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Sharing is at the core of the free software community

by Miriam Bastian Contributions Published on Dec 23, 2022 10:56 AM
FSF program manager Miriam Bastian shares why she thinks the freedom to share is important.

Sharing is what makes a strong community. It has always impressed me to see how people in the free software community share their time, ideas, achievements, knowledge, and software with others. This sharing community is what attracted me in the first place to the free software movement: I wanted to know what it is that people spend so much time and joint effort on and why. What I found convinced me and won me over to free software.

I started to climb the freedom ladder in 2014. Having profited from software like KeePassXC, Calibre, LibreOffice, F-Droid, Zotero, VLC media player, Privacy Badger, and TeXstudio for more than seven years, I wanted to give back to the free software community. When the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was looking for a program manager, I considered this to be the perfect opportunity to utilize my organizational, managerial, and interpersonal skills, and I am immensely grateful that I now have the privilege to contribute to the free software movement as the FSF's program manager.

Two minds facing each other and sharing concepts as the freedom to run,
modify, study, and share software.

My path to the FSF took me through academia. During my doctorate, I spent four years writing articles and contributing to collaborative volumes which I was not allowed to share after the publication because the authors, who do the research and write the text, usually have to assign the distribution rights to the publishers and for decades most of the academic publishers have distributed books in DRM-restricted, proprietary, and incompatible formats. This is why policies such as the memorandum to ensure "Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research" published this year in August by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) or projects like "Developing Institutional Open Access Publishing Models to Advance Scholarly Communication" (DIAMAS) which in September launched a project to develop a diamond open access publishing model are long-overdue steps in the right direction. These initiatives work to ensure that scientific data resulting from federally funded research and peer reviewed scholarly publications are made freely available and publicly accessible by default. Academia, as with so many other fields, cannot exist without collaboration. But how can we collaborate if we lack the freedom to share the code, the data, the documents, the articles, and the (e-)books we are working with?

Let me give one example from my experience in academia to illustrate this. At the Department of Ancient History at the University of Zurich, I prepared inscriptions from the Roman Empire for the Epigraphic Database Clauss / Slaby (EDCS). Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions and there are hundreds of epigraphists worldwide, all working to understand and analyze inscriptions from the Roman Empire who therefore must be able to access images and texts of the inscriptions. The easiest way to do this is to use an epigraphic database. But there is not only one epigraphic database, there are plenty of them. In addition to the EDCS, there are for example the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR), the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg (EDH), the database Hispania Epigraphica, and the database of the Europeana network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy (EAGLE). Most of them contain similar information about the same inscriptions. So, why duplicate information instead of having one database or linking from one to the other? Most of the datasets are not shareable, at least not in a compatible format. It is very difficult to share the database and the software it's running on, and this makes it close to impossible for different universities to work together on the same database.

Whether in the form of databases, books, or articles, the availability and accessibility of findings is crucial to ensure high quality in research. Rationales and results of any scientific research can only be verified by others if scientists share the data they collect and the code and configurations they used to collect it with others in a format that everybody can open and process. Other scientists can only reproduce measurements and thus build upon them if they are shared with them in freedom.

But against all reason, universities and other research institutions worldwide use proprietary software like Matlab, the Microsoft Office suite, or ArcGIS software, to name only a few. These companies trap documents and data in their software, so that users can't share them with people who don't use the same software. The same companies claim that their products are made for collaboration. But they are designed to do the opposite: to exclude people who don't use the product of the same company. Imagine that people modify and improve a piece of software, adapt it to their needs, but then, they are not allowed to share the improvements. To give you an example: my favorite typesetting system, LaTeX, started as a markup language for science. I could only use it for my PhD thesis in history because some amazing people adapted it for the use in the humanities and then shared their improvements in the form of TeX extensions as XeLaTeX and LuaLaTeX, and packages such as betababel which for a long time has been the only way to write polytonic Ancient Greek.

No wonder that science is facing a reproducibility crisis after, for decades, having produced books and used software which deny the reader or user to share it. DRM-free books and free software are important steps on the way out of this crisis, because we can only build upon and advance the work of others if we have the freedom to share it. The good news is that there is fantastic free software, free documentation, free programming languages, and free tools that are made for science and for sharing. Scientist who care about sharing often use programs like GNU Guix, or Git, which have reproducibility and shareability at their core. Code that has been written in Python can be shared easily without forcing the receiver to use a proprietary computing environment like Matlab. In general, every fully free program grants its user the freedom to not only run and modify the software, but also to copy and share it. To find software that is granting you these freedoms, check out the 16,796 records in the Free Software Directory.

It is a shame that mega-corporations are trying to limit a user's freedom to share; that they not only prevent interoperability between social media platforms and messengers to maintain their monopolies, but also impose DRM on books and other media. It is often misunderstood that sharing has to be noncommercial. Most people are absolutely willing to pay for a copy of a free (as in freedom) program that has been developed professionally, or a DRM-free song, movie or e-book that is shared with them. Professional development as well as the creation of art requires much time, sometimes many people, and numerous resources. Paying money ensures the continuity of it. Many companies and a whole bunch of software would not exist without the freedom to share. Even proprietary companies build on free software and profit immensely from it. What I value in the free software community, however, is the sharing for the sake of sharing; for values like collaboration, community, solidarity, and participation.

In our year-end fundraiser and during this year's International Day Against DRM (IDAD), we've been stressing the importance of sharing. So much of what we do depends on sharing, studying, and building upon the works of others. We can only truly foster free software, free documentation, and free cultural works for users around the world if we have the ability to share. This is why the freedom to share is at the core of the FSF's work.

Can you join the effort to defend the freedom to share as an FSF associate member? You can start for as little as $10 per month ($5 for students), or $120 per year. With your support, we can continue to show people how the freedom to share can affect change in all areas where software touches modern life. Besides that, your membership gives strength to the idea of free software. Plus, your membership will count towards achieving our fall goal of 455 new associate members before December 31, and you will be eligible for this year's snazzy and secure webcam cover when you join as an annual associate member at $120 or more. You'll also be able to enjoy all the member benefits, which include merchandise discounts, a 16GB bootable membership card, and use of our associate member videoconferencing server.

As the FSF's program manager, I want to stand up for the freedom to share, and look forward to working with you to do that. Please help spread the message on social media networks using the hashtag #FreedomToShare.

Illustration Copyright © 2022, Free Software Foundation, Inc. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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