Monday, March 10, 2008

Two Charities, and a Software Parable.

I said when I started this that I dreaded starting a "regular" feature, because of the likelihood that it would actually be a rather irregularly occurring feature. Sometimes I hate being right.

My 5th featured charity is arguably not a charity. However they do a lot of good in the world, and they give stuff away for free, which is pretty charitable, if you ask me. My 52 dollars for LAST week (actually it was 32 Euros, which worked out to just over $50) went to OpenOffice.Org , a community based, free and open-source alternative to Microsoft's suite of Office Software Products.

I have been using OpenOffice's Word Processing and Spreadsheet products for years now, but I had been using the outdated version of both, up until last month, when I upgraded to their Version 2.3, which works even better than the old version, which I was plenty happy with anyway. The new version's file format is compatible with Google Documents and Zoho Writer, both of which I use occasionally. They are all interoperable with the "Brand Name" programs, so if your boss sends you an Excel-formatted spreadsheet, you can open it, edit it, and save it (as an Excel-formatted document, if you wish) with the OpenOffice software.

If you have a computer with no Office Productivity Software, and you don't want to shell out the $400 (YIKES!) for the standard full version of Microsoft's flagship Office suite, visit, and get a spreadsheet program. Or a Word Processor, or a Presentation program. (Think "Powerpoint") Or a Vector graphics program, a la CorelDraw. Or a Database Front-end program, for whatever the heck you might need that for. I only have the first two, but they are all available, and they are all free. No strings attached, no catches, no gimmicks, they won't sell your e-mail address and demographic information to Nigerian e-mail scammers... It's Just FREE. Period. The Nicest Price of All.

But Free Software, in the case of OpenOffice and other organizations like them, means more than just "Doesn't Cost Money". Free Software is also Free in the sense of "Unconfined", "Unbound", or "Uncaged". It has to do with who is allowed to tinker with the software.

Say you buy two software products, let's say MP3 Player Programs, for $50 each. One of the Programs is By ConGlomoSoft, and the other is by WizzleSoft. They both come in a slick cardboard box, they both are on the same shelf at the mall electronics store. They both cost 50 bucks, and they both play MP3's on your computer, and let you organize playlists and libraries and all that good stuff. Maybe they do some other stuff too, because 50 bucks is a serious ripoff for a program that only plays MP3's. But I'm keepin' it simple here, OK? So bear with me.

There is one major difference between the two products, though. The WizzleSoft product comes with, either packaged in the box or made available in some other way, the Source Code for the program. OK, Non Geeks, think of the source code as a book manuscript, printed on paper, in a ring binder, double spaced. The main thing you are after, though, the thing that will actually run on your computer, is the Binary form of the program. Think of the Binary as a book-on-CD, an audio recording of the book.

The ConGlomoSoft product is distributed in Binary form only. You don't have access to the source code. They wrote the program the way they wanted it, recorded it, and sold you the result. To go back to our book metaphor, they say "You don't need to see how the words are spelled, or how things are punctuated, to enjoy the book! Just sit back and listen to the story, the way we wrote it."

The first problem with this is, what if they made a mistake? What if in our book, the hero's name is "Biff" at the beginning of the book, but then it switches to "Boff", halfway through the book? How Distracting! If you you had the book manuscript, you could get out a little bottle of White-out, and a pen, and fix the Boffs, so they match the Biffs! Or Change the Biffs to Boffs! or change ALL the Biffs AND Boffs to Steves! You have the Manuscript, It's yours; go crazy! If you don't like the way Biff/Boff/Steve slays the Dragon, Change it! You might need a lot more white-out, but you can do whatever you like! You have the manuscript. You can add little doodles in the margins, or add in steamy sex scenes, or whatever you want! It's yours!

To complete our analogy, though, you have a friend name Jonny Compiler, who is a professional voice actor. To get the Book-on-CD (That's the Binary, remember?), you hand your new, altered manuscript to Mr. Compiler, and he records you a new Binary Recording of the book, only without the distracting Biff-Boffery that the original writers accidentally included. Then when you play it again, later, the book will play the way you want it to, because your changes are still there.

If you only got the binary in the first place (from ConGlomoSoft), you are stuck with any biffboffery you get, because you can't edit the CD, like you can the manuscript.

Probably, you don't want to change your software right away though. Probably your MP3 playing software works just fine. You add songs, you play songs, all's well in the world.

Until some jerk goes and invents HIGH DEFINITION MP3's.

Immediately, everyone stops using regular, Boring "Low Def" MP3's overnight. Now all the new songs you get come in this new format, and a few months later you now have a mix of 20% HD-MP3's, and 80% regular MP3's.

ConGlomoSoft has a new $100 program that plays both formats, but wouldn't it be great if you could just "tweak" the software you had, and not have to move all your song libraries and preferences and everything over to a new program? This one works pretty well, and you know it, and like it (and it's already been paid for), so why not see if your friend, the computer genius down in Apartment F-30, can modify your program to be able to read the new HD-MP3's.

Well, if you have the source code, he might. But without it, you're screwed. Your ConGlomoSoft program is unmodifiable in it's binary form, and even if you had acquired the source code from somewhere, it turns out it is Copyright-protected, and if you modify it, in any way, you are breaking the law! Legally, the only way you can update your ConGlomoSoft program, is to buy the new version from them.

Your WizzleSoft program, however, is not copyrighted, but "copylefted", under something called the GNU General Public License (GPL, for short). The reason you got the source code for free with your WizzleSoft program, is because the GPL said they had to! When you acquired the program it came with a set of rights, and a set of responsibilities.

The rights included are free access to the source code, and rights to modify the program however you want. So if your Buddy in Apt. F-30 can tweak your program to accept the new format, you have the right to do it! You also have the right to give him a copy of the new program for his troubles! You even have the right to SELL copies of your new, Super MP3 Player to other people!

BUT... You are legally required to give them the same chance you got. You are NOT allowed to build your new program based on the hard work of the folks at WizzleSoft, and then get all Gollum-My-Preciouss about it. You have to share the source code to your new work, and include a copy of the GPL with each new copy. Then when SUPER-High definition MP3's come out a year later, your customers don't end up in the same bind that ConGlomoCorp's junky Copyrighted program left you in.

So Last week's 32 Euros went to OpenOffice.Org, and this week, my 52 bucks goes to the Free Software Foundation.(FSF, for short) The FSF fights against the ConGlomoSofts of the world when they try to restrict and control software to protect their interests.

Chances are Really Good that you are benefiting from some form of free, community developed software right now, while you are reading this. Are you using Mozilla Firefox? That's Free Software, under a GPL license. Are you using a Mac from this decade? At the core of OS X is a bit of Free Software called Darwin, which is distributed under Apple's own Public Source License.

The ConGlomoSoft-type companies out there can afford really good lawyers, and current patent and copyright laws allow them to get away with some pretty heavy-handed stuff. As more and more of our world goes digital, the fights over File-sharing, copy-protection, and a host of other issues are going to be fought and re-fought, with more and more at stake. A contribution to the Free Software Foundation helps ensure that someone in the fight is looking out for us consumers.


Art said...

It's amazing to me the incredible software that's available for free - from productivity to music to graphics. I see no reason to drop a house payment on some slickly packaged official product.

becca said...

*snickers* Sorry, "WizzleSoft?!" Okay, it's silly of me, but...that's funny.