Free as in Speech: The Only Software License Which Makes Sense

The following piece was written for Writing 2202: Winning Your Argument – Rhetorical Strategy in a Visual Age course at Western University. It was submitted in partial fulfillment of the final project. You are more than welcome to use the information provided here by correctly citing the source; however, you may not use or submit this for an assignment.

Richard Stallman, a software freedom activist and the father of GNU project, defines free software as software that respects the user’s freedom (Stallman 3). For the purpose of this writing, free refers to freedom in terms of modifying, studying and sharing software and not the fees associated with it. Software licenses are typically categorized in proprietary and open source licenses; each license then has different sets of sublicenses which developers can choose when releasing their software.

Proprietary software, also known as closed source, is a type of software which the user is not able to copy or share; moreover, all rights are reserved specifically for the copyright holder. On the other hand, a free and open source software allows individuals to copy, share, and modify the program without any or minimum restrictions.

This essay argues that the society lives upon the principle of caring and to share is to care; a free software allows individuals to become part of a network of people participating in creating a better product, it also permits the discovery of flaws and performance improvement.

Proprietary Software

Derived from the Latin word proprietas, meaning property, proprietary software is a type of software which is copyright protected by the individual developer or the company which created the software. The source code, a human-readable computer language, is often hidden from the user. Microsoft products, such as Windows, Skype, and Office, as well as Adobe products like Photoshop, are some examples of proprietary software.

Stallman states that “making a program proprietary is an exercise of power” (247) to highlight how developers and companies who release their software as proprietary use copyright laws to prevent user interactions.

“proprietary and secret software is the moral equivalent of runners in a fist fight … [and] the only referee we’ve got does not seem to object to fights; he just regulates them”
– Stallman

To demonstrate his belief in creating competition for software developers, Stallman says “proprietary and secret software is the moral equivalent of runners in a fist fight … [and] the only referee we’ve got does not seem to object to fights; he just regulates them” (34). In his explanation, in contrast to free and open source software, the copyright laws just enforce regulations and in reality, has zero impact on the fact that the society loves to share.

Free and Open Source Software

A free and open source software is a software which is not proprietary and is released with no or minimal restrictions. In most cases, open source software is developed in a collaborative environment where users are encouraged to take part in order to improve the software.

Two of most famous and widely used free and open source software licenses are the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) and the MIT License. The GPL license allows users to sell copies of their programs under the condition that the individual who purchased the software is free to distribute the software without notifying the developer. Consequently “by working on and using GNU rather than proprietary programs, we can be hospitable to everyone and obey the law” (Stallman 29).

Linux, today’s second largest web client, is an example of an open source software. Mozilla Firefox, the third most popular web browser is also an open source software developed for Windows, OS X, Linux and is available for free. To examine the popularity of open source software among current generation, it is fair to mention that one of the most favored content management system (CMS) known as WordPress is also free and open source and is released under GPL.

A free and open source software license create a platform which offers powerful collaboration, code review, and code management for open source software.

Linus Torvalds, a software engineer and the man behind the development of Linux kernel says “In open source, we feel strongly that to really do something well, you have to get a lot of people involved” (Diamond). Participation is a key for the success of an open source program because it allows individuals around the world to act as one single mind to create and develop better software. A free and open source software license create a platform which offers powerful collaboration, code review, and code management for open source software.

Access to the Source Code

To study the software, one must have access to the source code. Compared to proprietary software where the source code is hidden from the end user, the source code for free and open source software is available to be studied and modified.

Users are free to find flaws and to adjust and to correct the software based on their needs. Being able to access the source code of software also allows individuals to translate it into their desired languages. Some may argue that allowing the general public to access the source code of software creates potential security risks. For example, the discovery of a security bug known as the HeartBleed in the OpenSSL library, an open-source implementation of the TLS and SSL protocols, brought up the questions on whether a proprietary software could have been safer than an open source project.

During the incident a security patch is released within the same day of the public announcement; however, users may have to wait months for a security release if a flaw is found within the proprietary software.

If software is released under a free and open source license, then generally it is more stable because every developer who has access to the source code can find and release an update to fix the issues. Making the source code available to other developers not only improves the performance of software, but it also allows developers to identify potential bugs and quickly fix them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is essentials for software to be released under the free software license. It gives the end user the freedom to run the software for any purposes, distribute copies of it, study and modify it. Furthermore, software developed by many developers around the world typically has a better quality than the software prepared by a single company.

Open source endorses code examination for security flaws which allows developers to identify and eliminate security bugs. In contrast to proprietary software where there are zero tolerance policies against sharing, it is much easier to follow the laws and still enjoy sharing the software with many people while using free software. After all, individuals live in a society where sharing is becoming part of ones live, and software should not be exceptional.

Works Cited

  • “Anti-Piracy FAQ.” Software & Information Industry Association. The Software & Information Industry Association, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
  • Boudriga, Noureddine and Obaidat, Mohammad. Security of E-systems and Computer Networks. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.
  • Diamond, David. “The Way We Live Now: 9-28-03: Questions for Linus Torvalds: The Sharer.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Sept. 2003. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
  • Popa, Bogdan. “Man Faces 45 Years in Prison for Selling Pirated Windows XP.” Softpedia. SoftNews NET SRL Romania, 9 Nov. 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
  • Stallman, Richard. Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation, 2002. Print.