio were discontinued in 2011 when Apple lowered the price of Logic Pro.

[5] There are also copyright and trademark trolls.  The pattern is basically the same.

[6] Their web site is finally down.  That's probably good.

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