“Free Software”: An idea whose time has passed

Author : salahudin7789
Publish Date : 2021-03-25 17:08:37


“Free Software”: An idea whose time has passed

Almost forty years ago, in 1985, the idea of “Free Software” was born. That is not to say that the idea of sharing software with colleagues and making source code available was born. Ten years before the GNU Manifesto and the Free Software Foundation, I worked at a cloud services company (only we called it “timesharing” back then), and in order to encourage people to use our offerings and pay us for renting computer time and disk space and network bandwidth, we curated a collection of software libraries that customers could freely use. We called it the Public Library, of course. The software therein was public software. The idea of public software was software that anybody could freely use. What happened in 1985 was the birth of the idea that creation of software was a political act. And that when the creation of software was motivated by politics, it should be called free software to differentiate it from software created for other reasons. This became clear to be when I attended my first O’Reilly Open Source Conference, where I watched Miguel de Icaza debate Richard Stallman — and the question on the table was whether or not there was a difference between “free software” and “open source software”. The conclusion was that there was no detectable difference from examining the software or the license or any artifact. The difference was the intent of the programmer. If the intent was political (i.e. a concern for freedom), then the result was free software. If the intent was industrial, the result was open source software. I use the term industrial because the motivation of the open source crowd is to use what they believe to be a superior method of producing software.
My interest in free or open source software has never been either political or industrial. My interest has always been educational. That is, access to the source code provided the opportunity to learn from it. So, in the same spirit as the Open Source / Free Software distinction, I coined the term Liberal Software to refer to software where the intent of the programmer is educational (liberal as in education). Any one of these three intents can produce software for which the source code is available — and that is often called FLOSS, meaning Free, Liberal, or Open Source Software.
I prefer to think about these categories in terms of intent, because that opens the door to reflecting about effective strategies to implement that intent. So, for example, if it were to turn out that, all other things being equal, providing source code for libraries could be shown to produce software of inferior quality (and there is much evidence to support such a conclusion), then someone with an intent to produce industrial software might choose to pursue a course of action that did not involve making the source code available. The availability of source code is certainly invaluable in Liberal Software, and there are several scenarios regarding industrial software that require access to the source code. But that is a discussion for a different time.
Today’s topic is political software. I think it is clear that the Free Software Foundation has failed to move the needle on the political issues relating to software. Those of us who are interested in issues of freedom and ethics and social justice related to software must explore alternative stratagems to achieve those objectives. The tactics of the Free Software Foundation (the insistence on copylefting software and fighting software patents) have become more and more ineffective. The world of software has evolved and changed in the years since 1985: we need to let the past die and build a better future.
The first sign that free software is intellectually bankrupt is that the Free Software Foundation seems unable to develop new generations of leadership. Free societies are usually lukewarm to the practice of “dictators for life”. After around a decade, it is a healthy sign if new leadership emerges. It is a sign of growth and innovation. It is healthy. Seeing the same people in the same places pursuing the same failed tactics decade after decade is evidence of a lack of broader acceptance.
Secondly, I am reminded of Harry Truman’s quote:
It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
The Free Software Foundation is famously fixated on insisting that it be given credit for Linux. Caring about who gets the credit more than successfully creating change is not a good look. It is, of course, consistent with the ego required to cling to power and smother the growth of the next generation. Linux is perhaps the child that succeeded where GNU failed.
Thirdly, the rhetoric of Free Software devotees is awkward and unconvincing. The inflexibility (or inarticulateness) that has failed to evolve the talking points to make them more effective is a failure of politics. To take my own pet peeve, it is unarguable that inanimate objects cannot have freedoms. People have freedoms. Frying pans, as an example, cannot have freedoms. If one were to talk about Free Frying Pans, the only way to interpret that statement is that one is referring to frying pans that one needn’t pay for. When one uses the phrase “free press”, one is not suggesting that the pile of metal and wood that constitutes a printing press machine is entitled to freedoms. The word “press” in that phrase is a figure of speech known as metonymy. It refers to journalists. “Freedom of the press” is talking about the freedom bestowed on journalists. Most people understand that “the press” refers to the journalist collective. So when one says “free software” or “software freedom” we know that the freedom is not given to an executable file. The expression (unless we are referring to software that we needn’t pay for) is referring to freedom for some group of people that we know as “the software” (y’know, like “the press”). And who are those people who are members of “the software”? That was a rhetorical question. Please don’t try to explain it to me. I was pointing out how nonsensical this framing is. Rhetoric is a discipline that has been around for over two thousand years. We have two thousand years of scholarship that inform us that the phrase “software freedom” is meaningless gibberish. It can only sow confusion — and the confusion is only exacerbated by explaining that you used the words to mean something else entirely. That was Lewis Carroll’s point in Through the Looking Glass:
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’”, Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
The Free Software coterie is fond of insisting that words mean what they say they mean, and that is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of language. Such linguistic naïveté is not an asset in pursuing political goals.
With all that said, the intent of the adherents to the term Free Software is to seek to promote certain freedoms for the users of software, by depriving the creators of software (at least in the United States) of the rights afforded them by Congress under Article I, Section VIII, Clause VIII. Many programmers are under the impression that “software freedom” is meant to increase the freedoms of software producers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The GNU manifesto and Free Software Foundation take great pains to explain that their intent is to increase the freedom of computer users — at the expense, of course, of software producers. “The Software” is a metonym for software users. The difficulty is that the freedoms that the Free Software Foundation insists on giving software users are freedoms that most software users do not want, and the freedoms that they wish to restrict for software producers are freedoms that most software producers would rather retain. The so-called Free Software coterie might make more headway if it took the trouble to find out what freedoms “the software” (a/k/a software users — see how awkward this metonymy is) actually wanted. Instead they invest most of their energy trying to convince “the software” of which freedoms they ought to want. In that vein, the intent of the programmer who selects the license makes it “free software” or not — the intent of the user is not considered. If a user uses software with political intent, but it is not licensed in a way that the Free Software Foundation approves of, can “the software (meaning the user)” be exercising freedom?
Prior to 1983, (two years before the Free Software Foundation was founded), all computers sold by IBM (which in those days meant pretty much “all computers”) came with the source code to the operating system. Like Linux (although you usually have to download the source code separately nowadays). Every company (because computers were so expensive that individuals couldn’t afford them) had a “data processing” staff which might make changes to the source code should the need arise (fixing problems, adding features). Many companies, however, were not large enough or sophisticated enough to have the kind of staff which could do this effectively. They would prefer to contract out the maintenance of the operating system software to the vendor (IBM). IBM, however, was unwilling to take this on, since everybody had the source code, and might have made modifications. IBM had no way to know what modifications might have been made, and consequently would be unable to accurately estimate how much work might need to be done. Eventually, due to persistent customer demand, they came up with their OCO (Object Code Only) program — in which you could receive the software WITHOUT the source code. In that case, IBM could provide a service contract for their software as they wouldn’t have to contend with individual local modifications. It turns out that computer users mostly wanted freedom FROM source code, rather than the freedom to use the source code to modify their operating system. Two years later, the Free Software Foundation was founded to try to foist the source code on people who didn’t want it.
If your counter-argument to that is “but that was the 1980’s and the nature of software has changed since then — so that situation no longer applies” I have two responses. Firstly, the GNU manifesto was written in the 1980’s, and the nature of software has changed since then, so it no longer applies. Secondly, the largest Free Software business, Red Hat, has always had “freedom from source code” as its business model. A business pays Red Hat with the same licensing scheme as they would for any proprietary commercial operating system, in exchange for which Red Hat frees them from the inconvenience of needing to be exposed to the source code.
Discussions of Free Software often start with the origin myth about access to the printer software source code at the MIT AI labs. Being denied the ability to get a notification when the network printer jams is fairly low down on the list of human rights violations. When discussing why Free Software partisans think “software freedom” is of any us



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