5 ways to misunderstand Free and Open Source Software.

The following are 5 ways that people misunderstand the concept of Free and Open Source Software.
1. The software industry can’t keep going if programmers don’t get paid.
Let’s begin with one simple fact: free software programmers do like to get paid, and all need to buy lunch at some time. When we mention free software, we refer to liberty not price. You may actually pay to get free software (or “open source” software), which you can then study, change and copy at will.
How does it work? You can think about it the following way: software is just code, code is only math. Once you view software as useful math, an elaborate language, not like ordinary property, there is no reason to restrict others’ use of it.
Just like math (where nobody would claim property on an equation), software requires advanced knowledge to be adapted, improved, applied correctly. This is where programmers generally generate an income: many customers, especially companies, are willing to pay for regular security updates and improvements on software.
Free software companies benefit from a very decentralised development system with a large number of voluntary contributors. The revenues inside the free software industry might be smaller than in the proprietary counterpoint, but are by no means negligible. In the end, individual users generally end up using free software at no cost.
Free software is not about killing incentives for programmers. It’s about seeing code as knowledge which should not be hidden from the user. It works with a different business model, in which many companies already do well.
2. Innovation is killed in free software.
The common perception is that if everyone can copy ideas, innovation will be stifled. In fact, freedom is often the key to innovative and successful software.
  • Anyone is allowed and encouraged to work upon it;
  • Many people are willing to participate;
  • There is no need to re-invent everything, ideas can be improved upon directly.
Non-proprietary software stands out in many areas: consider, to name just a few:
  • Applications: Firefox (web browser), Inkscape (vector drawing).
  • Complete systems: Apache (web server), OpenBSD (os), and of course, GNU/Linux.
  • Formats and protocols: HTML (web pages), BitTorrent (file sharing), ODF (office documents).
  • Server applications: Drupal (Content Management System), WordPress (blog).
3. Software Should Just Work (who cares about source code?)
Anyone should care about whether their software is free.
Imagine purchasing a car whose hood you are forbidden to open. It does not matter whether you know how a car works – the point is that nobody will be able to check the engine. How can you trust your car, if no one is allowed to make sure that it’s reliable, that it does not leak, that it’s not harmful to the society and environment?
The idea is the same with software – except that code does much more than move cars. Software runs our computers, phones, TVs, media players and more, carrying information and our culture.
Free software is as important as free speech, as a free market. If software is free, users have control and liberty over it.
The good news are: free software also Just Works. And in fact, it often Just Works Better. Pop in a GNU/Linux liveCD in your computer at start-up, to try a full-featured, well-organised system, without installation, so you can judge by yourself.
4. Free software doesn’t respect authors’ copyrighted and patented software.
To answer this correctly, we must first make a clear distinction between copyright and patents. Copyright is a right granted to the author over his/her creation (for example, the text of a book, or the source code of a program). A patent, on the other hand, is a purchased, registered exclusive control over a process, the application of an idea.
Copyright is very important in free software. It is the very mechanism, central to the GNU General Public License, which ensures that free software remains free, and that authors are credited for their work. Programs are copyrighted, whether they are free or proprietary.
Any proprietary software author can easily check that his copyright is not violated in a free software application, since its source code is readily available. Patents in software, on the other hand, are a very controversial concept. To put it shortly: there is no such thing as a “patented software”. By registering for a patent, however, someone can claim ownership over a process. The patent then applies to all software that use this process, whether proprietary or free.
Software patents:
  • Are expensive and are granted only several years after application;
  • Are limited geographically (a patent granted in the US is worthless in Europe);
  • Have long life-times (often 20 years) in a quickly-moving industry;
  • Often applies to entirely trivial processes.
As such, they are seldom used to benefit innovators (and in fact, rarely used by the innovators themselves).
It’s safe to say that any medium-size piece of software violates patents, in several countries, whether it’s free or not. Depending on the holding company’s ability to cover very large legal costs, or to retaliate with other patent threats, royalties and restrictions can be applied over these patents.
5. Free software is like communism.
Supporters of this idea argue that there can be no private ownership with free (or “open source” ) software. Let’s answer this with an example.
Let’s imagine that you use one application that is free software, at home and within your company. You find a great way to improve it, so now with your modified version, your computer works better and your factories run twice as fast!
This modified version is your own version. You are not required to tell anyone about it, nor must you share any of the profits you made using it. You are simply exerting your freedom to use and modify free software.
What the free software license requires is that if you redistribute this software, then you must keep it free.
Namely, if you sell CDs with your software on them, or start letting people outside your home or company use it, then you must:
  • Either give everyone the same rights you had when you obtained the original software, that is, the freedom to inspect, modify and redistribute your modified version;
  • Or, make the original software and your secret addition to it clearly separate (that is, your addition should contain none of the original work).
So in fact, you have more “ownership” over free software than over proprietary software –where the programmer decides everything you can and can’t do with the software.

Free software has nothing to do with a political system. You can run free software on top of proprietary software, just as well as the opposite. The free software license is simply a legal, ethical contract between the programmer and the end-user.
Originally posted on the Get GNU Linux blog.
Re-posted by Sinaisix

5 Replies to “5 ways to misunderstand Free and Open Source Software.”

  1. Very well said. People who claim OSS is communism or socialism in concept really have no idea about the difference between software and other intellectual property.

    As you said, programming is like math. No one can own the right to the idea of math. They can own the unique inventions that they produce using mathematics.

    Microsoft may own the rights to the Windows operating System but they don't own the rights to the concept of an GUI. They built upon the established idea of another (apple).

    No one should be able to own the rights to the concept of playing a video in a web browser, or playing a DVD. Unfortunately the Patent offices here in the US are not staffed with programmers who understand these distinctions and from what I understand they have granted Microsoft and other software giants the rights to certain technological concepts that should be free for all o explore. Thus innovation and progress are stifled on many fronts.

    If MS unleashed its lawyers they could destroy most of the progress of the last 20 years or so!

  2. Thanks too Helge for reading.

    Yea Jeff, it really worries me the way in which patents are dolled out like biscuits to big businesses in areas where the mention of the word patent and copyright should cause people to suffer fits.

    One of the greatest threats to innovation in the tech realm in the future is going to be the concept of patents and copyrights in areas that should be free for all.

    I hope those of you there add your voices to the call for proper circumspection in the way and manner in which 'intellectual rights' are being used to stifle all forms of innovation.

  3. Another way to misunderstand Free and Open Source movements is to confuse the differences between them. For many lay people and journalists, the terms "open source" and "free" software are interchangeable. This is a mistake. One is a political movement and the other is a development model.

    The free software movement is a social and political movement. The mission and purpose for this existance is to promote freedom and cooperation that is an essential part of a free and moral society. Freedom and cooperation cannot occur when people choose to accept proprietary software. This occurs because the masters over the proprietary software require users to promise to remain helpless and divided. The users often accept (and equally as often break) these promises of helplessness and division.

    The Open Source initiative is a software development model. This initiative was intended as a way of improving the efficiency of software development, thereby allowing users to benefit from powerful software earlier than would otherwise occur. It is said that this initiative was inspired by the free software movement.

    While both exist in opposition to corporate behemoths, their ends and means are often in conflict. 'Open-source [partisans] never suggest that there's anything unethical about proprietary software,' says Stallman. 'They just don't want to rock that boat.' Instead, they 'want to convince businesses to adopt free software, and they figure that, if they raise any kind of ethical question, that it will be off-putting to businessmen.'

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