< Ali Reza Hayati

How Free Software Cares for Freedom
2222 words. A 13 minute read.

When I explain differences of free software and open source, I mention how free software focuses on freedom of users not on the source code. One of the things I have to answer after my explanation is how free software cares for freedom of users and why we care about copyleft licenses and free culture.

What Is Free (Libre) Software

We care about freedom of users. This is what we free culture/software activists say a lot. Let me explain it to you. What we call free software is based on simple three rules. You should be able to run, share, and modify/change the software you use at any time, for any reason, freely. Free in free software means freedom. It’s liberty we’re talking about; not price. Think about freedom of thought and speech, not free beer. I personally prefer the term “libre software/culture” because it’s more understandable I think rather than free software.

How Free Software Cares

As I said, free software is based on three simple rules. Freedom of running the software you purchased, freedom of sharing it, and freedom of modifying and changing it. This is the freedom we’re talking about.

Freedom of Running

We the free culture/software activists care for user’s purpose, not the programmers’ purpose. Foe example, the creator of the software can’t make it stop running for some users. For instance, while ago, Adobe cut off users in Venezuela. This won’t happen for free software.

Freedom of Modifying

Free software also lets you to modify the software. You can change the software in the way you want to make it run for purpose you want. For example, if you don’t like it to communicate with some entities, you can stop it. Nobody can force you to run the software the way they want. You own the software so you’re the one who controls it.

Freedom of Redistributing

Free software lets you share the software. You’ll be able to give (or/and lend) the software to others. There’s no limitations. For example, when you use Amazon Kindle, you won’t be able to give the books you bought to others. Or when you purchase a copy of Microsoft Windows OS, it’s only you that can use it. You won’t be able to copy the OS and give it to others. Other people should also purchase another copy from Microsoft. With free software, you can easily copy the software and five it to others.

Freedom of Distributing the Modified Version

If you modify the software, you can also redistribute it. Nobody can prevent you from sharing the modified version of the software. 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.

VLC media player screenshot VLC media player, a very famous free software.

For All Users, Not Only Programmers

A program is free software if it gives users adequately all of these freedoms. Otherwise, it is nonfree. While we can distinguish various nonfree distribution schemes in terms of how far they fall short of being free, we consider them all equally unethical.

While the point of free software is to give users freedom, some may find it make no difference because they’re not programmers. It’s not about how you personally can run, modify, or distribute the software. You can pay someone to do it for you. Plus a large number of free programs licensed free, are so easy to use. Modifying and distributing it is also possible if you learn programming or hire someone to do it for you.

Even if there’s no need for modifying, distributing, or even running the software, using free software and boycotting proprietary software is a good practice for you to stand with our ethical rights. Microsoft should not be able to prevent some people (because of their nationality or other stuff) using Windows or other services they provide. Adobe should not be able to prevent people from using their software for any reason.

When you run a nonfree software, you’re forced to obey the rules the creator sets. Imagine in the terms of a service, they mention if you change the background photo, you will lose the access to the software and you’ll not get refunded. How bad that sounds? It’s how bad proprietary software is and worse, you won’t be able to do anything about it.

It’s Yours. You Control It

Using free software means that you’re the one who controls the software. For example, if you buy a DRM-free book on a free software, you own the book. You can delete it, read it, give it to others, print it, or just leave it there. You control your stuff. Nobody can tell you that you only can read half the book or you just can have it on their service. It’s yours. Forever.

Free Software Is More Secure

No. It does not mean that you’re safe. Free software can be dangerous and malware too. But the freedom you have, makes it possible to use it the way you want. One of the rules of software freedom is the ability to access the source. Everyone should be able to read the source and build stuff upon it. Free software makes it possible for everyone to study the source code.

It’s better when you’re able to find out about dangerous activities of a software and fixing it than not finding the malware ever. It’s what makes it more secure. Of course there’s proprietary software that is more secure than some free software but imagine you’re using the most secure proprietary software for last two decades and suddenly the programmers decide to put a malware in it and read all your information. What would you feel about it? With free software, you’ll be able to track and trace every change made.

LibreOffice Writer screenshot LibreOffice Writer, an alternative for Microsoft Office Word.

The Copyleft

Certain kinds of rules about the manner of distributing free software are acceptable, when they don’t conflict with the central freedoms. For example, copyleft (very simply stated) is the rule that when redistributing the program, you cannot add restrictions to deny other people the central freedoms. This rule does not conflict with the central freedoms; rather it protects them.

Copyleft is a general method for making a program (or other work) free (in the sense of freedom, not “zero price”), and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well. When a program publishes with a copyleft free license, it prevents other people to change the program and redistribute it with a nonfree license. The “GNU General Public License” is a copyleft free license while the “Apache License” is a permissive free software license that is not copyleft.

Why Copyleft Free Software Is Better

Publishing a software that respecting freedom is good but what makes it better is that software gives others freedom as well. A copyleft license prevents the middleman stripping off the freedom. If our program could be distributed with a nonfree license, our code might have many users, but it would not give them freedom. So instead of publishing it just with a free software license, we prefer to publish it with a copyleft free software license.

Software can be redistributed without a copyleft notice and still be freedom respecting but with a copyleft notice, we can make sure nobody’s freedom can be endangered by a middleman. Copyleft also provides an incentive for other programmers to add to free software. Important free programs such as the GNU C++ compiler exist only because of this.

Copyleft also helps programmers who want to contribute improvements to free software get permission to do so. These programmers often work for companies or universities that would do almost anything to get more money. A programmer may want to contribute changes to the community, but employer may want to turn the changes into a proprietary software product.

In order for these freedoms to be real, they must be permanent and irrevocable as long as you do nothing wrong; if the developer of the software has the power to revoke the license, or retroactively add restrictions to its terms, without your doing anything wrong to give cause, the software is not free.

A free license may not require compliance with the license of a nonfree program. Thus, for instance, if a license requires you to comply with the licenses of “all the programs you use”, in the case of a user that runs nonfree programs this would require compliance with the licenses of those nonfree programs; that makes the license nonfree.

It is acceptable for a free license to specify which jurisdiction’s law applies, or where litigation must be done, or both.

Right Words About Free Software (and Open Source)

Free software is not open source. Of course we value the work of open source community, but we prefer the term free software rather than open source. Before I say anything about it, open source is different from ‘source available’.

The open-source-software movement is a movement that supports the use of open-source licenses for some or all software, a part of the broader notion of open collaboration. When we call software free, we mean that it respects the users’ essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of free speech, not free beer.

When we use “free/libre software” we are mentioning the freedom, while open source never refers to freedom.

Differences of Open Source and Free Software

In practice, open source stands for criteria a little looser than those of free software. As far as we know, all existing released free software source code would qualify as open source. Nearly all open source software is free software, but there are exceptions. First, some open source licenses are too restrictive, so they do not qualify as free licenses. For example, “Open Watcom” is nonfree because its license does not allow making a modified version and using it privately. Fortunately, few programs use such licenses.

Second, when a program’s source code carries a weak license, one without copyleft, its executables can carry additional nonfree conditions. Microsoft does this with Visual Studio, for example.

If these executables fully correspond to the released sources, they qualify as open source but not as free software. However, in that case users can compile the source code to make and distribute free executables.

Finally, and most important in practice, many products containing computers check signatures on their executable programs to block users from installing different executables; only one privileged company can make executables that can run in the device or can access its full capabilities. We call these devices “tyrants”, and the practice is called “tivoization” after the product (Tivo) where we first saw it. Even if the executable is made from free source code, and nominally carries a free license, the users cannot run modified versions of it, so the executable is de-facto nonfree.

Many Android products contain nonfree tivoized executables of Linux, even though its source code is under GNU GPL version 2. We designed GNU GPL version 3 to prohibit this practice.

The criteria for open source are concerned solely with the licensing of the source code. Thus, these nonfree executables, when made from source code such as Linux that is open source and free, are open source but not free.

We prefer the free software because it focuses on freedom of users. We care about users not the program. As I already mentioned, it’s the purpose of user that matters not the purpose of software. So when you’re about to use a program, be aware that open source does not necessarily give you freedom. You also should know about FLOSS (FOSS) which refers to “Free/Libre and Open Source Software (Free and Open Source Software)”. Most of the libre programs I’ve ever seen are FOSS.

Free speech movement picture Free software and free culture movement are not only about software; we believe in humans freedom in any case.

Beyond Freedom of Software

The free software community believes in freedom of users. Not only in case that software is involved, but always in any case. Just like how humans have rules and restrictions that support freedom, free software/culture movement and community also has rules to support freedom. We believe free software is a good start for a free society. Free software is a good practice for people to start fighting against others who want to limit us and take away our freedom.

We believe software freedom is more than software. It’s about how we can defend ourselves from bad restrictions. It’s also not just about programs. It’s about all of our works. Free culture is the term we use to distribute our works. Photos, writings, illustrations, etc. also should be free (as in freedom).

Free Culture Movement

The free-culture movement is a social movement that promotes the freedom to distribute and modify the creative works of others in the form of free content or open content without compensation to, or the consent of, the work’s original creators, by using the Internet and other forms of media. The movement objects to what it considers over-restrictive copyright laws. Such laws hinder creativity. We call this system “permission culture”.

01 Nov 2019 #software