Free Software – Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman, one of the world’s leading activists in the field of free software, was recently here in Oman to speak about this subject. Stallman’s free software is not software that does not cost you anything to get, but one that gives you the freedom to copy, redistribute, modify, and examine the source code of the software. To the supporters of free software, these freedoms are as important as human rights in the digital age, as one should have the right to take control over any software that runs on his computer whether it was at home, school, or business. I understand the philosophy behind this position, but I can’t say that I fully agree with it.
To those who are capable of reading computer source code, debugging system issues, and customizing software on their computer, these rights campaign for by Stallman would be of great importance to the way they use technology, but to the majority of people on this planet, software source code is just as unreadable as software object code, people do not care how their software runs – they just want it to do what it is supposed to do. If what we are after is the best experience for consumers, then less access might be the most effective way of delivering such an experience. The iPhone is one of the most restrictive computing environment and while it is a very powerful device, Apple does not allow anyone to install any application before it examines and approves that software. To the supporters of free software, this is an extreme violation of their right to customize software they use as they see fit, but to the majority of the casual users of the iPhone, this ensures that their phones will not crash because of badly written code.

The issue of who should have control over software has several aspects, while it might make sense for the end user to have control over the software he installs on his computer, if you think of software like any other type of intellectual property, then the author of the software has more right over that control. If I create something I should have the right to reasonably control the distribution and use of my property. It is true that the law of copyright worldwide has not proved to effectively address the needs of the age of the internet, the basic concepts of copyright are still necessary as a tool to provide an incentive for individuals and companies to create more works and to provide them with a framework for making a living off their works. The solution to the failures of the copyright system should not be to trash it completely but to modify it to address the new reality of the web.

Of course, there are a lot of examples of successful free or open source projects all over the internet now, but that cannot reasonably be made the only way for creating all sorts of digital or any creative works. Different industries have different needs and it should be the market that will determine which business model to prevail.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.