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GNU/Linux: Source Code and Human Rights - page 3

Reframing the Conversation

  • May 8, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

When you stop to think, all of the rights conveyed by FOSS licenses come down to basic consumer rights. Proprietary software users accept all sorts of restrictions that would outrage them with any other product--and mostly for no other reason than that's how things have always been since the personal computer became commonplace.

But, when you stop to think, why should you have to enter a registration code or send an activation code before you can your software? Why should you be restricted in how many computers you can install purchased software on? Or prevented from passing it on to a friend? If someone tried to restrict your use of a book in the same way, you'd be outraged. I sometimes think that half the reason for software piracy in the industrialized world is that it's a half-conscious rebellion against the restrictive rules that are the norm in the software industry.

Yet software publishers get away with these practices because their end-user license agreements (which you can't read until you open the package) specify that you are not buying their software but licensing the use of it. This sleight-of-hand justifies not only such everyday restrictions, but also various forms of manufacturer spyware and lockdown technologies that prevent you from using your software in any way that might be illegal.

Probably, you don't remember acquiescing to such actions, since simply opening the box is considered to signal your agreement. Probably, you aren't aware of it, either, unless you use security software that tells you when an executable is sending information unasked. Yet it is simply the norm in modern computing.

By contrast, in giving you broad rights to copy and redistribute, FOSS restores your basic consumer rights to you. All that proprietary licenses forbid you to do, FOSS licenses encourage you to do, making your software no different than anything else in your house. True, the GNU General Public License is not incompatible with lockdown technologies, but if your system uses any, you can easily find out via a Web search--and find the source code so that you can circumvent the restrictions if you choose.

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