Free software can be difficult to appreciate. (It’s free stuff, what’s the significance?) But there’s a fight for freedom with software. Free software is a movement and a philosophy, but most importantly it’s a legal structure that provides freedom. Users of software have rights, and free software licenses, ideally as copyleft licenses, maintain user control over software we all rely on. Further, free software licenses promote sharing of source code contributing to a vital digital commons.
It also creates an ecosystem of distributed software ownership. Like co-ops and platform co-ops, ownership is carefully considered by free software licensing. This far-reaching collaboration of software is part of a counter-economy described by Michael Bauwens in an article on Shareable.com about a commons-based economy.
I was lucky to attend the LibrePlanet conference this month in Cambridge, MA, put on by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The conference made clear that our liberties are affected by software. Movement leader Eben Moglen made clear in his presentation that the battlefront for freedom is software. You may like what you can do with your apps and devices, but invasive interests also like what they can do with your apps and devices. Author Cory Doctorow made this point clear in his keynote speech explaining that digital restrictions management (DRM) creates gates, and law, that benefit business interests. If business preferences become law, then our very way of life can become restricted. Free software licenses stop this from happening.
There are many free software licenses out there. Presenter Robinson Tryon emphasized using the right one for your project. His words are also repeated on GNU.org, and they can help you find a license: “The proliferation of different free software licenses is a significant problem in the free software community today, both for users and developers. We will do our best to help you find an existing free software license that meets your needs.”
Copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License 3.0 (GPL), you may have heard about, and thought that yes, it’s for do-gooders giving things away. But is making money, ie, being pragmatic with your software possible with free software? The father of free software, Richard Stallman, describes in an essay that idealism and pragmatism can be combined. And by the way, a lot of the world depends on Linux “one of the most prominent examples of free and open-source software collaboration,” according to Wikipedia.
Free software is fighting for us, and creating a software ecosystem that may be the central ecosystem to our liberty.