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

"Free Software matters, Page 3/3"
So, how can we actually have complete control over the files we save? Well, as we said before, some companies publish full specifications of their file formats - such as Adobe with their PDF files, and the Fraunhofer institute, with MP3s - allowing us to create tools to, say, play our MP3s, or convert a bunch of MP3s into an audio CD. Even though companies still retain the intellectual rights to these formats, we have (as a gesture of goodwill) been given complete blueprints on how to use them. So, should we all just use well-documented formats? Not quite. As we found out earlier, if you use someone elses method for storing information (be it music, photos or essays) they still retain the right to decide who may use their method. Well, that's a tricky one. I, in Australia, can write an essay and email it to a friend of mine in the country of Pretendistan, where Microsoft does not permit its products to be used or sold. I am using someone elses method of storing information, and I am relying on a third party (Microsoft) to provide a method for my friend to retrieve it. That's awfully trusting of me. Of course, I could just record the essay as a spoken word MP3 - which we have been given the blueprints to, and know how to create and play very well - but then the Fraunhofer Institute may go and put an export restriction on any MP3 based products being sold in Pretendistan. Back to square one.

So, who can I actually buy software from, and be able to do with it what I like? Technically, no one. But some people are giving it away.

I must let you in on a little secret. Some standards created by large companies, such as Adobe's PostScript (the predecessor to PDF), are given to the community for free, in the true sense of the word. No strings attached. We have been given complete instructions on how to use, create, save, print and mince PostScript documents - all without having to pay any royalties. This will remain the case forever, Adobe may never rescind on this generous donation. If Adobe Corporation fades into history then we will still be able to use our PostScript files, without any legal issues. This is a Good Thing.

The second type of software license I mentioned at the very beginning was "Open" Software. Most Open licenses, with some minor differences, allow you to add, remove, modify or cover with green cheese anything you like. They give the software away. You may initially have to pay for a copy, but when you click "I Agree" on a copy of Red Hat Linux you are, from then on, permitted to do whatever you like with the software. If there is a feature you want, then you (or that friend of yours down the street who is pretty good with that sort of thing) may add it. If you want to add lots of features and sell it to someone else, that's okay too. If the people who originally wrote the program go out of business, then you (or anyone else, for that matter) are completely free to start a new business selling a "New! Improved!" version of what the original firm went out of business selling. Or you could just keep on using OpenOffice.org, happy in the knowledge that you will always, not matter what, be able to get to your documents. You see, "Open" software, by design, lets everyone (well, anyone who cares to look) know how everything works under the hood. This spirit of "Open" is that no single person should be dependent on any third party to use their own property.

Remember what a "Standard" is? Well, there are things called "Open Standards." You can probably see where this is going, but I'm going to spell it out anyway. An open standard defines how something works, but it isn't owned by anybody. Sure, there may be some non-profit organisation in charge of maintaining a reference, but no-one needs to pay money to write a HTML web page, since it's an open standard.

Now imagine combining the power of open software and open standards. Anyone could communicate perfectly with anyone else, without being dependent on any third party.

This is happening today. It's called Open Source.

No one could ever (legally) have access to enough information to perfectly open a MS Word document, or sell an MP3 player without having to pay for the privilege. But there are now (as we speak) thousands upon thousands of programs that read and write (perfectly) OpenOffice.org documents, OGG Vorbis audio files, PNG images, and a countless number of other, Open, formats. Imagine if the taxation department kept all their records as Excel files, and then MS went out of business. Things then become more than simply inconvenient.

"Open" standards are owned by the community. By you. By your neighbour. By your boss, and your best friend. There are no royalties to pay because they belong to everyone. Why does this happen? Well, some people believe that by sharing with each other we can create bigger, better things than if we were to work alone.

These standards exist right now, and are easily available. Go and try Ogg Vorbis instead of MP3. Try OpenOffice.Org instead of Microsoft Office. Try Linux instead of Windows. This isn't about politics, it's about whether you - as an individual, professional, or an organisation - think it is worthwhile depending on a third party for access to you personal information. At this stage you have only your freedom to gain.

"Open" Software means freedom. Don't let yourself get locked in, just because it appear to be too much hassle to do otherwise. Don't let others control your life. Yes, you can work just as well, perhaps even better, and this time you can be sure you stay in control.
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  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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