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The Car Analogy

by root Contributions Published on Oct 19, 2009 04:02 PM
What if buying a new car were like using nonfree software?

(We're happy to welcome Tal, joining our campaigns team as part of our internship program.)

by Tal Schechter
Campaigns Intern

What if buying a car were like buying a computer running Windows or Mac OS X? The following example may seem strange at first, but is an interesting analogy to understand the important difference between proprietary software that is designed to take away your freedom, and free software.

So, you go to the car dealership and purchase a brand new car:

  • Your new car has a trunk, CD player and digital radio -- but these don't work because you didn't pay enough money. You can always call the car company with your credit card details and unlock these items later.

  • The keys to your new car inform you that you've implicitly agreed to a contract that says you don't own your car, but the car company is granting you permission to drive only on roads they've approved.

  • There would be an automatic "safety-upgrade" to the car after a while that would not allow you to go over 55 miles per hour.

  • If you wanted to have your car fixed, you would have to go to an accredited, licensed repair shop. It would be illegal for anyone else to open the hood. When you get to your licensed repair shop, they would charge you an "accredited repair license surcharge."

While these ideas may seem ridiculous, it is exactly what happens when a person chooses to use non-free software. You choose the software that best fits your needs, and sometimes a salesperson will help you out. You agree to a contract that you probably did not read, or sometimes you even implicitly agree to the terms by using the software. You use the software. However, you can only use the software in ways that the publisher agrees with (driving, in our analogy). When the software malfunctions, or even when you want to make something better, there is nowhere to go except to the publisher of the software. You can not go to a friend who is good with computers. You can not go to a company to have them fix it for you. You must go to the developer. When you bring your problem to their attention, they may say, "We can fix that for you." They may say, "We will think about adding that in our next release." Or they may (probably) say, "That's a feature of the program, there is nothing to fix."

Free software, on the other hand, promotes user freedoms. Free software is defined as:

  • Software that you can use for any purpose -- driving, paper weight, art, etc.
  • Software you can study and change if you wish -- pop the hood and look at what's inside, repair or modify in any way you see fit
  • Software that can be redistributed -- sell your car?
  • Software where you can improve the program and release your improvements -- add an active hood scoop and turbo-charger, and put the plans for doing so on your favorite modding site.

We don't accept infringement on our freedoms when buying a car, so why should we with software?

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