Opinion: Software Freedom Day 2004

You, the reader, are hereby invited to participate in a celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) on August 28th this year. On that day we will stage public events to inform the general public about the virtues of FOSS. We invite you to form local teams and set up tables in town centers, shopping malls, or wherever there are likely to be lots of people on a Saturday.Average computer users are not aware of FOSS, and at this point there is no reason they would be. Even worse, certain proprietary software companies, unwittingly aided by the press, have spread disinformation about FOSS. Recent coverage has been especially disappointing, with spurious connections being made between programmers and virus writers; this shows a clear lack of knowledge in the mainstream press. In order to counter this trend, FOSS users and enthusiasts must make more positive contributions to the mainstream debate. We should provide positive stories to write about, not simply respond to the latest FUD. A global day of FOSS celebration will give us an opportunity to present our case to the media and directly to the public.

But the real challenges are still only on the horizon. New lock-in technologies such as Trusted Computing are going to make interoperability a challenge, and legal instruments such as software patents have the potential to stop FOSS in its tracks. Patented file-access routines will clearly not be available as open source libraries, and the patents will prevent us from making our own versions. The result may be that FOSS will be unable to share data with a majority of programs on the Windows platform, something that will render both Linux on the desktop and OpenOffice.org useless in many people’s eyes. This serious threat can only be successfully combated if we are able to raise people’s awareness of these issues. That is why we believe that projects such as Knoppix, TheOpenCD, and now Software Freedom Day are so important. The best guarantee of a vibrant FOSS community into the future is that people in general grow fond of the Freedoms that FOSS can provide and start demanding it in the same way they demand democracy and free speech. Only then will politicians and companies listen. The power lies with voters and consumers where numbers count, and time is running short.

It is against this background that we have formed softwarefreedomday.org. Our aim is to organize an annual, global celebration of FOSS on the last Saturday in August, starting with August 28th, 2004. We hope to build a broad coalition in the FOSS community. As a first step we have contacted major organizations such as the FSF, OSI, KDE, GNOME, the Berkman Center and others, to tell them what we are doing and to invite them to collaborate. The response has been positive, though no firm plans for common projects have been made (we are, after all, just starting out). We are especially interested in collaborating with other groups focusing on outreach activities.

When trying to unite the various parts of the Free and Open Source community, you eventually run into the terminology issue of Free vs. Open. Personally, I think the term Open Source has been useful in getting a foothold in the business world, but this term may now be of limited use to us when we try to reach the wider public (what is source?). The average person will probably be more interested in the implications for free electronic speech than the technical development model. In his recent talk at Harvard Law School, Eben Moglen made the case that the Free Software movement is the Free Speech movement of the moment. This may be true, but I also think we can not ignore the fact that the term Free in English still means Gratis to most people. We need a fresh approach to getting our message across in a way that still highlights the core concept of freedom, which is why we settled on the phrase Software Freedom Day.

As important is Freedom is, however, it is not the only key element of FOSS. The open development model pioneered by Linus Torvalds in his management of the Linux kernel and later described by Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar is also a key component. The concept of releasing early and releasing often, combined with open debate on mailing lists and forums helps to create a vibrant community and a dynamism in the development process that closed source development cannot match. It is this powerful process combined with the strength of the GPL that has given us the solid offering of software that is now on the verge of mainstream adoption. Credit should be given where credit is due, which is why many choose to use the term GNU/Linux. Many coders, artists, writers, and others have contributed to our common pool of software, artwork and information simply because they enjoy the technical challenges or the sense of community, and may not have had freedom as a central focus. These contributions must also be recognized now when we present these profound ideas and useful programs to the world. This is why we as a project have adopted the somewhat long-winded term Free and Open Source Software as our standard. Individual participants and groups may of course use whatever term they like. Personally, I am starting to like the simplified version of Free and Open Software, because while it is more manageable than the longer version it still credits the various contributors including non-programmers. The word Open now influences the reader’s interpretation of the word Free in the direction of Libre rather than Gratis.

We hope to involve a large number of teams in the actual staging of the event. These will be comprised of LUG members and other enthusiasts, who will make local contributions all around the world. Each team will typically set up a display stand in a public place to distribute printed information and pressed CDs with selected high quality and user friendly FOSS. These CDs should also include a range of appropriately licensed introductory literature. Some teams might have computers available for demonstration, and there may be keynote speakers in lecture halls and on web-casts or public showings of ‘Revolution-OS‘. We should also aim to invite people into our on-line communities so that they can continue to explore the world of FOSS also after the 28th of August. After all, some of these concepts take some time to get one’s head around. If some of the outreach teams had network access out in the street, we could sign people up for our on-line portals on the spot, have dedicated IRC channels or a gallery of web-cams from around the world. That would make it a truely global happening! Our imagination is the only limit and we look forward to seeing what groups around the world come up with.

Our role as a project will be to help coordinate things and provide the required infrastructure, including a web portal, posters and fliers, and most importantly, high quality (pressed) CDs with FOSS that the teams can distribute on Software Freedom Day. To finance all this, we will be seeking sponsorship from local and global FOSS-friendly companies. The weeks preceding Software Freedom Day should be used to inform the media about our plans, to distribute fliers, and to hang up posters inviting locals to attend. We should also use the opportunity of this event to send letters to politicians and companies in which we give our views on software patents and related issues.

So, please join us and bring your friends! We have much to celebrate, and it’s time that everyone had an opportunity to discover the wonderful world of Free and Open Source Software.

Copyright 2004 Henrik Nilsen Omma
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.
The author thanks Phil Harper and Matt Oquist for valuable comments.

About the Author:
Henrik Nilsen Omma is the founder of TheOpenCD project and co-founder of Software Freedom Day. By day he is a graduate in astrophysics at the University of Oxford.


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