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Backward free software advocacy

Another funny thing I noticed on the comments for my guest post about Free Software Fundamentalists is that there is a very strange conception of how to interact with proprietary software when you’re definitely forced to.

Quoting the comment on why you shouldn’t use proprietary software:

When you use proprietary software, you give them market share, which further funds their development, which widens the gap between them and their free competitors. It’s like buying then freeing slaves: you do it out of good intention, but unintentionally you empowers the slave traders, who enslave even more people. True, you can get a mostly free software, but you still empower the proprietary software.

Now, beside the fact that the particular author of that comment really needs some reality check done (comparing software and slavery first, and torture later, would show some serious lack of perspective on their part), one would expect that the problem is the “market share” thing. And indeed, I know that quite a bit of “Free Software Advocates” seem to be sustaining ideas like the Pirate Party, and other kind of “freedom no matter what” activities. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand them to a point, but I’m not really agreeing with them fully.

I can understand very well the point of “civil disobedience” related to the non-availability of some kind of content or software, or so on. As I said before I also download, unauthorized, Bill Maher’s show since it’s unavailable in Italy (for no good reason I can think of). On the other hand I’m not proud of that and, given the choice of paying to watch it, I’d be definitely fine with paying for it.

What I really can’t get my head behind is the idea that, to avoid giving funds to proprietary software developers, you should copy, crack, or otherwise hinder the distribution of that software. Sorry, but respecting copyright is what the Free Software movement has been basing itself on, thanks to the GPL. Now, I know that Stallman now declared that the GPL was a “workaround” and that getting rid of copyright altogether is the way to go… I’m quite sure I don’t agree; we do need a reform in copyright almost everywhere, but I still don’t think that it’s going to help free software to kill copyright entirely.

Piracy is definitely not the way to go, in my view. Of course I’m not the kind of person who says “piracy is bad so get rid of all the tools allowing it”, because I do see that a lot of the tools actually used for piracy are used for very legit cases as well: being able to decrypt and rip a DVD does not always mean that you are going to distribute it illegally; you might want to have it available on an HDD-based set-top-box on your TV; you might want to put it on your iPod or PSP, or whatever, and so on. The same goes for CD.

Piracy is, at many levels, detrimental to Free Software; let me give you an example, getting back to the family unit I described before where pirated software was the norm, even when it only required functions well covered by free software like Gimp, Inkscape or OpenOffice. Now, in their case I was able to bring them on board with the free alternatives based on the fact that, obviously, pirated software often is a truck loaded with viruses and other kind of malware. If it wasn’t for that, their reasoning would have been “If I have to choose between a mediocre software that is available for free, when I could have, as free as that, software that costs lots of money and is thus obviously better?”.

Now, any half-decent computer geek knows very well that “costs lots of money” doesn’t necessarily mean “it’s good” (Windows, anyone?). On the other hand, normal people almost always reason in that sense (and can be seen in so many ways it’s not even funny, be it software, hardware, or stuff that has nothing to do with computers); to ignore this is silly if your target is advocating free software. So you got to find another way to explain it to them.

The usual argument about the philosophy comes up to a point; especially when you sanction piracy, this really starts to be watered down. The argument about lock-ins also doesn’t really count with “commoners” since the lock-in will only mean they’ll keep pirating the same software, and will make sure that all the computers they have have the same pirated software on them. (It would be much better if software companies really tried to struck down heavily on piracy).

What remains is simply this: make sure that the Free Software gets better, and better, and better than proprietary software. To do that, though, you need to get out of the mental shelter of “it doesn’t matter if it’s mediocre, you have to prefer it”. And now please let me cover my ass about one very likely rebuttal that I have seen before: “Well, to me it’s more important that the software is free than it is perfect”; it’s a valid point for you. And I’m definitely not going to tell you “use that proprietary software, it’s better!”.

On the other hand if you wish to force suggest other people to use Free Software, you should learn that most of the users out there care first to get their work done, and then whether the software is free or not. Those who use computers to do any kind of job not directly involved with development will use whatever tool allows them to get paid at the end of the month (and somebody compares that to torture and war? oh my…); those who use a computer just for entertainment will care even less about what they are using, since they don’t even expect reliability out of it (mostly because of Microsoft’s past operating systems, I guess).

Guess who’s really widening free software’s reach? Advocates who have lost contact with reality and the masses of users out there? Or me and the rest of the pragmatic guys who work hard every day to create more and better free software?

Note: I have already said it before but I want to make it explicit once again (with the “right tone” for the issue). I know that a lot of developers out there don’t give a f♥♥k about “widening free software’s reach” and would most likely prefer that “the masses of users out there” stood the f♥♥k away from them. To them I’m not really saying anything, they are free to do whatever they prefer. I’m simply upset by those who declares themselves “advocates” or “evangelists” and then behave in that way.

Comments 3
  1. IMO, advocacy should go toward open standards, not free software. People should be able to choose for themselves what type of software they want and shouldn’t have to worry about the market share of the software they use.

  2. _(Testing comment after an antispam improvement)_@nico: unfortunately, quite some people don’t understand that promoting “free” formats lacking interoperability is definitely not going to do Free Software any good 🙁

  3. His comparison to slavery was perfectly appropriate, because the principles of the mechanism in both cases are the same. If it only appealed to your emotions by mentioning slaves but not to your intellect, then the problem lies with you, not the comment author. You make the impression that you think he equated using proprietary software to slavery.Also, you decry his argument that using proprietary software hinders free software, but then you restate the exact same argument, only you limit the case to using unauthorised copies of proprietary software instead of any proprietary software.You make many of good points on your blog but this time it looks like you’re just venting frustration—cut some slack, will you?

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