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May - 2009 - issue > Technology
Why Free Software is the Key to Freedom
Rajiv Mathew
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
A few weeks ago I was at a talk addressed by Richard Stallman and his thoughts had a profound impact on my thinking. I would like to share here some learnings and thoughts from his talk, regarding the free software movement and how vital it is for our society.

There are so many examples of thousands of proprietary tools that are backdoors for large corporate houses to gain control over our lives. Consider the Apple iPhone for instance. A developer from Apple can change anything he wants in the iPhone and the user doesn’t have to always agree. Hence, a user is placed at the mercy of the developer of that product. This proprietary software system has unjust power over individuals. By using these proprietary tools we grant more power to the proprietary software owners, which is not a good thing. The people who have unjust power seek to get total power. We need to learn to live in freedom and use software that respect our freedom.

4 Freedoms that are Key, as Outlined by Richard Stallman

* Freedom 0 is one that allows you to run software as you wish.
* Freedom 1 is where you have the right to study the source code & change it.
* Freedom 2 is where you can help your neighbor make copies and distribute them.
* Freedom 3 is where the software contributes to community, and copies of modified versions of the software are available for use.

As a user you deserve these freedoms and the right to reject proprietary software. The free software movement has been a long journey and it will be a long time before we reach a point where there will be no proprietary software. Though it seems a hard decision to make, it really is not a tough decision to make. You don’t need to accept programs that take away your four freedoms.

The People’s Movement

In 1983 Richard Stallman & Co came out with a free UNIX like operating system. The GNU operating system can be used for free and millions of people all over the world use it. They use it with freedom and have total control over it. There, of course, has been an occasional sacrifice, but one should be willing to suffer an inconvenience as long as it benefits the society at large. With free software the user is able to do new things. We don’t want to encourage the colonial powers of large corporate houses that want to practice what we call ‘digital colonization’. Our motive is to weaken these powers as we make more progress in spreading the free software movement.

Need of the Hour

What’s vital now is that we need to get politically active. Social institutions like schools and colleges are a great way to start with. Schools can either teach students about free software or direct students to be digital colonial subjects. Students have to learn and appreciate the fact that sharing knowledge is good. This is what education is all about anyway. It’s the moral duty of a school to teach free software.

We need to get organized and say to the NGOs, government, and the media that we need to stop teaching students dependency on proprietary products. These products are used to exploit customers and users. Usage of free software is real ‘development’. Usage of proprietary software is ‘dependence’. Why should a company have control over some ‘secret knowledge’, which the customer has no clue about?

Sharing and Caring

Freedom number 2 is important. When your neighbor asks you for something, you are in the danger of falling into a moral dilemma. You have to choose between two evils. Option one is to violate the license and give it to your friend. Option two is to deny your friend something that he needs. I would choose option one any day. What some companies are trying to do is to break the ‘social solidarity’ of our community. We need to reject proprietary software on the grounds of moral conscience. Any piece of code has to be delivered under a license that respects a client’s freedom to change it, if need be.

Why don’t you recommend to everyone you meet the use of free platforms? This is how you can escape from the unjust powers of proprietary software developers. When we talk about free software, the word ‘free’ refers to freedom and does not mean ‘gratis’. ‘Free’ means that you can make copies of that software and sell them. The user is allowed to make changes to the software as per his or her convenience.

On Patenting

Patents on software are not a good idea. If software patents were allowed then all ideas would be patented. Every time you try to invent something new, you will be facing hundreds of lawsuits. This is not an ideal environment for any innovator to work in. We need to work together to lobby against unjust software patents.

Pharmaceutical Patents

India wanted to encourage research in the pharma industry. The Indian government policy was not to allow patents on the drug but to put patents on the processes. This worked well. It encouraged research in new processes to manufacture the same medicine. Thus the Indian pharmaceutical companies were able to invent cheaper ways to produce the same drugs. This policy was designed in such a way to serve public interest, which it did. The patents on drugs by some pharmaceutical companies are a total hogwash. They pretend they have spent all money on research. The truth of the matter is that most of the money is spent on advertising that corrupts doctors into buying their products. Their strategy is very simple. They manufacture medicines that people in rich countries want to take often. Pharmaceutical companies are trying to give you a medicine that you want to take everyday.

Free Software for All

As a software developer, you can’t make all users pay you. It would be wrong. You can even make money without subjugating all users to pay money. There are plenty of examples of people who have done this. Proprietary software is a kind of parasite that afflicts the society. If a dacoit says that robbery helps him feed his family that does not justify his act.

Software as a service is one thing that people must never use. If the user cannot have control over the computing that’s a major problem. If you run a program on someone else’s machine, he has control over the process and not you. You are computing your data, and hence you deserve to have control. So don’t do your computing on someone else’s server. Google, for instance, is famous for their tagline ‘don’t be evil’, but the bad thing is that their definition of evil is a narrow one.

Popularity of the Movement

There are many countries and governments, which support the free software movement. India is one of them. In Kerala, they are trying to move the public schools to usage of free software. This is a good initiative that needs to spread all over India. The free software movement has had tremendous support from the governments of Spain, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Paraguay.


The ideal world is where software is free and developed by volunteers. This may not seem like a plausible idea but there are many workable business models in free software. There are also many examples of companies that pay people to develop free software. One key point to note is that in free software, you are not obligated to publish every change you write in the code. People often ask Richard Stallman what will happen to the free software movement after he is dead. He tells them the KFC story where after the original founder Colonel Sanders passed away KFC represents him with a cartoon character. Similarly one day Stallman hopes someone will make a cartoon character out of him and his ideas will live on forever.

The author is Marketing Specialist, ThoughtWorks
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