Free Software, Public Domain and Digital Commons

Since fuzziness and mythology are the ubiquitous ingredients of internet content we need solid definitions. The Free Software Foundation defines free software as follows:

“A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.



Richard Stallman  is the initiator of free software movement since 1983 and the writer of the GNU licence. He is also an experienced software developer. Stallman explains that proprietary software, the commercial software used on home computers and smart phones, like MacOS, MSWindows, Itunes, Facebook, Amazon is often malware.

Proprietary software is often malware

Malware, short for malicious software, is any software used to disrupt computer operation, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems. The question if this ‘malware’ is intentional malicious, is often difficult to answer for a layman. After all you clicked ‘I agree’ about their conditions when registering at E-bay, Amazon, Microsoft, Itunes, Google etc. and the FBI asked for it.

Stallman, Kapersky Lab and others software experts on the other hand detected the malware by reverse engineering and analysing their software. Add Wiki-leaks and Snowden to complete the story. You can find all Stallman’s numerous reports here, I will give some pertinent examples of demonstrated malware.

Most mobile phones have a universal back door, which has been used to turn them malicious. NSA can reportedly track phones even when they’re turned off. The NSA has a diverse range of surveillance capabilities—from monitoring Google Maps use to sifting through millions of phone call records and spying on Web searches. In 2006, it was reported on C|Net that the FBI had deployed spyware to infect suspects’ mobile phones and record data even when they were turned off.

Microsoft Windows has a universal back door through which any change whatsoever can be imposed on the users. Windows 8’s back doors are so gaping that the German government has decided it can’t be trusted. The iPhone has a back door that allows Apple to remotely delete apps which Apple considers “inappropriate”. Windows and Google can also delete apps remotely. The Amazon Kindle has a back door that has been used to remotely erase books.

Software jails and sabotage

Windows and iOS are properietary jails on smart phones because they prevent the installation of applications they do not like. Adds that many proprietary software is insecure and contains spyware. Microsoft changed Skype specifically for spying.


Software Jail
Software Jail


Apple deleted from iPods the music that users had got from internet music stores that competed with iTunes. Microsoft informs the NSA of bugs in Windows before fixing them letting NSA exploit security holes. Nintendo remotely sabotaged all Wiis, making them refuse to work unless the user agrees to a new End User License Agreement (EULA ).

This sabotage by the producers of commercial software puts the world upside down. While the Ludittes, the 19th-century English textile artisans protested against newly developed labour-replacing machinery, this time the machine makers aka proprietary software developers sabotage their own products to limit the autonomy and independence or their users.

The artisans in the 19th century owned their own tools which gave them some of independence and autonomy. Their fight can be understood as a fight for freedom. The computer as a general machine did open also some opportunities for the intellectual workers to become independent again, but they are now themselves the victims of sabotage by the big monopolistic hardware and software vendors.

The movement of the Ludittes can be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century, but the sabotage by MS, Apple and alike is not a fight for freedom, on the contrary it is an attack on peoples freedom, autonomy and sustainability.

The struggle of the Ludittes was only an early stage in the development of the class war that opposed workers and capitalists. Uniting in unions the struggle of the workers for a sustainable life expanded and did finally result in the welfare state in the second half of the 20th century. But in the nineteen-eighties the unions were confronted with de-industrialisation and de-location and the welfare state now is dismantled peace by peace.

Free software and the GNU licence

Richard Stallman campaigns for software to be distributed in a manner such that its users receive the freedoms to use, study, distribute and modify it. As soon as in September1983 he launched the GNU Project. In 1985, Stallman published the GNU Manifesto and started a non-profit corporation called the Free Software Foundation to employ free software programmers and provide a legal infrastructure for the free software movement. He and his companions were called hackers, but their work was never destructive. Next to showing the flaws in commercial software they started to built their own free software systems: the GNU Compiler Collection and GNU Emacs

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, used the GNU’s development tools to produce the free monolithic Linux kernel. The existing programs from the GNU project were readily ported to run on the resultant platform. Without Stallman’s GNU project and the existing  public domain software, there would never have been a Linux system. You can read more about Stallman’s vision on the philosophy pages of the GNU site.

Stallman pioneered the concept of copy-left, which uses the principles of copyright law to preserve the right to use, modify and distribute free software, and he is the main author of free software licenses which describe those terms, most notably the GNU General Public License (GPL), the most widely used free software license.

Let’s start with some simple definitions. A computer is a general machine that executes instructions embedded in a computer program aka software. On the limit one could say if you have not written that program yourself, but somebody else did, then you do not control your computer, the computer controls you.

Anyway, since we aren’t all programmers we will have to trust some programmers to write the software we need. If the making of the software is a transparent process controlled by a group of experts we can trust, then we come closer to our goal. Richard Stallman proposes to rely on communities of programmers to develop free software.

In his view the main issue is the ability to control the software and adapt it to your needs, not the fact if you have to pay for it or not. He hates locks in software preventing the user to make copies, to share, to change it in away it is more useful for him or her. With that in mind, “Sharing music on the Internet should be legal. Sharing is an act of freedom,” he says.

As to Stallman there a flaw in the English language because the word ‘free’ is both used for gratis and for real freedom which is puzzling. In other languages this mixing of meanings is absent. In French they call it, ‘Logiciel libre’, in Dutch ‘vrije sofware’ or in Spanish ‘software libre’. These terms express much more clearly the intention of ‘free software’. In an Interview in 2008 he explains:

“So I see nothing wrong with charging money for a copy of a program. However, I do see something wrong with denying the user of a program the essential freedoms, after he’s gotten his copy, whether he’s gotten it by paying for it, gratis, or however he got it. Once he’s got his copy, he should have his four freedoms.”

The aim of the GNU licence is to prevent that free software is abused and turned into NOT free software for instance by incorporating it in proprietary software or patenting it. The GNU licence must protect programmers that develop free software against misuse. He is pretty radical about this, claiming that developing non free software is an unethical, anti-social practice. Stallman disputes the very notion of “intellectual property.” His commitment and brutal honesty are refreshing in a world of spin-masters and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns. But there is a huge lack of support for the developers of free software. So we have to wonder: “Can it be done?”

Proceed to part 2


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