Co-operation versus capitalism - an introduction to Free software

Free software is replacing commercial software as its development techniques produce better quality programs; the software industry is moving from selling software to giving it away and instead selling services.

The terms by which you're allowed to use software are defined in a licence. The most restrictive are commercial, becoming less so with Shareware, Freeware and Copyleft-compatible licences such as the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GNU GPL grants you the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software; it's definition of free pertains to freedom, not price. The licence expands the rights you normally have beyond the restrictions provided by copyright laws, where as commercial licences usually require you to waive rights you would normally have had.

Companies profiting from software sales need to quash oppostion and sell the software to you repeatedly so their incentive is to add features rather than fix bugs. They use their own file formats and standards, or pollute open standards with proprietary extensions, abusing copyright and patent law to prevent other software from using them. This locks people into using their products which are often only available for one particular operating system on one particular type of computer. These techniques produce software which hinders your productivity. Monopolistic companies develop who are able to bully computer suppliers to include only their software on new computers so eventually inferior software becomes ubiquitous.

Facilitated by the Internet, open patent-free standards and licencing that promotes collaboration, disparate developers work co-operatively on projects, motivated by a desire to scratch their own itches and esteem from peers for their code's quality. Every aspect of their work is open and transparent: discussions, bug reports and documentation on how software works.

Free software development produces better software because developers have an incentive to fix bugs, every stage of its development is open, its source code is able to be peer reviewed and there are greater numbers of people looking at that code. Users and computer support people who find bugs or want improvements can consult a project's database and file a report if necessary, which helps improve the software and allows people to participate rather than consume. Computer support is also easier to provide.
Better quality code results in programs that require less hardware resources; are available for numerous types of computer and operating systems and whose interface is in different spoken languages. Built upon open standards, different programs and data inter-operate with one another.

Free software developers have produced better alternatives to most non-Free software, including an operating system (the GNU system and Linux kernel); Mozilla web browser; OpenOffice.org office suite; GIMP image editor and many more.

The Windows Toolbox compilation offers Free software, Freeware and Shareware for Windows: http://thegoldenear.org/toolbox/windows/.
Alternatively, Debian GNU/Linux is a Free operating system with many applications, downloadable from http://debian.org/, orderable from http://www.debian.org/CD/vendors/.

First written: July 2003