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Why Free Software Can't be "free"

Crazy Ivan

Why hasn't Free Software taken off? I mean how can anyone look at the current state of the software industry, and hear the philosophical, technical, and practical promises of Free Software and not jump at the chance to revolutionize the software industry, and, with it, the very nature of computing. That is not to say that Free Software lacks dedicated adherents. It is merely to point out that they represent a tiny fraction of the total computing population. I will not attempt to rehash the entire argument here. What I intend here is to look at the key sticking points in hopes of answering the above questions. It is a question many inside the Free Software community have difficultly answering. I believe this to be because the community itself is part of the problem. Again, this is not a question of dedication but one of what might be called pragmatism. There Free Software community has become so enamored with the beauty of their ideals that they have lost sight of how to share that beauty with others.

For a detailed explanation of the nature of Free Software, you should see the Free Software Foundation. I will recap some essential point as they become salient to my argument. The biggest misunderstanding (despite numerous attempts to correct it) is the meaning of the "Free" in Free Software. It does not reference monetary cost as in "free beer", but freedom as in "free the slaves." Come to think of it, perhaps it should not be presented so much as a noun, as an imperative, a battle cry to "free software." The oppressors, of course, are the massive software corporations who insisted on provided software to the end user as a kind of black box, to just use mindlessly. Those who support the Free Software movement wish to break open the box in order to improve its function. Major software companies fear the movement for two reasons. First, they fear that such openness in software will eventually lead to monetary valueless-ness as well as philosophical freedom. The second fear I think is undervalued: The fear that Free Software would expose the flawed nature of much of commercial software, ending the de facto monopolies currently enjoyed by many companies.

Why is the nature of "Free" so misunderstood outside the Free Software community? It is largely because most Free Software is also "free." The dedicated developers are much more interested in producing quality software and in showing the promise of the movement than making a profit. While certainly commendable, in the long run, it may prove to be something of a detriment to the movement. To truly create sweeping changes across the board in the way software is produced, the method must be commercially viable. In order to be commercially viable, it must create a profit for its developers. Now, before I get a flood of hate mail pointing to a large number of Free Software projects which are charging money, let me point out that, to have an effect, it must also be visible. To be truly visible, it must appeal to the majority of mainstream users. That is people who do not use every program in the GNU toolkit, people who've never heard of Free Software, and (* braces for the collective shutter of the FS community *) people who only use Windows. What would be ideal would be if some major manufacturer of heavily used programs would release their source. If handled properly the improvements made by the hardcore FS community would trickle down to the mainstream and the benefits should become apparent to the average user.

There has been some concern about how one controls Free Software so it doesn't become "free." The simplest and most obvious solution is to design the license so that it is a violation for people to use modified source code if they do not purchase the original. This may sound absurdly inefficient, but it's exactly how the software industry has worked since nearly its inception, and it has worked fairly well. Making direct copies of software has always been easy. Even with encryption, piracy will always exist. Piracy will not become ultra-rampant just because you happen to distribute the source code along with the binaries. What digital industry (software, music, movies etc) doesn't understand is that, for the vast majority of people, if you make a product worth buying people will buy it. Most people understand that you can only get continued production of creative work if you support it. By Freeing software, you enable the creation of a superior product at no additional cost to the producer. Free Software would not kill the software industry; it will enlighten, strengthen, and transmute it. What is will kill is the control software companies exercise over our programs, our systems, and our lives. A strong community of dedicated developers will establish a kind of symbiosis with them working toward mutual benefit. That is, if they get their act together.

The goal of Free Software should not be to promote some ideologically pure notion of What Software Ought to Be. What it should do is to take those ideals and put them to use in creating better software, however that may need to be accomplished. Too often the debates in the Free Software community revolve around not which software is better, but which software is more philosophically pure. If a program does not conform to the One True License, it is regarded as "unclean." (most often, but not always, the GPL ). The GPL is not the end all and be all of Free Software. It certainly encompasses the GPL, but Free Software is a concept, not a set of commandments handed down from Stallman on high. The essential principle here is to make software more moldable by the user. Any piece of software which does that is a step in the right direction. To cling to a single concept of what Free Software must be is to adhere merely to a kind of proprietary distribution which is different from the one they are fighting only in form. Free Software is after all about freedom and freedom can never be attained by supplanting one set of restrictions for another. Instead of cradling a single vision of the future, they should be experimenting. Let the users decide what models work and which models don't. That's what this is about after all: giving the user choice, control, freedom.

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