“Wiener on Innovation” – Panelist — John Sullivan
John Sullivan: Thanks for having me here. I’m the Executive Director at the Free Software Foundation. I’ve been with the organization since 2003. Basically I want to talk a little bit about what Free Software is and how it relates to the concept of innovation. Where innovation fits in in our priorities as a goal, and what we see as obstacles and incentives to that. The Free Software Foundation is, we’re a Boston based charity, a 501C3, and our mission is to promote and protect free software and free documentation. You can read more about us at FSF.org. Don’t confuse us with the Football Supporters Federation, which I think is probably the more popular cause at the moment, but we’re doing our best.
Free software, the ‘free’ refers to freedom, and it’s defined by four characteristics. For a piece of software to be free it has to offer the user four particular freedoms. Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program for any purpose. Freedom 1 is the freedom to study how the program works and change it. Freedom 2 is the freedom to redistribute copies, to share it. Freedom 3 is to share copies of your modified version as well. By sharing you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your software, or if the software comes from me you can give the whole community a chance to be cursed by your bugs. Proprietary software by contrast the software that restricts one or more of those freedoms, so for example Skype says that you aren’t allowed to make copies of it even though you can download it from Skype from Microsoft at no charge, you are not allowed to copy it and give it to a friend. That’s a restriction on freedom 2 and 3.
Microsoft Windows says you can’t make modifications to the operating system or see the source code that powers the operating system, that’s a restriction on the first freedom, freedom 1, well second freedom, freedom 1. Apple’s eBook authoring software says you can’t use it to make books that you’re going to sell anywhere but in the Apple iTunes store. If you use Apple’s eBook authoring software to make your own eBook you are not allowed to sell it from your own website, commercial use is prohibited, the only place you’re allowed to sell it is through Apple stores. That’s a restriction on freedom 0, which is to be able to run the program for whatever purpose you want.
These restrictions are enforced by a few different mechanisms, and society … One that was in the news last week and has been in the news a lot generally lately is software patents, so patents can cover particular techniques used in a program. [Yo-las 02:34], those things that nobody reads and just clicks Okay, I Agree? Those contain many terms, they’re contracts legally speaking which spell out terms that restrict those freedoms I mentioned. There’s copyright, and software’s is unique, I believe, in being covered by both copyright and patents. The definition of copyright, restrictions there encompasses the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which adds extra penalties for modifying certain kinds of proprietary software, namely digital restrictions management software, which is the stuff that prevents you from copying music or recording videos that you might stream from Netflix. The software that prevents you from installing non Apple approved applications on an iPhone or an iPad. Those restrictions are enforced by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Software patents were just weakened a bit by the supreme court decision last week in Alice versus CLS Bank, but their still a threat, an individual computer program can easily be covered by dozens or even hundreds of software patents. Especially if you’re an individual trying to write a program that you want to sell or share, that can be a really daunting barrier to having any kind of success as soon as you get a patent holder’s attention you’ll be in trouble. Our Utopian vision at the FSF is that we want all computer users to be able to do everything that they need to do on any computer using only free software. We’ve been working towards this goal since Richard Stallman our Founder, announced it in 1983. That’s when he started the GNU Project. The GNU Project is sort of housed by the FSF and it’s a software development project, actually writes all of the software that we’re going to need in order to reach this utopia, and that project’s been largely successful so we now, in combination with other free software projects that have sprung up since then, we now have a complete free operating system called GNU/Linux, that’s what I’m running on my machine here, that’s what lots of people can run on their machines as well. It does personal computing or hosting type needs as well.
We have that, we’re very close to actually being able to do everything we need to do with only free software. The GNU Project and other free software projects around the world are made up of thousands of programmers who write code that they actually want other people to be able to copy and modify and share back, and that process creates an amazing commons of code where people can learn to be programmers, improve their skills, and avoid reinventing wheels just because the existing wheel is owned by somebody else. I’m not a programmer personally by any meaningful definition of the word, but when I was a kid I really enjoyed learning about computers and learning about programming, and one of the main ways that I did that was by copying programs out of magazines and books where the source code was available, and I could type them in on my Commodore.
I eventually got frustrated doing that because all those programs were pretty lame, they didn’t do much and they were nothing like the word processor or the programs that I was actually using on my computer, and I wasn’t able to learn from those programs or see how they were written because the source code was not available, it was proprietary. Even if I had the source code I wouldn’t have been permitted to make any changes. That prevented me personally and has prevented lots of people from making the leap to becoming an actual programmer, the inability to see real applications and how they work. In free software the code for your entire operating system and all your applications is available, so you can actually learn how to write programs that are the kinds of programs that people actually use, and you can make modifications to those programs, or if you’re not a programmer you can commission somebody else to do it for you just like you commission somebody else to do contract work on your house or your car.
An important part of this whole commons is a concept called Copyleft. Copyleft uses copyright law to promote sharing instead of restricting it. A problem with the commons is when people can come and take things out of the commons and not give back to it, and Copyleft prevents this. We provide a copyright license at the FSF called the GNU General Public License, and any programmer can use that license as the terms for distributing our code. Thousands of programmers around the world do just that. This license derives it’s power from copyright law. Copyright licenses usually say you’re not allowed to copy this or share it. The GPL says you are allowed to copy this, share it, modify it, as long as when you give a copy to somebody else you give them the same freedoms. It creates a share and share alike culture, so I can take your program and modify it and then when I pass it on I give the next person those same freedoms so they can modify it, share it, and so on. What this does is prevents free software from being taken and used in a proprietary program. It makes people a lot more willing to contribute and share their work because they’re assured that they’re also going to get work shared back to them which they can benefit from.
This commons, does it create innovation, does it promote innovation? Even though most of the software that we use that is advertised most heavily, that you see on TV, that you see in the store, even though most of that software is proprietary, almost all of it, Windows, OSX, IOS on the Apple devices, free software is actually everywhere. It powers the internet because WordPress is free software, WordPress powers twenty percent of websites. The Apache web server which serves most of the other websites and a lot of WordPress sites is also free software. The GNU/Linux operating system that runs most of the servers that handle your email and your database needs, that’s also free software. It’s running everywhere, it’s just sort of out of sight, and this has a lot to do with the fact that companies like Microsoft and Apple spend a lot of money to advertise the importance of proprietary software to you and we don’t have a comparable budget unfortunately to promote free software.
Actually, it’s not just on the internet, it’s also on most of the devices that are in your hands. Amazon’s Kindle is built on a foundation of free software, you can actually get the source code for those parts of the Kindle code which they took from somebody else who willingly shared that code with them. Apple’s operating system also started with a free core. Google uses lots of free software on all of their operations. The problem here is that these companies take free software and then they put a proprietary application layer on top of it and then they sell that as the actual innovation. That innovation was made possible because they climbed the ladder of free software, they get to the top, they kick it away so nobody else can climb up and reach them.
It’s hard for us because we can’t recommend buying Kindles or iPads because those things are proprietary and enforce restrictions on the users, but I also want everybody to know that they were actually made possible in the first place by free software. Of course those same companies go out and campaign against free software, they argue that if we don’t have strong copyright law and patents then there will be no innovation, and yet they benefited from a system of innovation in creation which had none of those things intentionally.
This brings us to an important point which is that innovation is not the most important goal for us in technology, it’s actually user freedom. Richard Stallman our President said, “If anything deserves a reward it’s social contribution. Creativity can be social contribution but only in so far as society is free to use the results.” In an interview he explained a bit further that, “Innovation is the sacred cow of people who claim that they need to be allowed to restrict us. They say if they can restrict us they’ll do more innovation, but innovation can be good or bad, so when somebody argues, “Give up your freedom so we can have more innovation”, that is literally a Trojan horse.”
Apple’s innovations for example destroy both freedom and creativity for future generations. You literally cannot program an iPad unless you have a developer certificate which you have to get from Apple by agreeing to their terms and even then you are not allowed to give your application to a friend to install on their iPad, the only place you’re allowed to distribute iPad applications is in the official app store where it has to be approved before it can get in to begin with. You’ve seen all these flashy commercials lately about Apple being associated with creativity, notice that none of them show people doing programming on an iPad or for an iPad, that’s because you have to participate in their restrictive system in order to do that.
Free software can mean also doing some very non-innovative things. For example, we spend a lot of time reverse engineering proprietary applications like some of the parts of Android, so that we can have a fully free system. That’s literally reinventing the wheel, and it’s the opposite of innovation, but we have to do it in order to achieve our bigger goal which is freedom for computer users. I think all these ideas are really important to keep in mind when we start talking about wearable computing, cybernetics, we have devices being implanted in people’s bodies now that have proprietary software on them so the person who is having the device put inside of them is not allowed to see the code that’s on that device. That’s not a good path to go down, and I think if we’re really concerned about technology not just being innovative but protecting individual freedom, we’re really going to need to push the ideals of free software in that area. Thank you very much.