posted by Sean Cohen on Tue 13th Apr 2004 06:52 UTC
IconToday I'm going to talk about why software - any software, all software - actually matters, what the different types of software are, and why you should care about its properties (no matter who you are, or what you do).

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

You should care because - as sensationalist as it may sound - you may one day no longer be allowed to listen to your MP3's, read your MS Word documents, or send messages over the 'net to friends and relatives.You may think you will be able to continue these simple tasks forever because, like most people, you believe you actually own most of what is stored on your computer. But that's where you're wrong!

This simple tale will hopefully enlighten you as to why you should care about the politics and freedoms associated with various types of software, and not simply for pedantic reasons. You see, not only do you not own that copy of MS Word, that game, or even that MP3 player, but you also don't own any other way of accessing your information. "But I'll always have my computer, it's mine! No one can stop me listening to my (perfectly legal) music collection!" I hear you shout. Not quite. Not even slightly. But to get into that we must first delve into the murky world of software licenses.

A software "license" (which is actually a form of contract) has become the most common form of software distribution today. When installing a new program on your computer you may recall having to click "I Agree", or "Okay", or something to that effect. That was you signing a contract. This contract is supposedly legally binding, although they have not (for the most part) been tested in court. It is important to know that even if it wasn't you who clicked "I Agree", as the owner of the computer on which the software is running you are responsible for ensuring the license is legal. Make sure you know what programs are on your computer and what comes pre-installed when you buy it, although there does not appear to be any legal reason why the sales guy from Dell should be permitted to accept the terms of a contract on your behalf.

I'm going to take a rather simplistic approach here and divide all software licenses (contracts) into two, distinct categories. We will call them "Closed" and "Open". I make no assertions as to the monetary cost or technical quality of the software distributed under a particular license, a great deal of people hold quite strong opinions on that matter and it would take far longer than this essay to explain the merits and pitfalls of each. Lets start with "Closed" licenses, as they are currently the most common type.

Closed licenses are (usually) fairly restrictive in regards to what you are (and are not) allowed to do with the software in question - You are typically only allowed to use one license per computer, you are not allowed to pass copies on to any friends, you are most certainly not permitted to resell it, and you are in no way allowed to make changes to the software.

Let's take a moment to examine our MP3 player a little closer. We have now come to realise that no, we don't actually own the program that plays our Best of Celine Dion Album, even though we paid good money for both the program and the album in question (guess which I regret more). But what about those nifty little iPods and Nomads? Surely you can "own" one of those? Again, the answer is both yes and no. Although you may have bought the actual physical little box, you have only licensed a copy of the program running on the box. All we have paid for is permission to use the program.

The important thing to note here is that most closed software licenses don't actually sell you anything you can keep, they merely give you permission to run the software under a very specific set of circumstances. If I license a chess game for sale with, for example, the clause "this game may only be used when wearing fluorescent green panties on your head" then, legally, those without fluorescent green panties on their head are not permitted to run the program. Even after they pay me money. Here is where the distinction between licensing (renting) and purchasing (buying) software becomes important. When people say "I am going to buy a copy of Photoshop," they actually mean "I am going to buy a license to run a copy of Photoshop, and hope that I meet all the criteria stipulated in the license contract." Purchasing implies ownership, and we all know that although you can do whatever you damn well please to that old Monaro you just bought off the guy down the street, but just try sticking mag wheels and a spoiler on a rent-a-car and see how far you get. We have come to an agreement we hand over some money and we are allowed to use the car. But if we abuse the car then the owner has every right to stop us from using it. Now you're beginning to get the idea.

At this point most people would say "So what? I run MS Word/Windows. It does what I want. Why should I care? They can't come into my house and take it away from me. Get that microphone out of my face." Well, that brings us to the next part. Control. When you use licensed software you have very little (if any) control over the software you are running. I'm not talking about picking screen savers and font sizes, I mean control over how the program operates. If one day Apple decides that its operating system will no longer read or write normal email, only "Apple Email" (or iMail :), then you can bet your banjos that's what's going to happen. "But I'll just keep running my old version - they can't change what I've got," I hear you mutter incoherently. You're right, they would probably have a hard time finding you, however they are well within their rights to make running old versions of their software illegal. I realise I'm talking mostly to people running pirated copies of Windows XP, but bear with me. Disregarding the possibility of their changing the terms of your current, existing license (yes, they can do that, it's usually written into the original contract), you are now forced to use old, outdated, software. Yippee. Do you know how many banks out there are still running OS/2?

Table of contents
  1. "Free Software matters, Page 1/3"
  2. "Free Software matters, Page 2/3"
  3. "Free Software matters, Page 3/3"
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