Free Software versus Proprietary Software

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Maarten Vanheuverswyn:

"Free software represents a fundamental break with the closed model. You still get a licence to the software but the licence is intended to empower the users of the software. You are explicitly entitled to make copies (and encouraged to do so) and the software product itself is not seen as a private asset but as a public resource.

The term "free software" suggests a free lunch. One may think this simply means that you don't have to pay for the software. In most cases that is true, but not always. In this context "free" corresponds to the meaning of the French term libre, so it does not necessarily mean gratis. It is about freedom, not price. Or as free software advocates like to put it: free as in free speech, not as in free beer. It is a matter of the users' freedom to use, share, study and improve the software.

Such freedom is in stark contrast to how big business distributes and uses software. For these companies, control over software means control over its source code. Computer programmes are written in a human-readable language (source code), which is translated into the machine language format the computer executes. Machine language is much harder for people to understand and, by implication, modify. By keeping the source code secret, software companies are able to exercise control of how their programmes are used and what functions they can offer. An increasing trend is to use this control to ensure that their intellectual property is preserved. Free software is the polar opposite in which the licence is used to protect the freedom of the end users.

This freedom provides huge benefits to society. Access to source code means that the underlying functionality of software can be inspected, and therefore trusted, and also modified and improved. Flaws in the software can be more easily found and fixed in the interests of all and for the benefit of all. Parts of the source code can be shared among programmers and re-used in other related or new projects. This collaboration encourages sharing human knowledge and saves countless hours of labour in software development as everything only needs to be invented once. The freedom to run and distribute software to whoever needs it, means that all of society benefits, in many cases at no extra cost.

In order to protect these freedoms, various licences have come into existence. By far the most famous one is the GPL licence, which stands for GNU General Public Licence. The GPL was written by Richard Stallman in 1989, whose goal it was to produce one licence that could be used for any free software project, thus making it possible for many projects to share code. This GPL licence quickly became the single most popular licence for free software after Linus Torvalds, the founder of the Linux operating system, adopted the licence for the Linux kernel in 1992.

The advantage of the GPL licence is that instead of copyright, it imposes a strong copyleft on the software licensed under it. Basically this means that all modified versions of the software must in turn be licensed under the GPL. A piece of software that uses GPL code in turn has got to make its source code available for others. The copyleft thus uses copyright law to accomplish the opposite of its usual purpose: instead of imposing restrictions, it grants rights to other people, in a way that ensures the rights cannot subsequently be taken away.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer once referred to the GPL as "a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches." Ballmer here, of course, wants to discredit the whole open source movement by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. The truth is that the GPL licence "infects" only derivative works of GPLed software, that is, if as a programmer you decide to distribute your software, which you have based on an existing piece of software. We would argue that the GPL is like a benign, liberating virus that infects all software that is written under the licence in order to ensure that the source code will always remain open and can be used for the good of society. The GPL was crucial to the success of the GNU/Linux operating system, giving the programmers who contributed to it the confidence that their work would benefit the whole world and remain free, rather than being exploited by software companies that would not have to give anything back to the community.

Conversely, the closed software approach embodies all the faults and massive inefficiencies of capitalism, where the primary goal is not serving the interests of society, nor innovating, nor improving or fixing software - all those interests come a far second to the primary goal of generating profits. Developing, improving and distributing software takes place only where big profits can be made. Flaws in Microsoft Windows only supply Microsoft with yet more leverage to restrict software, by obliging people to have a licensed copy in order to get access to essential security updates.

Proprietary software can neither be studied nor modified by the public and gives software companies the power to maintain big monopolies and making life difficult for their competitors. This stifles advances in technology - Microsoft has been many times the monopoliser but rarely the innovator. When the fruits of the labour of developers under private companies are restricted, and their source code kept a secret, the labour power of society is squandered wastefully as other developers are forced to start from scratch if they want to enter the software market. The task of protecting source code and concealing knowledge has become a big industry, yet these efforts are totally superfluous to free software, where human knowledge and the produce of human labour is used to the advantage all of society.

The collaborative process of free software has already proven its success by the millions of people involved and the hundreds of thousands of open source projects that have been produced, including spectacular success stories such as the Apache web server, which serves 50% of the Internet, and OpenOffice and Mozilla Firefox, which have tens of millions of users worldwide." (