The Freeness of Free Software
It’s a joy to be able to download and use unencumbered software. Partly because of price. There is so much software out there and you could easily spend hundreds and thousands of dollars each year on equivalent proprietary software. Transactional costs would really slow you down if you’re always having to make purchase decisions on software that you may or may not derive long term value from.
Yes, there are trial versions, but the limited time or functionality may not be enough to evaluate the software under normal use. Or maybe you only need it for one task. Or maybe it’s not just for your personal use and you have to consider the impact of all the other parties you might want or need to use the software also to achieve your goal. Will they be willing and able to pay?
Even when the monetary price is manageable, the strings attached to non-free licenses are costs you bear, and it’s much too expensive in liberty lost. If you have one hundred pieces of proprietary software on your machine, you have one hundred entities with a say in what you do with your computer. I want my MTV and my Ones and Zeros.
Of course there are obligations in free software licenses also, but they apply mainly to distribution. You are free in the private realm of your machine. And to me, the restrictions on distribution are not onerous at all. You simply have to preserve the same freedom for others that you enjoyed.
Compliance with a free software license is an honor and recognizes the importance of freedom. Compliance with a proprietary license is a dreary exercise in submission and petty accounting. The creation of scarcity where none should exist.
With proprietary software and formats, your future use of the software and the investment you make in creating data with it are at the mercy of one company. They may discontinue the program you’ve come to depend on, or make new versions that are incompatible with your old one, or pressure you into expensive upgrades to stay compatible with new operating systems.
I don’t like that kind of long term uncertainty. I say that as someone who enjoyed programming in Visual Basic 6, which has no future now because Microsoft is letting it die. You’re just not free with proprietary software. (Please forgive the conflation of software and formats. There has been some movement in the direction of open formats, but I think proprietary software makers are always going to try to lock you in on the data.)
(And I’m not really bitter about VB. Microsoft did me a favor there by helping to highlight a problem with non-free software, and hopefully I’ll soon become as productive in Java or some other free language.)
With free software, its future may be largely at the mercy of the development community, but it doesn’t seem like a big risk for the popular projects. Some group will likely have an interest in maintaining the software and formats you use.
We have this amazing new digital frontier, and its products can be replicated at zero cost. I want to be part of a community that freely shares these easily copied “goods,” and live in a society that recognizes it is harmful to restrict the use of published information and knowledge.
I say “published” to head off the those who might speciously ask if I think we should freely share everyone’s bank account number. That is private information. Maybe I should further qualify by saying “voluntarily published” to answer the person who brings up leaks of private information.
For another obvious objection to this free love nirvana, there is the whole subject of how we create incentive for people to write the software in the first place. But that is separate issue than what happens to it after publication.
Finally, I like that I can write about free software and recommend it to others and they can likewise download and install it and enjoy the same freedom. Eventually I hope to get more involved with free software development and take an active part in this cycle of creating and freely sharing knowledge and the benefits of the digital world.