What initially drew me to Linux was technology curiosity, to be honest, but what has kept me using it exclusively for more than three years now is the principles upon which the free software movement is founded. Here is a fairly concise definition of free software as quoted from the GNU web site:
“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”.
Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (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 to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
As an educator, these freedoms are dear to me. When one considers the education gap in the United States alone, not to mention the world overall, it is not hard to see this gap lining up along the technology divide. Those with access to computers, the Internet, and so on have much greater access to information, knowledge, and educational opportunities than those without. Information, knowledge, and education should be free for all and free from the tax of Microsoft or Apple. The free software movement is interested in bridging this divide.
To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting your rights to learn and to share what you learn with others.
Now, I may not be able to say that I am completely “free” in my OS choice as I use Ubuntu, which is an excellent open source system but falls just short of meeting the rather rigorous criteria for software to be classified as truly free by the Free Software Foundation. While Ubuntu may include about 100 lines of proprietary code in order to make the system most usable with common graphics cards, wireless chips, and so on, their philosophy and driving force is still a humanitarian one, aimed at “spread[ing] and bring[ing] the benefits of software to all parts of the world” .
Absolutely free software, as it turns out, is not always absolutely easy to use. Purist free software proponents see this as an acceptable challenge because it is unacceptable to compromise freedom for quicker, easier development and implementation of software. (That’s not to say that free software cannot or is not both strong and reliable, but sometimes software designers make unacceptable comprises to make the software ostensibly work “better.” One can show quite empirically, though, that free software is more reliable.) More important still, according to Free Software standards, “software can be said to serve its users only if it respects their freedom.” I can buy that, and believe in these ideals.
So, when you hear the phrase “free software” you may be thinking free as in beer, and that’s ok. Come for the free beer, but stay for the free speech.