Category Archives: Free Software

Free Software in San Francisco

I’ve lived in San Francisco for over a month, now. My experience has been mostly very interesting, between working at the Wikimedia Foundation and socializing with transplants from Boston. However, my foremost lens for examining any situation has always been digital freedom. With that in mind, I have been paying attention to the general climate of software use in the Bay Area, and I’d like to share it with you now.

I should note that my purpose here is not to criticize any person or group, but to give feedback and maybe better explain the landscape of digital freedom in the Bay Area.

At Work

The Wikimedia Foundation itself, strangely, is not overwhelmingly supportive of free software. The employees tend to run either Mac OS X or Ubuntu on their workstations, and the server infrastructure seems largely based on Ubuntu as well.

The tools being used are largely free, however, with git dominating the source control landscape and Gerrit providing code review and hosting. There is a wide variety of other tools in use, but the people all seem generally in favor of free developer tools. Even a few designers seem to be interested in using free tools, which is a refreshing change from the usual reliance on Adobe.

Of course, the ultimate product of the WMF’s toil is free software, and that’s one of the most important things to consider, but having a general culture of digital freedom would be a huge benefit to the community and the individuals involved!

In the City

Walking around town, I notice a lot of technology. It is my profound displeasure, however, that most of it is branded with Apple logos! Every ride on public transportation is dominated by iPods, iPhones, and the infrequent iPads. I also see Kindles and Nooks, and of course the occasional Nintendo handheld device. I walk around with my brand new Neo Freerunner, but it’s hardly enough to offset the overwhelming feeling of digital restriction….

In Online Communities

I also spend some time chatting with local people online, through sites like Reddit and BAParkour. Those communities, too, appear to be dominated by non-free software. A lot of the technical discussions are dominated by non-free options, and most of the discussions in general seem to be powered by non-free technology.

In Surrounding Businesses

San Francisco is a big place for software businesses, as I’m sure readers will be aware. But a lot of the chatter I hear about local businesses involves work on non-free software. Many of the people involved will be proud of using free software in one capacity or another, but their interest in digital freedom apparently doesn’t extend to their customers.

In Social Circles

The socializing I have done in person has largely revolved around common ties to free software, too. However, that common tie seemed to be rather muted after prolonged conversations, since the people I meet almost always use notorious non-free software (e.g., iOS, Photoshop, Facebook/Twitter), and seem uninterested in changing that fact. While I hesitate to confront these people on the subject (see Freedom: A Struggle, not a Nose Dive), it’s always sort of jolting to realize that the people I met because of free software are not devoted to software freedom.

Conclusions

I think these facts point towards a rather grim situation for digital freedom in the Bay Area. This realization motivates me to seriously consider more devotion to the movement, possibly through more direct means, to help spread freedom in the area.

Why Free Software Is Important

I’ve been an advocate for free software for several years now, and as time goes on, I become more and more insistent on digital freedom. Many have noticed that my insistence is often in the face of practical problems, but I’ve always tried to explain why the practical problems are less important than the deeper philosophical ones. I hope to directly address that issue here today by showing why digital freedom is one of the most important things to consider.

Past Writings

I’ll note briefly that I’ve done something similar in the past. I wrote about practical problems being worth consideration, but I’ve also written about how free software isn’t a religion and how free knowledge can extend to physical things. My article on making money ethically also touches briefly on the importance of free software.

For Users

Users are most frequently the ones to say they have a practical problem with free software. They’ll claim that without non-free software, they can’t watch movies, play games, or create art. Most of the time, those complaints are based on incompatibilities, like when a Flash game is not compatible with Gnash, or based on lack of features, like when the GIMP is missing some advanced graphical feature that is included in Adobe Photoshop. There are practical reasons that those complaints can be mitigated in the free software world, but that’s not the main reason that users should be interested in digital freedom.

Users also often say that the four freedoms aren’t important to them–they claim that the freedom to modify is useless, as are the two distribution freedoms, and that in practice, all software is free to be run in any way. This, too, is not accurate: While a user may not be trained in programming, they may at some time wish to learn about it, which would require the freedom to study. And even if the user has no interest, ever, in programming, they also have the freedom to bring the software to another programmer who can help them fix a problem or add a feature.

However, there’s even more to worry about. Not specific cases, not practical advice, but philosophical reasons. As a software user, when you sign a license agreement, you sign away some rights. When those rights are speech, digital or otherwise, any person should be worried. In the past, governments have made laws to restrict speech. This manifested in restrictions on printing presses, restrictions on the sale of texts, and restrictions on what could be said, even in the most intimate of settings. Today, free speech is under less attack from the government, but more attack from corporations. TV and radio stations are more frequently resistant to controversial speech, and several corporations that create forms of communication will censor that communication based on their own standards of decency. Perhaps most notably, software companies restrict digital speech in the form of their software–that software, or any part thereof, or any modified form of either, cannot be transmitted to anyone else. How can we allow that?

For Developers

I sure hope you didn’t skip the above section, because it was important. Even if you’re only a developer, and not a user, the above section is largely the basis for this one.

To start, however, let’s look at the direct benefits: The developer who licenses their software freely will probably have a more involved user base. This is not a fact, but a likely result of the free software model. This result has been codified in the open source development model, but that model has also somewhat confused the meaning of freedom. Rather than mandating that the source code be open to the world, the free software developer allows their users to share it with anyone they like. That could include “everyone,” but it could also be restricted to a few people, if the right license is used on redistribution. The direct benefit is, any user of the software is also potentially a developer, a mirror, or at the very least, a tester.

Now, since you read the section for users, I can talk about indirect benefits. I have to assume that most programmers aren’t horrible people, so if you are a horrible person, then I can’t really help you. But if you happen to think others deserve to have rights, then the section on users applies to developers as well. As a user is allowed freedom, the developer is benefited by not causing a detrimental effect to others, and so their ethical code is preserved.

Go freely!

Making Money Ethically

Earlier today, the GNU/Linux Action Show had Richard Stallman on to celebrate their 200th episode. For the most part, it seemed like RMS was talking about some complicated issues, and they had a lot of trouble understanding what he meant by a lot of his statements.

However, one thing RMS mentioned that sort of struck my nerve was something that had struck it before. One of the parts of his philosophy is that it is unethical to sell non-free software, and that much I can support. But one of the ways he supports it is to say that programmers don’t need to be paid for their work.

Ethics

(note: this section was added after the initial publication of the post, at 18:11 on the same day)

I feel I should define, briefly, what “ethical” means in this context. I mean specifically, when I say that something is “ethical”, that it does not violate the freedom of others. Most of the people this post can help will already be very concerned with their own freedom, but they may in one way or another be affecting the freedom of others in a detrimental way.

It may be called into question whether that is a reasonable definition of the word “ethical” in all contexts, but I am not reaching so broadly today, I am only discussing a very small subject.

My Beef

The funny thing is, I’ve gone through college and several jobs in order to train myself to make software. I happen to be similarly committed to free software, and I agree with RMS in that the jobs that produce non-free software should generally be shunned. However, that does not mean that programmers cannot have programming jobs!

I’ve long supported the Free Software movement, and a large part of my support has been explaining the ways that you can make money in an ethical way. So, here I am to explain it again, in a blog post.

Another motive for this blog post is that the hosts of the show specifically asked for a suggestion or two, so I’m here to give them some!

What I Am Not Saying

I want to note that I do not suggest these solutions for programmers working under others. If someone doesn’t have some way to support themselves, as a matter of staying alive, I would suggest that they maintain their current situation until they find a more ethical solution. Continue to lobby the people above you to release free software, but avoid jeopardizing your job.

This advice is leveled at people who make decisions about licensing, which might include some individual programmers who self-publish. Most programmers working under other people will be unable to follow this advice.

Ways to Do It

So, on to advice.

The first business method, touched on somewhat in the show, uses the new concept of crowd-funding to achieve funding. This would basically be an exercise of balancing the community’s interest in the software and the real costs associated with its production. So, if the developers need a few months of rent and food money, then they come up with a reasonable number to represent that amount of effort on their part, and ask for the money. It should be noted that there is no limit on how many projects you can have on a crowdfunding site, nor is there any requirement (unless self-imposed) with respect to delivery date, so you could theoretically set up several proposed projects at once and work on them in any order, depending on whether or not they got funded. So long as the end result was a freely-licensed software package, this would be completely in line with the four freedoms.

Another method that was mentioned in the show was to produce individual custom software packages, licensed under a free license (though probably not copyleft), which would also be extremely ethical. Most companies won’t care about the license, since the software won’t be distributed anyway. This method requires much more active involvement in the local business community, and any company that plays this game must be tied into many connections.

There are also several companies that primarily provide paid support for software that they produce, then release under a free license. The business model here would be somewhat less definite, since you could not give a specific price for the package, and would be counting on the fact that companies would need support. Similarly to the previous model, you would need to fight hard with companies to get them to buy your support, as opposed to passive involvement. In other words, you might not get much business just linking to your support hotline on your main page, you may need to market the software to companies and subsequently sell them a support package on the side.

A final business model, which might not be technically what most programmers want, is the non-profit one. The GNU project has survived in this capacity for over two decades (actually, nearly three), so it’s certainly not an unrealistic model for a software producer. Set up a cool suite of software, ask for donations, and sell t-shirts and mugs with your logo(s) on them! RMS went so far as to sell books and documentation, though a smaller shop might not be able to do that right away.

In Conclusion

Now that I’ve written this, it is a great weight from my shoulders. I can finally just link to it, as opposed to writing long-winded explanations every time.

If you feel I’ve missed a viable option, or have misrepresented something, please use the link below to email me your feedback. I’d love for this to be a comprehenzive resource for someone looking for advice with respect to starting a free software business.

And finally, as always, go freely.

Why We Need the GPL

The GNU General Public License (GPL) has been through three major versions. The first, released in 1989, was mostly concerned with preventing the addition of non-free code to a project in order to circumvent the requirement that modified versions of free software (under a license like the GPL) also be distributed under permissive terms. The second version addressed the problem of dual distributions, requiring that if a person was legally incapable of distributing the source code for GPL’d software under a permissive license, they could not distribute it at all. Finally, the third version addressed the problem of “Tivoization”, by preventing hardware manufacturers from forbidding their users to modify the software on their machines. The third version also added the Affero clause, which (if included) would require anyone offering access to the software over a network to also allow modifications and redistribution freely.

The Problem

These versions have all faced one serious recurring controversy: This license, masquerading as a protector of liberty, appears to restrict the users and developers of the software, too! There are similar licenses, like the LGPL, which allow derivative works without permissive licensing, but the GPL and AGPL both require that derivative works be licensed under the GPL, and often under the same version.

The major gripe is that, while the FSF and the GNU project both preach freedom loudly and clearly, they seem hell-bent, from the text of these licenses, to restrict people from doing what they wish with respect to derivative works. This perception appears to be tearing the free software community apart.

The Explanation

I hope, today, to dispel some of the myths. I don’t dispute the facts, here. There appears to be a severe disconnect between the words and deeds of the FSF. But I think that disconnect is justifiable.

Small side note: in addition to majoring in computer science, I am minoring in government, and I’m using all of my time in the government department studying United States constitutional law. The reasons for that decision are many and varied, but it’s a source of much clarity for me, and on this subject in particular, I have found a very interesting parallel between the actions of the FSF and the words of the Supreme Court.

In a case called Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a case before the Supreme Court in 1978, there was a lot of discussion about affirmative action in state-run universities. Bakke, the respondent, said that the affirmative action program at UC Davis was detrimental to his ability to receive an education. Justice Powell, in a plurality opinion (later affirmed by an opinion in Grutter), upheld the program on the grounds that racial preferences, while generally abhorrent, were necessary in some cases to remedy past wrongs, and to establish justice once more.

Perhaps I’m overplaying my analogy here, but I think the principles are roughly equivalent. The FSF, whether knowingly or not, has instantiated a legal tool that takes away some of the choice from the developers of derivative works in order to prevent further such deprivals in the future. I’m sure that, in a perfect world, many of the people at the FSF would release their code under a public domain license, or maybe the BSD or MIT licenses, that give almost complete freedom to the users. But they’ve seen a severe societal meltdown with respect to digital freedom. The problem they see cannot be solved by mere goodwill towards man, or the charity of many volunteers. The problem needs a legal solution, as well. To create that solution, they devised the GPL.

Other Implications

I think that the GPL isn’t the only part of the free software movement affected by these principles. I think there are a lot of people who view the free software camp as unmoving, unwilling to accept compromise. I hope that this analogy I’ve set forward will help others to understand that many people have been fighting this war for too long, and suffered too many defeats, to allow themselves to give any quarter. That’s not to say that these people aren’t very understanding and helpful, but they will definitely be antagonistic if asked to give advice contrary to their ideals, and I hope that someone out there can understand that at least a little.

With that said, maybe it’s time for the free software community to start thinking in smaller steps. As I put forward in another blog post, maybe we need to start considering the immense administrative difficulties that face people in their struggle for digital freedom. Maybe encouraging someone to use Firefox, or even Chrome, on a Windows computer, is the best thing we can do for them until they truly understand what may be at stake.

As always, thank you for reading, and go freely.

Free Gaming

Free gaming has long been in a state of inertia. There are many developers who create free games, and those developers are to be commended. But why is it so difficult for free games to win over players? I intend to explore both the importance of free games, and the difficulties they have faced in winning users.

Importance

Quite simply, free games are important for exactly the same reasons other free software is important. We see exactly the same manipulation of data, be it personal or some other sort, in games as we do in other software. The biggest difference to my mind is that, while normal software tends to deal with data in a way we can easily see and relate to, games tend to do so in a more subtle and detached way. While we may hesitate to enter our credit card information into a web form, we may not hesitate when presented with an official-looking form inside of a game we have played many times.

I would also posit that free games are even more important for different reasons, namely the importance of creative freedom. With non-free games, the ownership of the world and the characters is firmly established as being with the company that produced the game engine. With free games, while the game engine is very clearly free software, the characters and story would also, likely, be licensed under a permissive license.

Problems

However important, it has been immensely clear to free game creators that users are either not interested or not able to play the games. Why is this happening? Why are free gamers nowhere to be found? Are they simply too immersed in whatever games they play to find time for freedom?

First, I think, the largest amount of hype a game gets is around its beginning. In the non-free world, games take that energy and save it, using promo videos and press releases to sustain the user’s interest in the game. This provides them with a loyal, excited fanbase that will, at the end of the cycle, buy the game. In the free software situation, however, the game is often *already released* when the first hype wave hits, however small that wave may be. This means that the excitement over the game is no longer contained, it is set free into the game world, and released. When the game is finally released, it won’t be an event to the players anymore, it will only be an upgrade.

Also, non-free gamers have a perception of games that is unrealistic. Their idea is that the story plays a large part in the entertainment, and that the story should thus be kept a secret, so as to increase the suspense. There are a few different problems with this perception. For one, the story is at least some part of the entertainment, but for every hour spent developing the story, I guarantee that five further hours were spent on making the story possible in the game world. The game engine is just as much a part of the entertainment, if not more. Also, there is an issue with the idea of secrecy. While it may be necessary for the player to remain in the dark in order to entertain themselves, that doesn’t mean a total-media-blackout. Most of the Internet is familiar with “spoiler alerts”, so that source of spoiler is often not relevant. As for the source code itself, I look at that particular situation like a book. If you really feel like skipping to the end, nobody is stopping you. But for those of us who want to read the whole thing, we can restrain ourselves.

Hype

Hype is the only standing problem from above, at least the only problem I found to be worth examining.

In the free software world, hype is difficult to maintain. We try to use press releases and blog posts to help, but the largest part of the hype will come from word of mouth. If your community is small, then, you need to keep them energized.

There may be some difficulties in particular cases, where the project owner is not interested in hearing the suggestions of the community, or where some of the community might be less than welcoming to new members. In these situations, it is up to the community to change the situation. Start a fan site, start an IRC where the community rules, and start developing a fork of the project, if necessary.

Suggestions

As with most of my articles, I want to leave you today with some concrete ideas of where to go from here. Since I am speaking mostly to gamers, I will encourage them to check out Minetest, a mining simulator similar to Minecraft; ToME, an RPG with roguelike aspects and a nice interface; and many other small games in your distribution’s repositories.

Thanks for reading, and go freely.

After SOPA: What Now?

Background

Though I’m sure most of my readers will be familiar with the recent events in the United States legislature, I’m going to spend a brief period discussing it. Skip this part?

In the past month or so, the United States Congress introduced and debated a pair of bills called the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” (PIPA).

Though differently named, they had much the same purpose: To leverage legislative power to increase the stretch of copyright law into the barest workings of the Internet. Essentially, the laws provided for methods by which a company or individual who owned the copyright on material that had been infringed upon by an Internet site could contact the proper authorities, and those authorities would immediately shut down that website. They did this by redirecting traffic to that domain name to a different IP address. These provisions alone promised to break the Internet irreparably. But the further outrages were that no due process was carried out, that the supporters of the bill had received a large amount of money from various film and recording industry lobbyists, and finally that even if you had only linked to a site that had infringing material, you could also be shot down.

These two bills, while having many supporters in Congress, engulfed the Internet in protests by users and site administrators alike. Entire websites took down their content for the day. Other sites “redacted” user content for the day. Many sites showed solidarity for weeks by redacting part of their logos. This was a great day in the history of the Internet, and definitely shows that we have become an entity that is capable of defending itself.

Now, on to the aftermath.

Aftermath

So, now we are past these two awful bills, SOPA and PIPA.

Though they were great threats to our digital freedom, and seems to have been defeated, I have to draw everyone’s attention to one very simple fact about SOPA/PIPA: These bills were not isolated incidents, and they aren’t going to be the last. There are threats to our freedom cropping up in ACTA, in various other copyright legislation, and many other non-governmental places.

But these attacks on our freedom need not go unnoticed, nor do we need to let them happen. We have the power to make a huge difference in our own digital lives, and I’m coming back into the online community to try and impress upon all of you how to do it.

Fixing It

First, since we just spent a lot of time trying to undo a pair of bills that threatened our freedom, let’s try and eradicate the cause. The two really big causes, in this case, are the MPAA (the movie industry) and the RIAA (the recording industry). If we want to do anything to fight against these organizations, we need to seriously look for alternatives. Y Combinator and others have been calling people to arms to try and “replace Hollywood”, but I’m pretty sure that those people are already out there. There are hundreds of people making short films in their basements for absolutely no pay. Try browsing Archive.org for a while, and tell me that there isn’t something there for you. Then check out the Blender Foundation’s collection of animated shorts! I haven’t heard much talk about the RIAA’s part in this fiasco, but their replacement is already around, too: go to Jamendo and find out that there are some really awesome artists that use Creative Commons to protect their listeners. My favorites right now are Brad Sucks, Tenpenny Joke, and Josh Woodward.

Now, I’ve talked about the major proponents of SOPA/PIPA. But there is an irony in the whole situation that no-one seems to be seeing. While this was going on, and big companies were helping with the protest and censoring their own pages, nobody seemed to realize that those same big companies were guilty of much the same wrongs. Google, Tumblr, Minecraft, and TwitPic? None of these companies affords any freedom to their users! Sure, they let you use their products in limited capacity, but are you able to run a local instance of Tumblr? Can you modify Gmail? Can you even post anything you want on TwitPic? And Minecraft, of course, charges you to use the secret code and never truly lets you in to see it.

Basically what I’m saying is, most of the same people who talk big about digital freedom when it comes to SOPA/PIPA are abysmal at preserving those freedoms when it comes to simple freedoms: The freedom to use (in any way you want), the freedom to copy and distribute copies, the freedom to read and modify the source, and the freedom to redistribute modified copies. Those freedoms, in my life, are just as important as the integrity of DNS.

Now, I’ve talked a lot about digital freedom in a lot of different formats, and if I’ve learned anything it’s this: No one wants to make a drastic change, especially not in this particular area. So my advice is this: Check out the links above. Head over to the Free Software Directory and find something cool that replaces a piece of software you’re using. If you read “Minecraft” earlier and were offended, check out Minetest instead. Don’t replace your entire system with Gentoo just yet–that takes a lot of expertise. But maybe it’s time to use Firefox instead of Chrome? Maybe download LibreOffice to finally replace Microsoft Office? Maybe even brave the switch to Clementine to get away from iTunes! Little, tiny steps like this can really make a big difference in the landscape, and certainly in your perception of free software as being inaccessible or difficult to use.

Another great thing you can do to help in the fight for digital freedom is to join the Free Software Foundation. They’re having a membership drive right now, and they could really use the money. They’ll put it towards making cool software, educating people about it, and pushing for adoption of free formats.

And finally, Internet, I implore you to make one more small step towards freedom: Tell your friends. I don’t care if that translates into pageviews for me (no ads here), but I do care that you spread the word. Start a conversation one day about why everyone uses Office. Ask your graphic designer friends if they’ve tried the GIMP or Inkscape recently. Try not to get too into it–I’ve gone down that road, it’s not pretty–but definitely start to ask people you know about their choices, and if they could make better ones going forward.

Thank you, and go freely.

The Future Under SOPA

A lot of people have been talking about SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act”, which is a bill currently breezing through the US Congress like chicken pox. So, I’m hoping I can shed a little light on what the Internet will look like after SOPA is passed–or at least, my perception of what it will look like.

Intentions vs. Reality

It’s my understanding that SOPA was meant to, well, stop online piracy. The congress seems to think that enacting censorship laws and the like is the perfect way to control what happens on the Internet. They seem to think they have a pretty tight grip over that medium.

In reality, though, an oppressive law–or even a slightly offensive law–has always been easily circumvented by the Internet’s citizens (netizens, as some call them). Consider the recent situations in China, in Libya, in Iran….people don’t sit down and bear it when a government takes an oppressive tack towards the Internet, they stand up and help! Hackers across the world have helped people use proxies and the like to evade firewalls and censorship, but the US Congress thinks that it is different.

But that’s not the only problem with the Congress’ reality. They also appear to think that this law will be a deterrent against piracy. I’m sorry to inform them, however, that the American youth with which I’ve been acquainted are not so easily deterred. Especially when a law is so blatantly unjust, they will not only ignore the law but *actively rail against it* with great fervor. This may not manifest as protests on college campuses, as that era seems to have come and gone, but it will almost certainly manifest in an increased rate of online piracy attempts. If the Congress intends to hurt the web and imprison many well-meaning young people, they have a lot of explaining to do!

Ramifications in Politics

Of course, the practical ramifications as listed above won’t be the only effects. The politicians who support it and vote for it will be voted out of office. It’s not the case that those politicians will be unable to find support–the few people in the MPAA and RIAA will still vote for them, and the portion of Americans who fail to keep up with online news (anyone who only reads the newspaper, for example) will likely not care about the incumbent’s voting record. But any young person, savvy with technology, will undoubtedly step in to not only vote for the challenger, but also campaign feverishly against the incumbent who was so unfair to the web.

Ramifications for Free Software

If the FSF has any sense left, they’ll be jumping on this issue as much as possible. I’d suggest they go on various news channels, to start. They should also make appearances at debates and town hall meetings, to put as much pressure on the candidates as possible. If people associate the FSF with Internet justice, they will likely associate them with digital justice in general. That effect would be a great one for the FSF, which has of late been rather quiet.

Three big things are (hopefully) going to happen very soon: Increased opposition to SOPA, the ousting of its supporters, and the rise of the FSF as a viable political entity. Here’s hoping this year will be a great one for digital freedom.

Freedom: A Struggle, Not a Nose Dive

As regular readers, my friends and family, and anyone who spends more than five minutes talking with me will already know, I am a huge supporter of free software. I will constantly speak on the subject, in public and private settings; I will buy shirts and stickers from free projects; I will even occasionally give my time to free projects that interest me.

Today, however, I’m taking a strange tack: I think free software advocates need to pull back a little bit.

What!?

It’s taken me quite some time to come to this conclusion, so I’d appreciate some time to explain myself.

First, I used to be a very gung-ho kind of supporter. I would advocate for all free software, and nothing less….anything less, in fact, was unacceptable under every circumstance.

Now, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about how they react to my discussions with them. I learned, but was not surprised, that I often turned people off with my cold demeanor and exact terminology. I don’t generally give emotion any sway in an argument, and I was pretty convinced that it was a good thing. However, I also learned something–barely–while talking to one particular person. This person didn’t disagree with me, it became clear–she was simply not ready to jump headfirst into what could be a tank of sharks. She wanted to be cautious, and, admittedly, she had a few things still tying her to nonfree software.

So What?

This person’s point gave me a bit of an epiphany. Rather than pushing people to take a nose dive, I should encourage them to work against their oppressors in the way that most revolutions have worked in the past: Through small, incremental changes that built on one another. This made perfect sense, because that’s also how I build arguments and other things in my life.

It brought me to the realization that we, the free software camp, had become just as bad as the nonfree software supporters–asking people to throw something away without being fully prepared, and without fully understanding the reasons why.

What Now?

The last piece in the puzzle is to come up with a better way to advocate. I maintain that any free software advocate should forego supporting nonfree software–so anyone who asks for help with a Windows- or OS X-related issue (e.g., wireless problems, window management tips, how to uninstall software) shouldn’t find that help with a free software advocate. However, a free software advocate could reasonably suggest other options to the problem–for example, if a user can’t connect to a web page in Safari, suggesting that they use Firefox would be the first best step to fixing their issue.

Outside of people coming to you for help, you can help others by suggesting small, incremental steps. Don’t ask them to throw everything away and start fresh. Suggest Firefox, then move on to suggesting other free alternatives–identi.ca instead of Twitter, free games instead of nonfree ones, SumatraPDF (or similar) instead of Adobe Reader, and Songbird instead of iTunes. Once they get the hang of the free alternatives, suggest that they find HTML5 web videos as opposed to Flash. Then, maybe suggest a switch from Windows to GNU/Linux (possibly Trisquel or gNewSense).

These small steps will eventually bring someone to the point where they can run a fully free system.

Thanks for reading!

Nonfree Physical Products

A friend and I had a very interesting conversation on Wednesday night about how the free software ideology could translate into the physical world, such as with beverages and food whose recipes are not disclosed to the public. I have a few things I want to say clearly about the subject that I feel I didn’t get the chance to on Wednesday, so here we go:

The Similarities

There are a few very good points that my friend brought up about how the two situations are similar:

  • Physical products can also have information, required to create them, that is not disclosed by the company that makes it
  • That information is sometimes released, but not by the biggest corporations
  • Even if corporations do release the information, they mask it in a way that makes it useless for actually making the product (like APIs)

These are a lot of good things to draw on in this argument, so I can see where someone might conclude that physical products are just as important to have them be free. Since we, the consumers, do not have the information (and, as my friend pointed out, are never allowed to, even if the consumer is another company), we cannot possibly make the right decision about which product is best for us, nor can we improve upon or change the product.

The Differences

This is the important part, though: We *can* improve upon and change the product. We can’t necessarily do it at the source every time, but there are ways to chemically modify a beverage or food, I’m sure. I am not a chemist, but I know there are ways to modify even things you don’t know the content of. And of course, simply adding flavor is a perfectly acceptable tack. Maybe you couldn’t sell that finished product under the original name, but I doubt Pepsi would be too irritated that you were spreading their brand (even if it’s only the taste).

The only reason the consumer is allowed to do that, of course, is the other big difference between physical products and digital ones: In the physical world, no-one makes you sign a license that specifically precludes you from using the product in certain ways, or copying it, or redistributing. Admittedly, the latter three are implied based on the laws of the region, since patent law will likely prevent you from copying the formula verbatim, and redistributing under the same name will result in a trademark lawsuit.

The Big Deal

But those implied protections are not imposed by the corporation, they are imposed by the government–which we might not have much chance to change, but there is *some* chance. The biggest difference, to me, is that in the case of a physical product, we can lobby the government to regulate the practices of various corporations, and we can lobby the government to change patent and trademark laws (not that it’s working, but again, there is a chance). In the digital world, many of the restrictions placed on users is placed there by a contractual agreement between the user and the corporation selling the software. This is different in two ways: You can refuse to sign a contract (unlike a law, which you accept regardless of your wishes), and you cannot change a contract’s text (at least not an EULA, which is not generally up for debate).

Since the case of software is so much more the fault of the user, I have to consider that case before any others. I think that educating people so they don’t trap themselves in a contract they don’t understand is a pretty important venture. I understand my friend’s point, that beverage companies and the like are similarly bad, but I see them as mostly an indirect evil, so I’m not as worried about their works as I am worried about software companies.

Thanks for reading!

Occupy Free Software!

I’ve been hearing a lot about the Occupy ______ movements. They walk into a park near their city hall, they stand around for weeks, and make cries on Twitter, Facebook, and the like for people to come and help them. They hope to achieve a wide variety of things, but their broad focus appears to be the shift in wealth distribution from the rich down to the poor. They are, in large part, interested in redistribution of wealth to narrow the rich-poor gap in America.

Reality Check

There is a very big problem with this protest, and it is pretty evident to me after only reading the above paragraph: These people are still *relying* on corporate America. There is, very simply, *no way* that they can keep it in check at the same time. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and the others are just as much–if not more–offensive as the big corporations on Wall Street. Sure, they don’t take our financial assets necessarily (or rather, visibly), but these companies do hurt us, and it’s time for the Occupy movement to start recognizing that.

Twitter, Facebook, et al. are hurting their customers by restricting them in various ways. They do not allow the use of their software for any purpose. They do not allow people to copy their software. They especially don’t allow study or modification of it. These are basic digital freedoms that every computer user–whether they expect to actually exercise them or not–should fight to the death to preserve.

Occupy Free Software

The only way the Occupy movement can successfully move forward is to embrace the ideals of Free Software. To do this, I would suggest the following concrete steps:

  1. Replace all nonfree forms of communication used by the movement with their free alternatives. For example, anyone using Facebook currently should shift to use Diaspora or another similar free solution (GNU Social, etc.), and those using Twitter should use identi.ca instead (or some instance of StatusNet).
  2. Announce publicly that the movement has, as one of its main priorities, the disapproval and subversion of corporations’ control over their customers, as opposed to their helpfulness to the same.
  3. Have Free Software advocates come out to support the cause–which will not happen until the above two are at least seriously considered.

A Note for Skeptics

I’m sure some of you are (or have been) thinking something along the lines of “Free Software is overrated” or “but I enjoy using nonfree software” or “but it is an industry standard.”

If you allowed such trivial arguments to come between you and your freedoms, you would probably wind up living in a dictatorship very quickly. As an example, do you often use your fourth amendment liberty from cruel and unusual punishment? No, but if it were indefinitely suspended, you would be angry. In the same fashion, people who do not constantly use the digital freedoms enumerated by the Free Software Foundation should not say that they are useless or trivial–they are vitally important to many of us, and throwing them away for trivial or facially untrue reasons (“I can’t open .docx in GNU/Linux”, for example, is false) is not only ridiculous, it’s maddening.

Thanks for reading!