“Free software from legal control”

Stallman lays stress on right to learn and sharing with others

February 07, 2012 03:05 am | Updated 03:05 am IST - CHENNAI:

Good turnout: Students listen to Richard Stallman, founder, Free Software Foundation, with rapt attention, at IIT- Madras on Monday. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Good turnout: Students listen to Richard Stallman, founder, Free Software Foundation, with rapt attention, at IIT- Madras on Monday. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

How good would it be to have software programmers who are committed to the idea of writing software and sharing it with each other and with anyone else who agrees to share alike? What if anyone could be a part of and benefit from this community even without being a computer expert or knowing anything about programming?

The Free Software movement envisages a society like that, and to drive home the idea behind using free software, Richard Stallman, founder, Free Software Foundation, interacted with free software activists, students and teachers of engineering colleges, e-governance consultants and network security experts, here on Monday.

He was delivering a lecture on ‘Free Software, Freedom, and Education' organised by the Free Software Foundation, Tamil Nadu at IIT-Madras.

“Not everybody needs to write programs to use free software in their devices. But they should not be forbidden to do that,” Dr. Stallman. Proprietary software, he said, asserts legal control over its users through a combination of copyrights, contracts, and patents, which abuse the rights of the users.

The distinction between free software and proprietary software was not a technical one, but a political and ethical choice, and the key element of this choice was the right to learn, and share what people learn with others.

Equally critical of many modern devices that use proprietary software, he recalled that in 2009 Amazon had removed George Orwell's ‘1984' from Kindle e-book readers, only to insert them back after a few months, promising the users that the company would never do such a thing, unless instructed by the State. “They do not allow the user the traditional freedom of buying a book anonymously because the sites have a database of the e-readers and the users cannot use the device unless they are registered with it, or even share the e-book with their friends,” he added.

Dr. Stallman said that ‘Piracy' was a propaganda word used by proprietary software companies, who equated sharing with attacking ships. “You are in a moral dilemma, caught between two evils when your friend asks you to lend her a specific program. Either you violate the licence and share it with her, or commit a greater evil by denying her and complying with the licence,” he said.

Talking about android phones, he said not every part of open source software is free. Apart from the source code, there are drivers, firmware and libraries that make the executables work, but the user is not given access to them. “While the source code is free, the executables are not,” Dr. Stallman said.

He spoke against the end-user licence agreements of proprietary software companies, the backdoor policies that made changes to the user's computer from remote devices and the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), which act as digital handcuffs to further restrict the control of the user on his own machine.

Dr. Stallman urged students to use only free forms of software and upload programs with the free software license so that they can be used by others, and not use any form of proprietary software, including Mpeg formats and Flash players. They could also be involved in reverse engineering to recreate products that have secret specifications. “There is a lot of free software available worldwide and one person cannot study and master the source code. Only if we work collectively, will we have control over our computing,” he said.

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