Computer software copyright and patent policy may at first seem to be dull or at best tangential, in regard to social justice, for the unacquainted. We have all at one point or another used “encumbered” or “closed” software, i.e. computer programs for which we do not have legal access to the original design. But who really cares if I’ve never seen the computer code behind, say, the Microsoft Windows XP operating system? Software freedom is fundamentally an issue of control. As we allow computing and automation technologies to increasingly dominate our lives it would be wise to keep in mind who controls these systems and to what degree. Throughout the semester I intend to demonstrate the above question is more important than you may think.
The Libre/Free Software Movement is a subset of, and progenitor to, the broader Free Culture Movement. If I had time to write and create media for all aspects of that movement I would do so, but I will be focusing on software for the sake of brevity. The term “libre software” is used to make a distinction between “free as in liberty” and “free as in beer.” You may also hear the term “open-source” software used, which is again slightly different. Open-source means that the original design and programming of the software is available for anyone to view – however this does not necessarily mean you are allowed to use it. There are many software programs that are free or even open but not libre. The most common moniker used for libre software is FLOSS, or “free/libre and open-source software.” I will be using “libre software” as a reminder to the reader of the true spirit of the term, however you will encounter “free software” as a synonym much more frequently in the real world. For a more exhaustive definition of libre software, please refer to the GNU philosophy (we’ll see what GNU is in a moment). FSF.org and Wikipedia - for many reasons relevant to this discussion – are other good resources.
The above definitions may seem academic or superfluous but the philosophical distinction between “free as in beer” software and libre software is essential to understanding the thesis of the movement: that, if you’re a computer programmer, anyone should have the ability to look at your code, run your program, use your code in their own work, and redistribute their own “mash-up” software derived from your work. However, to quote the GPL v2:
Accompany [your derived software] with the complete corresponding machine-readable source code, which must be distributed under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above on a medium customarily used for software interchange.
I don’t want to get too far into licenses and legalese, however it’s important to note where these software licenses – or, copyright contracts – came from and why they exist. GNU is a recursive acronym that stands for “GNU’s Not Unix.” The GNU Project was founded by Richard Stallman in 1983, who then worked for MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, to address what he viewed as major problems with software development at the time, such as closed, incompatible systems, unequal access to resources, and a culture of exclusion rather than learning.
To Stallman, Unix-based operating systems represented the worst offenders of this exclusion: Unix is a modular operating system, so work was often taken from many different sources, sometimes from hobbyists who worked for free, then packaged and closed off by corporations. Changes were not given back to the community, attribution was never given, and the Unix ecosystem slowly became even more closed and fragmented as a result. The GNU Project was designed to change this status quo. Started as a technical project for software developers, it almost immediately became a very social-minded movement, and heavily influenced the Free Culture Movement. Although Unix still exists in some forms, its closed and fragmented nature led to a situation where it is hardly mentioned today. Probably everyone has heard of Linux though – a GPL-based operating system. (Note: The GNU Project prefers that Linux as an operating system be referred to as “GNU/Linux” for a variety of correct reasons, however most people just use “Linux” and the reasoning behind the suggested name has become less relevant over the years.)
The GPL, or GNU General Public License, was written in 1989 by Richard Stallman and represented one of the first efforts to create a unified and multipurpose software license that allowed open access while also protecting the rights of developers. This also introduced to a wider audience the notion of “copyleft.” Copyleft licenses are designed to use existing copyright law – often written to favor corporations and other large organizations while penalizing individuals and small developers – to protect software developers, while allowing them to release their code to the public and to allow others to remix and reuse their code. The Creative Commons license structure, spearheaded by Lawrence Lessig, is inspired by the GPL and is designed to do the same thing for other creative works such as music and film. There exist many other open source license options, some of which are also copyleft in style, and other which are known as “permissive,” or in other words do not retain any rights for the content creator. There is a debate in the community as to which style is ultimately better for software freedom, but that’s another discussion entirely.
So that’s all well and good, but why do we care? Software freedom is consequentially linear, by which I mean there are many positive effects of its encouragement and equal negative effects of its restriction.
Encouragement of software freedom has contributed or led to the development of many systems we use today: almost all major websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even Google use open source software to power part or all of their infrastructure. Wikipedia itself is an open source software project, called MediaWiki, created and maintained by the Wikimedia Foundation and community. Open source software was used heavily in the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns for Barak Obama. Many millions of websites use back-end open source software such as Linux and Apache and are viewed by open source web browsers like Firefox and Chrome. Thousands of programming projects, including those that are closed source, use open source programming languages such as Python or open source IDEs such as Eclipse. Many programming collaboration tools such as Git are open source. Open development standards, inspired by libre software, such as W3C and ODF, allow rapid and simple information exchange and preservation of content over generations of software. Open source operating systems such as Android and OKL4 power billions of devices including phones world-wide. The value of these tools is not to be understated, but perhaps the greatest contribution of FLOS software to our society is the culture of sharing it inspires. Anyone on earth with an internet connection can look at the code used to run this very website and create works derived from that code. That’s a powerful statement, and a problem for those who would intentionally close off access to the internet to preserve their interests.
Conversely, if and when software freedom is discouraged, we all lose. A major issue in low-level libre software development is the matter of closed or proprietary hardware drivers, which makes operating system development tedious and leads to wasted time on reverse engineering. Unclear copyright law can lead to protracted legal battles over essentially nothing. Overly broad patent encumbrance restricts the developer’s freedom to create. Obscured, incompatible, or ancient but closed information storage systems can lead to irrevocably lost data – and culture. Content creation tools such as MediaWiki, LibreOffice, and Audacity would normally be financially out of reach for the average consumer. Prices for software and technology services would surely be higher in general if not for the competition the open source community provides.
It’s easy to see how libre software would be important to the socially-conscious software developer, but the culture of openness and sharing that FLOSS has incubated is infinitely more valuable. The Free Culture Movement is in its infancy and hopefully will continue to grow. Companies like Facebook and Google keep your information locked up tight to make money – but that’s your information, your culture, your work. Shouldn’t you have the right to at least access it? I will close with a quote from Stewart Brand, speaking to Steve Wozniak in 1984:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
It is up to us to decide when, why, and how our information is used. The freedom, or restriction, of information processing tools – software – is central to that discussion.