The tech world, or the people dwelling in the tech world are being haunted by a few evils that they don’t recognize. The first one being the lack of ownership and the second one is the evil of copyright. In this scope I intend to explore these evils a little bit with the hope of making you aware of the socio-technical implications and threats they pose to the world. I have always wanted to tell you the tale of the freedom movement that has been going on for a long time, tracing back its origin in 1984 – nearly 30 years from now. The silent yet effective movement that has grown into so strong a force that it now has the potential to change the course of history. Before I begin let me ask you a question: what if there was no documentation existed for any of the technologies we currently use? Let me rephrase, to make it appear more clearly, suppose you are a developer and you intend to develop for iPhone and there is not a single document available for you to learn the development. How would that feel? Will you be able to learn only based on forum discussions and verbatim excerpts of some university lecture? You are right, I don’t think so too. But why this will happen, is what you may think. What is the point of asking this question on the first place? Well, we generally read documentations on the web or in pdf files that often we take backups of. We think that we own the copy so no one can take that away from me. Have you thought of the fact that, if someday adobe and other pdf reader manufacturer companies stop creating pdf readers what will happen? If you don’t have the ability to install a single piece of software that reads pdf what good is it to keep a copy of the pdf with you? On the contrary, lets think that you are a developer who knows how to create a pdf reader and the technology is open to everyone to tinker with. Now again come back to the scenario – does it seam to be any problem anymore. What you have to do is just simply right the software to read the documents! Well, that was just an example, and let us hope it does not happen at all. Let us move on to the problems at hand.
Lack of Ownership
A few years back, a scholar or a bookworms cosy place was inside a library having the freedom to browse through millions of collections and bask in the illumination they provide. Now, they can not be found there anymore. You will find them sitting in front of a computer or better moving with an iPad or Kindle or Nook in their hands reading their proud collection of books purchased from iTunes iBookstore or Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Things got better, they say. “I have never encountered any other reader better than the new Apple iPad with retina display” — was a comment from a very accomplished critic and writer after reviewing iPad 3. Think yourself having the largest collection of books purchased from iTunes or Amazon sitting in your iPad iBooks app. Think again. Do you really “own” the collection? Do you really own even a single piece of book from there? The answer is very disappointing, and its negative. If someday, Apple or Amazon decides to close their shop and go home, where will be your collection? From the status of a king you may metamorphose into a penniless vagabond – book collection wise. So, as my birthright I believe to purchase books that I can touch and feel and smell. The ones that I have to toil to keep termite free. So be it.
Another social evil is the right to create copyrights. As we explored a little bit of this problem in the introduction itself, let us dive into the implications. The best example of this is the cave writings. Our forefathers recorded plethora of information that potentially can give us the key to a wide range of knowledge about the world where they lived. The recordings were done in cave writings. They put everything, all the environmental incidents, the flora and fauna, the lifestyle they adopted and what not. The only problem is they wrote them in some language which does not have a specification. Or may be there is a specification but written in the same language in which the code is written. Its just like locking a treasure box and putting the key inside. So, the code is lost to us and archeologists are toiling to decipher the codes. What if the code was given in some easily comprehensible way? Half of the problem of the archeologists would have gone. Lets take another example, lots of softwares are available, even free ones which read .doc and .docx files from Microsoft. Similarly, Apple has also their specific file format for their word processor. Its called .pages, and as far as I am aware, you can read a “Pages” document with only the “Pages” software which is part of iWork – the office software of Apple. So, if you have plenty of Pages documents, and Apple stops creating “Pages” software how are you going to read them? All your thoughts, your important work will be lost. This scenario depicts the horror that can be brought to the digital society by proprietary software.
Now that we have talked about the devils, we need to have some sort of solutions too to cure them. In ancient lands and now in some parts of Africa and India there are shamans who are professional ghost-busters. The shaman for the aforementioned social evils is Free software movement. So, what is free software? The “Free” stands for openness, its the free from freedom. Its not like “Free Beer” but like “Free Thought”. Free Software Movement was first envisioned and initiated by Richard M. Stallman – a celebrated programmer and an accomplished hacker ( a hacker in the real meaning of it, not a cracker). He promoted the use of GNU Linux operating system, that was popular among all the free minded people. Well, Linux itself is a free software co-created by like minded hackers all around the world. The free software foundation promotes the development and use of free software and free documentation. In particular, FSF promotes the GNU operating system, used widely today in its GNU/Linux variant, based on the Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvalds. These systems are often mistakenly called just “Linux”; calling them “GNU/Linux” corrects this confusion. Wonderful news is – FSF has a branch in India also first initiated in Kerala by Richard M. Stallman. Their mission statement states the following — “Broadly, FSF India strives to ensure that free software is strengthened in all respects so as to form a genuine, credible and viable alternative to proprietary software for every kind of application.
To do so, FSF India will:
- Promote awareness about free software among the general public and, specifically, among programmers and students.
- Increase access to free software by users in India.
- Promote the development of local solutions to local problems by empowering local programmers in the use of free platforms, tools and technologies.
- Provide support to free software by way of documentation, expert help or any other means.
- Help organize training for programmers and users of free software platforms and software.
- Carry out R&D work for free software solutions to suit local requirements.
- Provide services for the free software programmer community by, for example, locating and distributing jobs.
- Assist the national and State governments in all aspects relating to free software, such as evolving and maintaining standards; providing a quality assurance mechanism for free software; and ensuring the use of free software in government and quasi-government milieux.
- Provide services such as adjudication and conflict redressal within the free software domain.”
Well, so whats in it for us? Let us dive into that in the next section.
Promoting Open Source Software
Well, if you agree with me in the right that we have to preserve the freedom of digital users to have the ownership of the digital content they create, there are lot of thing you can do other than showing support to the FSF. One of the marvelous things that we can do as developers is to actually help create open sourced softwares. There are millions of open source projects hosted in the world wide web and just like anyone else you can take part to create something wonderful. Its a wonderful way to show support, earn respect and a surprise that I will talk about in a minute. Moreover, the open source softwares lay the groundwork for wonderful softwares even created by specific companies. Think about an OCR solutions. At this point, there is monopoly of OCR softwares, business card readers, but that is only because the open source Tesseract engine is not being enriched by good developers. Making softwares open sourced does not make you the loser. Mark Pilgrim wrote the books “Dive into HTML5” which is freely available on the web. He also published the same in hardcopy. There was immense sale of the book and he was intrigued! When you make your software open sourced, you earn respect and that too from an elite group of people I will discuss about in a few minutes.
A Slightly Sensitive Topic
Well, this is slightly sensitive. You might be thinking, what should be our stance that we work for a big company that is moving on to creating IPR which is the very thing FSF opposes. Well, don’t know about you, but I have a take which satisfies both. Companies have to create proprietary softwares to earn revenues, neither I am encouraging you to oppose this, neither FSF does. The only point is, they can coexist. Two softwares, one being proprietary another being open sourced can serve the same purpose. Also, even that proprietary software may be based upon the same algorithm the open sourced software uses. Exactly the same algorithm. That is the beauty of GPL – general public license. It enables one to create softwares based on a open sourced software and even allows to sell them. What we can do is without violating the policies set up by the company, we can contribute independently to open sourced projects. Without Violating The Policies. Because, if we do not contribute to open sourced projects, how can we make proprietary softwares based on them? Finally its your choice.
Finally as we move on to the conclusion, let me keep my words and give you the surprise. What ever I have wrote in this paper articulates the mentality of an elite group of people acclaimed in the world. In a shorter phrase that would mean – to share knowledge and to promote the freedom to code. Now, we can paraphrase the above line, and state that – to be one of the elite group of people, this mentality is a key. Well, there is another. And the elite group of people are worldly acclaimed as “Hackers” (well, of course in the good sense). And if you feel the same way, you are halfway through to be one of them. I will discuss about the other philosophy in another post.
Its time to draw the conclusion. The only message I wanted to deliver to you is that, we are in an age when everything is not so simple as it used to happen decades ago. We have our birthright to own our own knowledge and share them with people and that also keeping up with the interest of everyone – ethically. You can check out more about free software movement at http://www.gnu.org and http://www.fsf.org and you can learn a lot more on the unique set of mentality and people I talked about here. I anticipate your comments.