Karam Assany's Blog

My Personal Introduction to Free Software

"With software, either the users control the program (free software) or the program controls the users (proprietary or nonfree software)." - Richard Stallman

Note: the "free" word in this article always refers to freedom, not price.

You may think that software is like music or novels, and deserves to be "copyrighted." Wrong! Software is much like food recipes, in a way that both can be adapted and improved. No, software should not be owned. And software patents suck for many reasons, including that patents in general suck.

I'm not going to explain what is free software; I'm going to explain what is non-free software: it is all kind of software that doesn't allow you to use, modify and distribute it freely. It can take your freedom away in two different ways: Legal limitation i.e. exploiting the law to prevent you from using or distributing the software freely, and technical limitation i.e. by not providing the preferred human readable form of the program.

Let's take a history class. In the beginning, all software was essentially free. That's the way it should be. But for some reason, some people started to introduce a new concept of software development: software property and ownership, which led to copyrighted binaries and later, software patents. And because ordinary people thought software is kind of art, rather than a computing-howto recipe, they accepted to be controled by what is meant to be controled.

All software that ever existed (with zero exceptions) has started as free software, but then, if published, it's up to the developer to make it nonfree for the public (unethical conduct) or free. Software freedom is relative for different people and different programs, but all people should have that freedom. All users of a given program should have it the free way.

After the free software movement started, some proponents didn't like to use the word "free" to describe freedom-enabling software, complaining that it can sometimes be confused for "zero-priced" software. So instead of explaining to people that free means freedom, they decided to make up a new term, "open source", and deprecate the older term. Now, they have to explain to people what the hell "open source" means. How creative.

The open source camp later swapped into a software developement methodology, it completely forgot the ethical cause of the free software movement. They no longer care really about freedom, they just prefer open-source programs for being more secure and more mature. Freedom is no conern for majority of them.

While the free software movement and the open source camp still do not agree on a mutual word to describe the good type of software (i.e. free software vs. open source software), they certainly agree upon a word that descibes the bad type of software (i.e. proprietary). And that has much to say about how the two camps are essentially fighting the same enemy.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.