Today 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).
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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
This contract is supposedly legally binding, although they have not
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
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
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,
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
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
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?
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
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
damn well please to that old Monaro you just bought off the guy down
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
us to the next part. Control. When you use licensed software
you have very little (if any) control over the software you are
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
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
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
(yes, they can do that, it’s usually written into the original
contract), you are now forced to use old, outdated, software. Yippee.
you know how many banks out there are still running OS/2?
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
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
“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
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
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
memos, the same is true of ordinary CDs and DVDs. If you design a
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
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
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
that could save Microsoft Word documents then you would possibly have
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.
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
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.
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
type of restriction is not illegal. No company is
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
versions – such as IBM refusing to support OS/2 – leaving people who
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
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.)
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
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
someone elses method of storing information, and I am relying on a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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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