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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2008 Fall 2008 Change we can believe in: patents, software, hardware, standards and values

Change we can believe in: patents, software, hardware, standards and values

by Matt Lee Contributions Published on Feb 06, 2009 04:37 PM
by Peter Brown, Executive Director

Do you use nonfree software? Does your employer or school require you to use Microsoft software? Are you required to use proprietary formats to interact with your bank or local government? Are your children being trained to use computers rather than learning how to be in control of the computers they use?

As advocates for free software we are often faced with these challenges. We know that the support for the status quo, or the convenience of using the monopolists' pervasive tools, makes it hard to convince institutions to change their ways. Yet the opportunities for change have never been better.

In our latest victory, the Free Software Foundation through its End Software Patents (ESP) campaign filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) in their en banc hearing of in re Bilski. We saw this as an historic opportunity to undo the harm inflicted by software patents on free software developers. The Bilski ruling didn't disappoint, as it gutted -- if not technically overturned -- the State Street ruling that in 1998 opened the floodgates to the patenting of business methods and software. The vast bulk of software patents that have been used to threaten developers writing code for a GNU/Linux distribution running on general purpose computers has in theory been swept away. The Bilski ruling undoubtedly represents a breakthrough for free software and a success for the FSF's campaign. And with this ruling we are on the path to lowering the threats that institutions face when considering adopting free software.

Completely free distributions like the FSF-sponsored gNewSense are now viable, something that just a few years ago seemed far out of reach. Our work with SGI earlier this year means that even the latest 3D graphic acceleration can now be achieved with free software and gNewSense. And the relaunch of our High Priority Projects list highlights that the proprietary software for which there is currently no free alternative and that users feel forced to use, is being tackled aggressively.

Hardware manufacturers friendly to free software have given us the first free software smartphone, the OpenMoko FreeRunner. The OLPC project gave us the first free software laptop, the XO, that has quickly established the low-cost sub-notebook marketplace -- where the economics have made GNU/Linux a popular choice. And for the past few months, FSF systems administrators have been working on the forthcoming free Lemote laptop, which Richard Stallman plans to use and that we hope will be widely commercially available.

The FSF has been campaigning alongside many partners for free and open standards, particularly for OpenDocument Format (ODF) and against Microsoft's OOXML. In June of this year, Microsoft finally announced that they would adopt ODF and many nation states have been adopting policies in support of ODF. Our free audio and video codecs campaign has also been winning hearts and minds, and Mozilla's Firefox web browser will soon carry native support for Ogg, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to promote free codecs.

Combined, these breakthroughs are important because they give us an opportunity to put aside the claims of convenience that are used to promote the monopolists' pervasive tools, and ask important questions of our employer. Why are we using this proprietary software that locks us to this vendor when we could be using free software that would give us control? It gives us the chance to demand open government. Why is it, that my local government is forcing me to purchase one vendor's software to access public records, when there are free formats that we can use that work with free software? And why does this school accept corporate donations of proprietary software that come with handcuffs on my child's education, rather than use free software that will give my child the opportunity to be in control of the technology she learning to use?

These are just some of the changes that we can all bring about by voicing support for free software. While it's important that people adopt free software out of concern for their freedom and not just convenience, the cumulative effect of many people doing this is a world in which it will also be more convenient for all of us to use free software -- a world in which those seeking control over users under the guise of convenience will face much stiffer opposition.

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