It's the time of year where bills need to be paid, gifts bought and subscriptions renewed. Not only that, but this year seems to have been particularly hard on many people around the world, with cruel economic austerity policies, war and natural disasters leaving them dependent on the generosity of others. At times like these it is easy to justify the first few donations to charities before thoughts of budgets and priorities arise, leaving some lesser-known worthy causes out in the cold.
I benefit a lot from Free Software, at home and at work. In its many forms, it supports my interests, provides opportunities for learning, and helps to keep me in touch with friends and family. You might already use a Free Software operating system, such as GNU/Linux, or a mobile device based on the Linux kernel, like Google's Android. You might be surprised to learn that you also benefit from Free Software through the software that runs the online services you use and, indirectly, from the tools that the developers of those services use to make them. The network itself and many appliances on it also depend on Free Software operating systems and applications.
The principles of Software Freedom, written down in the GNU General Public License (GPL), aim to ensure that the users have the freedom to study, modify and redistribute software released under that license. Those principles would appear to be very popular given that Free Software under the GPL is so widely used, so you could be forgiven for expecting that you could just download the source code for almost any piece of software that you use. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
It seems that quite a few companies are not so willing to keep to the terms of the GPL, much less to the spirit of sharing and cooperation that helped create the software they use and distribute. While a large part of the credit for making a successful product is due to the companies who design, build and sell products that use Free Software, it shouldn't diminish the credit that the developers of that software are due for their efforts. It's often tempting to think that some "secret sauce" is the key ingredient in the recipe for success but we should remember that, without Free Software, there may not have been a product to begin with. In any case, a company shipping a product built on Free Software needs to follow the terms of the license, whether that is the GPL or some other license.
I vaguely remember when I first encountered the GPL. I think I probably reacted to it in the way I see other people do, feeling that someone was telling me what I could and couldn't do with the software. Coming from an environment where things were "shareware" or "public domain" (but not in a well-defined sense), a software license that told you what you had to do if you redistributed the software seemed a bit overbearing, but I had ignored the fact that, without any of those terms, copyright law wouldn't allow me to legally redistribute the software at all!
Some developers prefer to release the software they write under other Free Software licenses that don't require other developers to pass on the rights they enjoy to the users of their software. People are free to release software under whatever license they choose, but we see what happens when these rights are not shared with users. There is a complacency around releasing software that extends to that released under the GPL, especially when it comes to the latest gadgets and toys. So many companies hide the fact that their products run Free Software and rely on their customers being unaware of their rights as recipients of that software. Even those that openly distribute software updates and downloads rarely provide source code, and many of them make it difficult to find and obtain it when they do. I almost get the impression with some companies that there is a kind of resentment about complying with the GPL, a feeling that they deserve to use the software but shouldn't have to do anything asked or required of them. It makes me wonder where else they cut corners in their production process.
Many companies are happy to impose their own terms and conditions on users. How hard is it for them to comply with a license that has enabled much of the success that they enjoy? As a user, I don't want to have to ask permission to get something that I should already have access to - as a customer, I shouldn't have to demand something that should have been part of the product I paid for. If your phone came without a charger or USB cable, you might well complain. If you have the right to the source code for the software running on it, you should be able to easily obtain that software. If we don't ask for the things we have a right to receive, companies will find it convenient to ignore the other rights we have, then we will need to spend even more time and resources fighting for what we now take for granted.
I think that many companies need to take their obligations and responsibilities to their customers seriously. That's why I am supporting Software Freedom Conservancy in their efforts to promote Software Freedom and ensure that companies that distribute software licensed under the GPL follow the terms of that license. I encourage others to do the same.
Category: Free Software
Copyright © 2016 David Boddie
Published: 2015-11-28 00:00:00 UTC
Last updated: 2016-10-14 11:14:08 UTC