May 25, 2018

Linux and Free/Open Source Software: Why Code For Free? (part 1)

The Four Freedoms

  • July 24, 2009
  • By Carla Schroder
Many tens of thousands of words have been printed over the years in attempts to answer the question "Why would anyone want to code for free?" Sometimes it is phrased more bitingly, like "Richard Stallman thinks programmers should work for free and starve to death!" With rare exceptions, various pundits, analysts, and random passersby have tried to explain these issues without asking any actual developers, or having any coding experience themselves. And thus in a daring deed of the blindingly obvious, I asked several experienced, professional developers for their views on the subject. These will be published next week in Part 2. Today I'm going to look at the value of Free/Open Source software to the non-coder, us lowly end users.

The Four Freedoms

Let's start back near the beginning, with Richard Stallman's famous Four Freedoms:

* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Note how this grants maximum rights to the end-user. It's anything goes; you can do anything you want for your own personal use. Contrast this with the modern trend of invading, tracking, and trying to control personal use. These freedoms have strong legal protection in the GPL, the most popular Free Software License.

There are several dozen different Free/Open Source licenses with differing requirements. But they all have the common element of greatly expanded user freedoms.

You might read Mr. Stallman's book Free as in Freedom, which is available to read for free thanks to both his generosity, and the generosity of O'Reilly Media.

But I Don't Write Code, So Why Should I Care?

Even if you're not a programmer you still benefit. I'm sure you've read the many horror stories over the years of spyware, backdoors, and other nastinesses placed by vendors in closed, proprietary software. Without access to the source code the only way you can catch these in the act is to monitor the software's activity, such as watching what it sends out over the network and analyzing processes. Both of which are time-consuming, and if the nefarious activities are encrypted or hidden by other means, good luck. The proprietary software industry seems to be tightly-clenched in the grip of mistrust, and customers are not welcomed and valued but rather viewed with suspicion.

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