Software Freedom

Posted on 24. Feb, 2010 by in Open-Source

Sometimes I feel as though our rights are slowly being diminished.

People are being sued globally for copyright infringement because content producers seem to be incapable of providing their works in the technological formats and sales channels desired by consumers. These dinosaurs will fight hard to resist any disruptive innovation (as has always been the case with large companies), even if it isn’t necessarily detrimental, but simply because it has risk. They are even suing websites and ISPs for the actions of other people. (By the way, copyright infringement is not theft; for theft to have taken place the offender must intend to permanently deprive the owner of the use of the item. Clearly this is not the case for illegal downloads.)

There is now anti-terrorism legislation in many Western countries, which has a long record of being used inappropriately (indefinite detention, no evidence, overused search powers, illegal wiretapping, etc). In Australia, we have no legislated guarantee of human rights and the government is opposed to creating any. Our government is attempting to enforce mandatory filtering of our Internet. Software patents, believed by many to be broken, are becoming more widespread, rather than less. Copyright is a government imposed monopoly that was recently extended to 70 years after the death of the creator; and the ACTA is only going to make this situation worse.

In the software development industry, things aren’t much better. Microsoft have since the very beginning embraced vendor lock-in and rejected interoperability. While you might argue that this maximises sales, it is also unethical and is even considered illegal behaviour in many countries. Microsoft is slowly changing (due to both regulatory and market forces) more towards software freedom, but it will be a long journey.

Luckily, though, in a growing sect of the software industry, things are largely changing for the positive. And the rate of adoption by consumers (either knowingly or not) is staggering.

Since around 1985, groups have been promoting the idea of freedom in software licenses. There are two main definitions: free software and open-source software. Collectively, these are referred to as Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS). Especially in the last five years or so, open-source software has become really popular with consumers and businesses. Many predict it will continue to gather acceptance.

Free Software Foundation

To quote the authority on free software, the Free Software Foundation:

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.

Free software grants you the right to:

  • run the program, for any purpose
  • study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish
  • redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour
  • distribute copies of your modified versions to others

There are two types of free software, copylefted and non-copylefted. Copyleft is a method for making a program (or other work) free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well. The main example of a copyleft licence is the GPL, and an obvious example of software that uses this is Linux. An example of a non-copylefted licence is the BSD licence, and an obvious example of software that uses this is FreeBSD. These are both still considered “free” and “open-source”.

Open Source Initiative

The OSI aims to achieve similar objectives to the FSF, however its definition was created independently.

Despite the fundamental philosophical differences between the free software movement and the open source movement, the official definitions of free software by the Free Software Foundation and of open source software by the Open Source Initiative basically refer to the same software licenses, with a few minor exceptions. While stressing the philosophical differences, the Free Software Foundation comments:

The term “open source” software is used by some people to mean more or less the same category as free software. It is not exactly the same class of software: they accept some licenses that we consider too restrictive, and there are free software licenses they have not accepted. However, the differences in extension of the category are small: nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open source software is free.

OSI advocates open-source software on the basis that it is a superior model for software development, whereas the FSF believes it is a social and ethical issue. The difference is considered to be a “serious fracture” but “vitally important to those on both sides of the fracture” and “of little importance to anyone else studying the movement from a software engineering perspective” since they have had “little effect on the field”.

Private Software

Private or custom software is software developed for one user (typically an organization or company). That user keeps it and uses it, and does not release it to the public either as source code or as binaries. A private program is free software in a trivial sense if its unique user has full rights to it.

Non-Free Software

Non-free software includes proprietary, freeware and shareware software. Proprietary software is software that is provided under a restrictive licence, that does not meet the definition of free software.  Freeware is a type of proprietary software that allows you to use it without paying a fee, however your rights are still limited. Shareware is similar to freeware, except you must eventually pay a licensing fee.

Commercial Software

Commercial software is software being developed by a business which aims to make money from the use of the software. “Commercial” and “proprietary” are not the same thing. Most commercial software is proprietary, but there is commercial free software, and there is non-commercial non-free software. An example of a commercial free software package is MySQL.

You may sell copies of free software. However in the case of copylefted software, you must grant your buyer these same rights that you had. A number of large commercial software vendors gain a significant part of their income through selling or using free software, including RedHat Linux, Sun Microsystems, Google, Yahoo, SugarCRM, Canonical and a stack of small vendors and consultants (like ourselves). Joel Spolsky (a well-known software entrepreneur) explains the business strategy of many open-source vendors (the article is slightly out of date) through relating to the economic theory of substitution and complimentary items.

Please help spread the awareness that free commercial software is possible. You can do this by making an effort not to say “commercial” when you mean “proprietary”.


Unfortunately, software patents often limit freedom of choice and stifle innovation. It was once widely accepted that software algorithms were not patentable, but in 1980 the US Court Systems extended the coverage. Many people believe that software patents do more harm than good for the community as a whole, and the legal system still hasn’t stabilised what is and isn’t patentable. Some prominent examples include:

  • Microsoft sued Linux developers and users for using a free implementation of the FAT filesystem drivers. Microsoft invented FAT and holds a patent on a technique to store long file-names. The Linux drivers had to be rewritten to an inferior capability to work around the patent. Microsoft clearly wanted to avoid interoperability.
  • successfully patented the “1-Click” shopping-cart in 1998. They then sued Barnes and Noble over its similar “Express Lane.” Amazon won an injunction in December forcing its competitor to insert a superfluous mouse click. It was eventually repealed.
  • Microsoft was recently granted a patent for what many believe is a trivial extension of the Linux/Unix “sudo” command. This looks like a typical case of a blocking patent, where its purpose is to lock up a certain technology so others can’t use it. However in this case, Linux already had a very similar tool called GKSudo.

If you want to read more about software patents, an interesting article is Are Software Patents Evil? by well-known software developer and entrepreneur Paul Graham.

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Technological Protection Measures (TPMs)  are another negative force on software freedom. DRM are technologies used to control access to digital works or devices, to protect copyright in those works or the works used on the devices. Two current examples are Apple iPhones/iPad and the Amazon Kindle, which restrict what software and content can be viewed on these devices.

Imagine that you bought a new car that was only licensed for use within a particular city, only the manufacturer was permitted to open the bonnet, it could only be driven by you and you were not permitted to ever sell it second-hand. That would be totally unacceptable. But those are the exact rights that DRM effectively gives the sellers of music, films, books and other digital works.

Circumventing DRM became a crime in the USA as of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, and similar laws have followed in Europe and Australia. The FSF has established a committee called Defective By Design to promote resistance to DRM:

You might be aware that the DVDs (or Bluray disks) you buy are encrypted. All of the video and audio on these disks are coded using a key that the hardware attempts to keep secret. Hollywood requires that all DVD manufacturers participate in this restrictive practice, and they can use the DMCA to make any device that doesn’t participate in their scheme illegal.

This type of nuisance is but the foreshadow of greater ones to come. Standing behind the technology companies, the film and music industry (Big Media) loom large. To increase their control, they demand technology companies impose DRM. The technology companies no longer resist. Of course many of the technology companies now see themselves as part of Big Media. Sony is a film and music company, Microsoft is an owner of MSNBC, and Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, sits on the board of Disney. These technology companies cannot be expected to serve the interests of the technology consumer.

Big Media hope that DRM will deliver to them what their political lobbying to change copyright law never has: they aim to turn our every interaction with a published work into a transaction, abolishing fair use and the commons, and making copyright effectively last forever. They will say that you accepted DRM and willingly surrendered your rights. That you did so under duress, they will call irrelevant.

From a practical perspective, DRM is fairly pointless; it almost always gets hacked. Take for example the Amazon Kindle, commercial DVDs, Microsoft and Apple iTunes. Further, all music tracks are still available on CDs without any DRM, making copying trivial. History has shown us that eventually, obstructive technologies are usually recognised as a bad idea, and are often removed. It devalues the product, reduces sales and inconveniences the consumer:

I want to watch an Egyptian movie for my Middle Eastern studies class. But it is region coded not to play on my DVD player, in an effort to stop piracy. Now I have to hack my DVD player and break the law to get it to play. The movie isn’t released in the U.S. This is the only version that was ever published. Since it isn’t published in the US, and it’s for academic purposes, I can rip it to make copies for my classmates. That’s fair use.  But since I have to break the DRM to copy it — I’ve broken the law anyway.

Technological Protection Measures (TPMs) are technological devices or tools that attempt to prevent unauthorised or illegal access to, or copying or reproduction of, copyright materials. A well-known example of TPM is the Sony RootKit which was included on Sony audio CDs and design to prevent music on the CD being transferred to a computer and then burned to another CD. However, this TPM installed a Rootkit which left the user’s computer vulnerable to attacks by malware or spyware. The user was usually unaware of that the Rootkit had been installed and therefore their machine was vulnerable. Legal action was taken against Sony and they recalled all the CDs that included the Rootkit. See the 2005 Sony BMG CD copy protection scandal.

Open Standards

There are two major battles currently being fought in regards to open standards: document formats and multimedia formats.

In most parts of the world, Microsoft Office has become very popular. The Microsoft formats are proprietary and are not free (as in freedom). They do not publish a full specification for the formats and they obstruct other vendors working towards interoperability. You can’t use Microsoft Office easily on Linux or a few other operating systems.

Many people believe that governments should always publish public documents in open formats. Since their tax contributions were used to fund the document creation, they should be entitled to access the documents without being forced to use a specific proprietary product. Vendors like Microsoft are powerful political players and we need to be careful not to fall victim to dishonest “open” claims. In the USA, President Obama’s first directive was: “To increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity, each agency shall take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats.” Not all countries agree with this position though (e.g. South Korea).

Open and free formats include plain text files, HTML, XML, CSV, Email, PDF (as of 2008), OpenDocument (supported by Open Office, Google Docs, Microsoft Office 2010, etc), PostScript, LaTeX and Rich Text Format. These are based on standards accepted by international standards bodies such as the International Organization for Standardization.

Microsoft developed the Office 97-2007 formats and the Office Open XML (Microsoft Office 2007 default format). These are usually considered open (as of 2006) but not free, as Microsoft restricts the technology using a patent.

In regards to multimedia formats, proprietary (and thus not free) formats include MP3, H.264/MP4 and GIF images. The open formats of Ogg Theora video, Ogg Vorbis audio and PNG images respectively provide good free alternatives. It is a little known fact that the MP3 format licences alone generated ca. € 100 million in 2005 for the Fraunhofer Society.

You may be aware that HTML4 and XHTML are soon to be superseded by HTML5 (all of which are open/free formats). HTML5 contains a new <video> tag. This is a big step forward for free software, since users whom wish to watch say videos on Google’s YouTube can now do so without the proprietary Adobe Flash software. However, the final HTML5 specification does not specify any specific codec, having decided to remove the Ogg format as compulsory in an earlier draft. YouTube have since decided to use the proprietary H.264 format for HTML5 video. Many people think this is a mistake. You may notice that some free software (including Mozilla’s Firefox) does not support YouTube HTML5 video, and it probably won’t until this patent issue is resolved. However, it appears that Google is genuinely trying to fix the problem, although it is not yet certain.


Arguments about whether or not free and open-source software are enterprise ready is no longer relevant. We now know for certain that many open-source software packages are as good as if not better than proprietary counter-parts. Two quick examples are the non-commercial Apache HTTP and the commercial Ubuntu.

I have not discussed total cost of ownership in this article however it is often argued that it is lower in free and open-source software.

Hopefully you enjoyed reading this article and learning more about free software. If you want to discuss the matter further, feel free to get in contact with me or my team.

Further Reading

Want to use open-source software but don’t know where to find it? Try the Open Source Alternative website for a ton of suggestions.

There are a stack of open-source associations, and some Australian ones can be found here. There is an Australian law firm that specialises in open-source software.

If you are looking to make documents and other non-software works “free”, I recommend that you look to Creative Commons. Wikipedia content is licensed under a Creative Commons licence. A growing amount of Australian government information is released under Creative Commons. In fact, this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Feel free to share it, subject to the few conditions.

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4 Responses to “Software Freedom”

  1. Peter Bower 9 March 2010 at 12:38 am #

    Thought you and your readers would be interested in this great article, which is also an entertaining read, looking at this very thing with relation to Apple and their scary possessiveness:

  2. Brad Rushworth 9 March 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    An interesting article was released a few days ago about the hedge fund offer to take over Novell (the makers of OpenSUSE Linux) with the view to dismantling the company.

    The twist is that the biggest loser to the demise of Novell (an open-source company) is Microsoft, and thus Microsoft may consider purchasing Novell instead? Interesting times…

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