January 7, 2005

Your software rights or the best tools: often a sad choice

Author: Jem Matzan

Commentary: What do we do when we have a substandard free software product that we could use, but would be more productive with a proprietary competitor? What sacrifices should we make in order to use a free software program? Originally the GNU Project was intended to provide a free (as in rights) replacement for proprietary Unix -- the dominant industrial operating system at the time. This project was initiated with the understanding that proprietary software would have to be used until free alternatives were made available. Today we have many free replacements for proprietary programs, but are they truly equivalents? Because GNU Project and Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman's computing needs are met with BASH, GCC, GDB, and Emacs does not mean that the rest of us can safely cast off rights-restrictive software. Suggesting that we all switch to free software-only systems seems a bit pretentious and narrow-minded, considering the average user's desktop computing needs.

The GIMP is a good graphics program, but many users feel that the interface is horrible, and the operation and adjustment of some of the more advanced functions (such as color correction and print layout) are not adequate.

No matter how you feel about The GIMP, it can't be unilaterally proclaimed an equivalent to Photoshop for the above-mentioned reasons. It may be a free replacement, but it does not offer identical or superior functionality in the eyes of the users linked to above. It can of course be made to work in place of Photoshop, depending on your needs and budget. But if you have paying work to do, how much of a hassle are you willing to go through to use free software?

The sacrifices we make

Giving up a degree of convenience for heightened security and greater reliability is a proposition reasonable people generally accept, assuming the threat of insecurity and poor reliability is real to them. For that reason it seems likely that GNU/Linux will continue to creep into the desktop computing market, considering the alternative.

Giving up function or convenience in trade for other more important benefits is a reasonable sacrifice, but what of the user's rights? Should we give up everything for freedom?

The freedom that the Free Software Foundation speaks of is not the traditional freedom ideal established by the U.S. constitution, but the freedom to modify, use, share, and study software -- the "four freedoms" as outlined by the FSF. If these freedoms are not important to the user, there is no disadvantage to using proprietary software and no clear advantage to using free software. In other words, we're talking about how we use software, not the freedom of the press or the right to bear arms, and convincing people that software rights and basic constitutional rights are on the same level is an exercise in futility.

Richard Stallman's essay on the matter makes an excellent case for using free software, but it depends on the bold and idealistic assumption that people are inherently honest when it comes to obeying license terms. It also assumes that people care how the software works and are willing and able to modify it.

The majority of proprietary software licenses restrict the user's ability to use, share, modify, and study the software, but there is virtually no enforcement of these terms in the non-business portion of the software world. If I give my (fictional) copy of Microsoft Office to my friend, the FBI will not show up at my door to arrest me -- or at least I can find no evidence to suggest that this has happened to anyone. In fact, I would put forth a guess that the FBI would not bother with me even if I confessed and turned myself in for this criminal act. If I gave this software to five friends, I'm still reasonably assured that I won't be apprehended. If I put it up for free download or offer copies for sale, then I know I can expect the BSA and/or the FBI to do their best to destroy my life. Sharing among small groups is one thing; sharing with the whole world is entirely different. So despite the license agreement's prohibitions on use and sharing, there is no real threat to someone's freedom by ignoring proprietary restrictions on sharing with family and friends.

Most software users are not programmers, or at least do not have the skills, knowledge, or connections to modify the software they are using at the source code level. A motivated user could find a programmer or company that would accept payment to modify the software, but that would probably cost a lot of money. Similarly, users generally do not wonder or care how a program operates and have no desire to study its source code. These freedoms matter only to users who need significant modifications that cannot be found in other, similar software. Commercial desktop software is diverse and mature enough in this day and age that there are few or no missing features that are critically important, or at least important enough that a non-programming desktop user would pay money to have them added. This is evidenced by the fact that, over the past few years, proprietary software publishers have offered meager additions and enhancements to their products. Microsoft, for instance, added virtually nothing of substance to Office System 2003 compared to Office XP, and you have to dig deep to find any functional difference between Macromedia's Studio MX and Studio MX 2004. Sagging upgrade sales support these assertions.

The caveat here is, if all proprietary software users are totally honest, they wouldn't agree to a license that forced them to promise not to share the software with friends and family, and programmers would not agree to give up the right to study and modify the software. Somehow, though, disregarding a proprietary license's restrictive terms, while technically dishonest, doesn't seem on the same level as cheating on a test or lying to a spouse. It's hard to think of disobeying licensing terms as being dishonest or dishonorable, and the moral need to help your friends and family is a far more powerful force than the least degree of honesty toward a proprietary software corporation. How do you convince someone that they are giving up freedom when in reality they take those freedoms anyway, whether they are granted or not?

Excuses, excuses

Previously we said that sacrificing a small degree of convenience or functionality can reasonably be justified if more valuable qualities (reliability and security) are gained. But what happens when you have to give up more than that, with the only reward being the four freedoms we've been discussing? For instance, Web designers who depend on Macromedia's suite of Web creation tools will find themselves lost and alone in the GNU/Linux world because, aside from Nvu in place of Dreamweaver (and if you're using Dreamweaver for anything beyond HTML and CSS development, Nvu is not truly a replacement), there are no reasonably competent replacements for their tools of choice. Fireworks users won't be able to automatically generate rats-nest HTML files to control giant graphical pages; Flash users will have to switch to Java to achieve a similar (yet equally garish and annoying) rich media Web experience; Freehand users will have to do drawing with The GIMP and coding by hand or with Nvu. Without a drastic change in design philosophy and practice, it would be impossible to switch someone who depends on Macromedia tools to free software replacements. If you're making money as a Web designer, it would make more sense to sacrifice freedom for function and continue using Macromedia's proprietary tools. If your friends and family wanted to copy your software, you could always just direct them to GNU/Linux, The GIMP, and Nvu if you feared violating the Macromedia license agreement.

I did not ask him specifically, but from a previous response to a similar issue, I would guess that Stallman's answer to this would involve encouraging people not to develop with Flash. That's a good suggestion for many reasons, but when someone is paying you to develop in Flash, explaining to them that you will not do it because of RMS's suggestion will only merit a lost contract or job.

The in-betweens

It is this author's observation that most users fall in between these honest and dishonest extremes. Most of us would like to use free software where we are able, but we're not willing to make sacrifices that add up to a net loss of value in our software. Many believe in the cause and ideals of the free software movement, but few are willing to sacrifice the tools that they need to achieve optimal productivity. This is not because we do not value our freedoms; it is because we unabashedly take those freedoms whether they are granted or not, and if it means disregarding license restrictions in order to help our friends and family while getting the job done efficiently, then so be it.

The free software movement does not appear to be losing ground despite the flaw in its reasoning. Arguably, however, it may be gaining in popularity and use not because of the freedom it offers, but because free software is starting to achieve true replacement status -- it's becoming competitive with proprietary software. It is now possible for people to use only free software and be productive in some fields, but there are times when proprietary software is necessary and no free replacement can even come close to doing the job.

As a case in point, recently I needed to get tire specifications for my motorcycle from the Suzuki Web site. Since the site is all done in Flash, and since I did not have the Flash plug-in installed because it is proprietary, I could not get the information I needed. While some sites offer non-Flash versions in an introductory page, the Suzuki site didn't display anything in my browser but blank white space. Yes, I could find and order the service manual from a parts Web site or simply call up a local dealership and ask, but I have a computer to help me find this sort of information. My computer's functionality and its ability to find information that I need has been hindered because I refused to install proprietary software. That's when I cast off the notion that I had to use only free software. Why should I reduce the functionality of my computer and inconvenience myself, when in actuality I sacrifice nothing by using necessary proprietary software?

Perhaps it is time to let go of some of the high-moral ideals and remember why we started using computers in the first place. This is not to discredit or minimalize the work of the Free Software Foundation or deny the genius of Richard Stallman, but none of us should ever be asked to make unfavorable sacrifices when it comes to turning our computer time into work or money. I prefer to use as much free software as possible, but I still need the Flash and Java browser plug-ins, a proprietary word processor that I find superior to the free replacements, and I thoroughly enjoy a certain proprietary game. I am not willing to give these things up, and I do not feel dishonorable in using them. Specifically, the word processor is an absolute must -- I cannot sacrifice the tools that help me maximize my creativity and productivity. From my frame of reference, the only thing that matters is the story, and I am not willing to give up the tool that is most effective for me. What sacrifices are you willing to make?

The future

There may indeed come a time when proprietary license enforcement extends to the individual desktop user, complete with BSA or FBI raids in private homes. As proprietary software companies continue to lose customers to free alternatives of increasing quality, this scenario may come to pass. As suggested in Stallman's short story, The Right to Read, we could someday face prison time for sharing things like books and computers.

The sad reality of free software is that it may take drastic measures such as these to make the four freedoms important enough to value.

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