Free or Open Source Software?

Thoughts on Free Software and reflections from attending a talk by Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software

 · 4 min read

Richard Stallman

Last week, we attended a talk by Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software. He is legendary in tech circles for founding the GNU Project (GNU is Not Unix) and writing a lot of tools that are a part of the Linux Operating System, which according to him, must be called GNU/Linux. Stallman is also known to have radical political views on software and has a set of terminology that he insists must be used by everyone talking about his work. His primary disagreement is with the term Open Source, which he calls as pushovers. By pushovers, he means that the term Open Source software is tainted by the need for sustainability using commercial means. Often this is unfairly done either by only distributing parts of the software as free or by keeping some features as paid.



For Stallman, all software must be free and must be used in ways that all derivate works also have the same freedom. The thought is both noble and also a protection that companies do not pick up work from the community and bundle it as their own tools. The GNU General Public License, also called as the "copyleft" license, protects these rights. ERPNext too is licensed under this License, even though we position ERPNext as Open Source.

Personally I am more pragmatic about the usage of the terminology. We use Open Source because our users understand this term more than Free. Also Free ERP has different connotations. Free stuff is eyed suspiciously as most people believe that there is a cost to everything. This is tragic because a lot of good free and open source software exists, and it is sad to see that because of such political issues, groups cannot get together to promote it. (I will use these terms interchangeably in this post.)

Stallman also talked a lot about surveillance and how governments are using devices to illegally and surreptitiously capture information of our likes, relations and movements. Even though we all need to be cautious against too much intrusion of privacy, these devices also bring a lot of convenience and freedom to us. 

Advocacy

One of the primary roles that Stallman and his Free Software Foundation (FSF) plays is that of advocating Free Software in education institutes and governments. Teaching Free Software to students is of vital importance because if they start getting familiar with free software, they will grow up to use it. Companies like Microsoft send sales people to promote their software to schools because they want to get young students to use their tools and grow familiar with them. In the same way, promoters of free software must also send volunteers to schools to promote free software.



The second is governments. Governments by definition are owned by the commons. People pool in their taxes so that the government can work efficiently and the best bang for the buck is delivered when companies providing solutions are forced to use free software and publish their solutions as open source.

India is lacking on both these counts. It is very sad to see that the few people who are promoting free software are also tired and depressed. Clearly new energy is required on these fronts. We at Web Notes feel very strongly about this and we hope to make some contribution here. Unfortunately we are also stuck with a couple of constraints. One, is of course that we first need to get our revenues in place and second, is that we don't know where to start. Maybe a fresh beginning is required.

What Can We Do?

Our first goal, like I said earlier is that we need to ensure that we have surplus funds to invest in this area. ERPNext is surely growing very well and revenue is also increasing year on year; however, it is still not enough. If we divert our attention and focus on too many things, then we may lose the advantage that ERPNext has built up. Also, there is a lot to be done.

If we had the resources, we would setup a voluntary effort for schools and governments where we could go and give them short presentations and also give free support for using Linux Desktops, Office tools, Mail Servers, Web Servers etc. The challenge would be in making the initial contact, then setting up a time, then doing the presentation and then offering support. This would be ideally done under the umbrella of Free Software Foundation of India. If they are very religious/suspicious about us, who have to earn our bread and don't live off grants, or there are too many ego-mountains to be climbed, then we could form a new group. I think to do this would be our duty as not only publishers of free software but as good citizens too.

Image Courtesy:

[1] http://stallman.org
[2] http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Defectivebydesign_Ff_la1.jpg


Rushabh Mehta

Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.

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