posted by Sean Cohen on Tue 13th Apr 2004 06:52 UTC

"Free Software matters, Page 2/3"
You see, the way those MP3s you're playing seem to magically squeeze all that music down into bite-size chunks was originally developed and (very kindly) published by the Fraunhofer Institute. But even though they are giving you instructions on how to use their method for storing music, that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want with it. Not a chance. Did you know that any product that makes money out of MP3s must pay a royalty to the Fraunhofer Institute? nice little money maker they've got there, and quite rightly so. But did you know they also have the right to stop you from using it? Hmm.. So that means, even though we know how MP3s work, the people that own the "rights" to MP3s always control who may use them. So, perhaps one day they will decide that they don't want anybody using them, and that everyone should move on to MP4. And then MP5. In this way the Fraunhofer Institute always retains control.

The programs you are using right now do something you like, in a way that you have become accustomed to. A future version may be entirely different, however because you are using someone elses method of storing your own information, they still retain complete control over how you work. You have no way of changing that. This is quite a dill of a pickle of a jam we've gotten ourselves into. So, what now?

"Ah, well, when that happens to (program ABC) I'll just switch to a different product. They know I would switch, so they'd never get rid of (feature XYZ)." Yes, this is almost true. Well done. Now we are beginning to understand what it is they control that is so important. Communication. When I was using a commodore 64 to type school essays (yes, I did that) I didn't care how my essays were saved. A message came up saying "Please insert disk," so that's what I did. When I wanted the essay back I'd put the disk back in and press "Open." Simple. However, things are now a little more complicated. Now I'll go and write an essay with MS Word and save it. Word will save it as a "Microsoft Word Document." Here's where the problems start. No one in the world really knows how to open a Word document, except Microsoft. There's nothing illegal about that, much in the same way that there was nothing illegal about only my Commodore 64 being able to my essays, but not my neighbour's Atari. The issue is now that anyone who wants to be absolutely sure that they are correctly opening a Word document is required to use (and pay for) a copy of Word, sold only by Microsoft. Sure, some people have done an excellent job of guessing how they work (OpenOffice.org, for example) but they're never one-hundred-percent sure. We are now required to pay someone money to be able to communicate with each other, or listen to our music. This is not unique to the world of essays and office memos, the same is true of ordinary CDs and DVDs. If you design a method to create a CD that can be played on an ordinary stereo, you must then pay royalties. No exceptions.

I'm going to diverge from software a bit here and talk about something called "Standards." A standard is a way for something to work. MP3 is a standard. DVD is a standard. PDF is a standard. The phillips head screw is a standard. HTML (the language of the World Wide Web) is a standard. A standard is what people refer to when they say "You know what? I could make a really kick-ass MP3 player. lets find out how." Standards allow me to buy a wheel that fits a car, and a nut that fits a bolt. Most of the time people can simply look at a standard - such as the phillips head screw - and say "Okay, now I can make a phillips head screwdriver, because I can see how this thing works." Unfortunately, In the world of computers it is possible to have things called "Closed Standards", where it is impossible to "see" how things work. If the person who designed the system doesn't explicitly tell you how something works then you will not be able to imitate it. For example, if you wanted to create a program that could save Microsoft Word documents then you would possibly have the following conversation:

You: Hello? Yes, I'd like to know how Word documents are saved, you see I'm trying to..

Microsoft: You'd like to know what?

You: I'd like to know how Word documents are saved, I'm trying to..

Microsoft: I'm sorry, we cannot reveal that information.

You: Why?

Microsoft: It's a trade secret. It's our intellectual property.

You: But I have ten years worth of essays, articles, assignments, photos, music, and other memorabilia saved as Word documents. My copy of Word is right now somewhere on the tarmac of the Iceland International Airport, so I'm going to ask a friend of mine, who is quite good with computers, to ..

Microsoft: I'm terribly sorry, but you'll have to buy a copy of Word if you wish to access those files.

You: But I play my MP3s without buying anything (except the original CDs, of course).

Microsoft: Yes, but MP3 is a published standard. At Microsoft we believe in tight control over our intellectual property.

You: But I don't want to buy a copy of Word.

Microsoft: Well, I'm sorry. I can't help you.

You: But if Word is a standard then surely everyone needs to know how it works?

Microsoft: I'm sorry sir. Anyone who wishes to use Microsoft Word Documents must buy a copy of Microsoft Word from us.

You: Well, could you convert them for me?

Microsoft: No, sir. If you wish to work with Word Documents then I'm afraid you must buy a copy of Word.

You: So if my friend emails me a Word Document then I must buy a copy of Word from you to read my friends letter?

Microsoft: Yes, Sir.

You: I See. You know, in my country people are hung for this sort of thing.

*click*

You: Hello?

So, now you've got ten years worth of essays, articles, assignments, photos, music, and other memorabilia saved as a file that no-one else knows for certain how to open, or is not legally allowed to. I'll say again, this type of restriction is not illegal. No company is required to release how their programs work, and they are most certainly not required to let anybody go around imitating them willy nilly. This use of closed standards results in what is known in the industry as "Vendor Lock-In", and is a well known strategy of large software houses. You must keep buying products from the same company if you want to keep up to date software, and you're up the creek if they decide to no longer support a feature you really need, or they refuse to grant license to other companies to work with the types of files you are using. And they could always cause problems for people running old versions - such as IBM refusing to support OS/2 - leaving people who are still using their systems high and dry. If software vendors never put "Save as.. Plain Text (for example)" in their products then you'd never be able to leave at all. This principle extends to everything. The so-called "Microsoft Windows Networking" (aka NetBEUI) that most home networks use still remains completely unpublished, leaving people who want to work with these systems to rely on guesswork and reverse engineering (Kudos to the SAMBA team.)
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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