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Free and Open Source Software

We received an email from Richard M. Stallman (RMS), after publishing the article about the Egyptian demonstration calling for the government to adopt Free Software. I can't deny that one of the motives behind writing this article is to show off that someone as important to the history of computers as RMS is reading what we write here. Nevertheless, the main reason for writing this article is the following:

In his email, RMS was more than pleased with such movement taking place in Egypt, but he also highlighted that our post was misleading in some points regarding Free Software. We do agree with that, especially that our main objective then was to spread information about the Egyptian movement, and we didn't pay much attention to elaborate more to our readers about what is Free Software. So, we decided to write this two-part follow-up article, and in it we are going to break one of the main Global Voices Online (GVO) rules. We normally have to quote social media rather than main stream media, however in this case, there are two reasons not to strictly adhere to this rule.

  • The first reason: A lot of what we are going to quote here falls in a grey area between mainstream and social media. Take Eric's Random Writings as an example, it is not a blog per-se, yet many posts there predate blogs and blogging, so you can see it as the blog of that time.
  • The second reason, which is our main reason: Although most of the information we are going to mention here is already available since decades, we want to make use of the huge network of translators in GV Lingua and our readerbase to spread the message about Free and Open Source Software, especially that Free Software shares a lot of values with GVO. The two try to defend users freedom and their right to be heard. The former defends their right to create and have control on the software they use, and the latter – among others – defends users’ right to be the media, rather than just being a consumer of the media.

What is Free Software?

Thankfully, in my language, there are two different words for free (gratis) and free (libre). The fact that there is one English word for the two concepts and that people normally don't pay money for most of the free software, makes a lot of people confuse the word “free” in free software, thinking it means the former concept, while the latter is what is really meant there. The authors in GNU's website (we will come to GNU later on), put it this way:

Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.

They then elaborated more on what they mean by that kind of software freedom:

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

They summarised it in a list of four essential freedoms a software user should have:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Having that said, it is clear that free software developers do have the choice to sell their software if they want to, provided that they adhere to the four freedoms mentioned above. Take NeoOffice as an example here. On the other hand, if some software developers decided to release their software for free, yet they do not respect the Free Software essential freedoms, then their software cannot be called Free Software. Many of those closed-source Shareware and Adware programs, can serve as examples here. In those cases, users cannot access their source code, hence they cannot modify it or study how it works. As long as you don't know how a software works and have access to its code yourself, you cannot blindly trust it, it can track your activities, modify your computer, or do anything that you do not want it to do.

The source-code can be distributed with the software, or as one of Stack Exchange users added:

Making source available does not mean download. IT might be that you must get a written request and you send a photocopy of a listing. You are allowed to charge a “reasonable” handling / copying charge. But you can not escape the obligation to make your own source code available.

Should we call it Free or Open Source Software?

So far, we have been using the terms Free Software and Open Source Software interchangeably. It's true that the two terms are very close to each other, and being Free implies that it should be Open Source, however since 1998, the two terms are sometimes used to refer to two slightly different things.

Eric S. Raymond (ESR), another advocate for Open Source software, noticed that for Free or Open Software to be adopted by the masses, bigger corporations have to get involved. It's hard to convince people to install GNU/Linux on their laptops, if it is not going to identify their wireless card or CD-ROM driver or whatever hardware module of that laptop. And for this to happen, the hardware vendors should release special drivers for GNU/Linux, or else the open source developers will have no other option but to reverse-engineer those drivers, which does not succeed all the time. ERS wrote:

The term “free software” is older, and is reflected in the name of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), an organisation founded in 1985 to protect and promote free software. The term “open source” was coined in 1998 by a group of people — the founders of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) — who also supported the development and distribution of free software, but who disagreed with the FSF about how to promote it, and who felt that software freedom was primarily a practical matter rather than an ideological one.

ESR emphasised that their practical approach makes it possible for people to accept what they call for without being obliged to change their position on whether intellectual property was good or evil. He added that the term Free Software on the other hand results in making a lot of corporate types reluctant to get involved there:

The term makes a lot of corporate types nervous. While this does not intrinsically bother me in the least, we now have a pragmatic interest in converting these people rather than thumbing our noses at them. There's now a chance we can make serious gains in the mainstream business world without compromising our ideals and commitment to technical excellence — so it's time to reposition. We need a new and better label.

The debate between the two continues. ESR elaborated more why he finds RMS's approach not appealing to corporates.

RMS's manifesto attacked closed source code on moral grounds; he asserted a right of computer users to access and modify the code they depend upon, declared a crusade against the ownership of software, and proposed a program of building an entire production-quality environment of ”free software” modeled on the powerful Unix operating system … On the other hand, RMS's general attack on intellectual property and the quasi-Marxist flavor of much of his propaganda turned off many hackers and utterly alienated most software producers and customers outside the hacker culture itself.

Whereas, RMS argued he decided to stick to his approach because he believes that the presence of non-free software is a moral rather than practical issue:

The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, essential respect for the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the practical problem at hand. For the free software movement, however, nonfree software is a social problem, and the solution is to stop using it and move to free software … In practice, open source stands for criteria a little weaker than those of free software.

In the end, as Gabriella Coleman – Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University – wrote in her book, Coding Freedom, the two often travel on the same path even though their reasons are different. By the way, the book is published under Creative Commons license, which is a license that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge, and is inspired in part by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public License (GNU GPL).

They designate the same alternative licenses and collaborative methodologies, but they differ in their moral orientation: the term free software foremost emphasizes the right to learn and access knowledge, while open source tends to flag practical benefits.

It's more than software

Probably, GNU/Linux is the most famous open source project out there. The GNU project started in 1983/4 with the goal to create a free operating system. Later on, Linus Torvalds built the Linux kernel and the combination of the two with many other open source software resulted in what we have today as a fully functional operating systems competing with the likes of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS. Other than that you may think of many other software such as Mozilla Firefox, Apache Webserver Server, Android, and many others that are sometimes more widely adopted and trusted than their non-free alternatives.

Nevertheless, the movement does not stop at software only:

Software manuals must be free, for the same reasons that software must be free, and because the manuals are in effect part of the software. The same arguments also make sense for other kinds of works of practical use — that is to say, works that embody useful knowledge, such as educational works and reference works. Wikipedia is the best-known example.


Gabriella Coleman wrote:

I argue that F/OSS draws from and also rearticulates elements of the liberal tradition. Rather than designating only a set of explicitly held political, economic, or legal views, I treat liberalism in its cultural registers. Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities— for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions. Indeed, the ethical philosophy of F/OSS focuses on the importance of knowledge, self- cultivation, and self- expression as the vital locus of freedom.

Watch George Osborne MP – Open Source Politics:

Finally, the ideas of freedom and openness can be seen nowadays everywhere from Wikipedia to projects tracking every government financial transaction across the world, to those promoting sharing educational material and research papers.

See “Egypt: Why Open Source Software?” for more details why Egypt (as well as almost any other countries) should adopt Free Software.

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