Free as in Free Market

In his thoughtful post, The free software way, Richard Fontana (open source licensing and patent counsel at Red Hat) highlights the importance of the bundle of legal rights that make software “free as in freedom”. These are the broad freedoms that users have to view the source, copy, modify and redistribute the software. The four freedoms, embodied in licences such as the GPL, are the foundation on which our rights as users rest. He points out that the term “Open Source” fails to capture the central idea of this bundle of rights.

But are these rights enough?

The Public Sector Remix project, aimed at bringing contestability back to the public sector desktop, highlighted the importance of what I have come to think of as “the fifth freedom”—it’s not enough for the software to be free, the documentation must be free too. On the desktop, this means adopting not just a free software stack, it means adopting open standards in general and ODF in particular.

It is encouraging to read that Danish state administrations will adopt ODF and let’s hope New Zealand follows their lead sooner rather than later.

But why would a business user care about software freedom? For customers, free-as-in-free-speech software delivers free-as-in-free-market software. As a consequence of the 4 software freedoms, customers get 4 business freedoms:

  1. Choice: freedom to choose software that does not dictate a particular vendor or require a particular infrastructure
  2. Independence: freedom from lock-in or vendor capture so that we can enter and exit technologies based on business needs
  3. Flexibility: freedom of action so that choices made today don’t limit our choices tomorrow or require others to make the same choices we have made
  4. Control: freedom to control the software and use or modify it as we see fit, and to collaborate or share with others

Proprietary software is designed to take away the 4 business freedoms. Buyers considering proprietary alternatives to free software need to be sure that any short term benefits exceed the long term costs.

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