February 21, 2010

Open Source and the end of the EULA

Posted in Digital Freedom at 16:13 by frifan

The End User License Agreement

EULA is the pop-up windows that you accept when you install a piece of proprietary software. The text is a legal agreement between the user of a piece of software and its author/publisher. It is praxis, in the Software Industry, to give users very limited rights with no liability whatsoever for the manufacturer. This is in stark contrast to any other industries where the manufacturers can be held liable for the products they sell. Another difference is that users normally don’t buy a software product, they buy only a license that permits them to use the product, in certain ways and under certain conditions. Most of these EULA’s may not even be legal, depending on which country you are in. There has, of course, been many lawsuits concerning software licenses. More up to date information can be had from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Free/Libre Open Source Software

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what 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.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the award-winning free software foundation and free/libre open source software (FLOSS). This is software that is free, as in speech. You have complete rights to use, modify and distribute the software. There are many such FLOSS projects and most of them are multi-platform, meaning they run on all the popular operating systems. Ranging from GNU/Linux to Apple Macintosh to Microsoft Windows. I’ve compiled a short list below of my favorites, as a few examples. The FLOSS projects provide their software free of charge and they can be downloaded and installed directly from the Internet. There is even free training available. Another benefit of FLOSS is that the source code is published along with the applications.

"The results came to an estimated total value for the Linux kernel version 2.6.30 (released in December 2009) of 1,025,553,430 euros. About 985 developers would be needed over a span of just under 14 years, the researchers claim." — the register, according to research.

Some FLOSS alternatives (mostly multi-platform):

What is source code?

Source code is the blue-prints for how a piece of software works, it contains the instructions, written in a specialized human-readable programming language, designed for describing actions performed by the computer. These specifications are then interpreted by a translator, called a compiler, which will convert the programming language into machine code that can be executed by the central processing unit (CPU) of a computer. Normally a proprietary application is distributed only in its binary machine code state, but with FLOSS the user also gets a copy of the source code. This enables those persons who understand the computer language to inspect, modify, enhance and build their own machine code binary.

FLOSS license and community

There are two main competing licenses, called BSD and GPL. The main difference between the two is the GPL requirement to redistribute any modifications made to the software. Although FLOSS authors cannot be held liable for software defects, just like their proprietary counterpart, they distribute the source code of the software, which means that anyone with the proper knowledge of the programming language can inspect and review what it does. Because of this freedom, the authors of the software do care about the source code quality, as they know others will scrutinize their work. Other people will also help to correct faults and incorporate features that they want or need. Around any successful FLOSS project there is a vibrant community which will help with support and development of the code. This is the main reason why FLOSS software have better quality than proprietary software.

FLOSS and the future

It is my belief that FLOSS software will defer proprietary software to niche markets, because it is inherently better quality and at an unbeatable price, namely free. Just because the software is free, doesn’t mean that no one will develop, support or sell it. There is already a big and healthy market around FLOSS software where authors sell services. In my view Linux has already surpassed Microsoft Windows in usability. Just check out the latest KDE version, for instance.

Further reading

Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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