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The Battle Over Freedom

When is open source not quite so open? Computer folks often require an exactness that can prove frustrating to others. This exactness comes to a head when discussing free software.

Linux, as well as some other operating systems and a vast array of applications, are built on the idea that you–or anyone–can access the internal structure of the software, the program source code. There are no secrets; all is available. You can modify the software, run the software, and share the software with others. The developers of these programs grant you these rights by license. Software available under such licenses goes under the name of free or open-source software.

Software developers and users who feel passionate about their software and their freedoms debate endlessly which licenses are better than others. For most users, though, the licenses at opensource.org all offer sufficient rights, and usually come with software available at no cost.

Problems arise, though, when you try to put together a complete system, especially a desktop system, based only on free and open-source software. The problems come, especially in the United States, from software patents, and an increasingly draconian regime of laws designed to prevent reverse engineering. Reverse engineering aids the creation of software that can work with existing, and usually commercial, software packages. These patents and laws control access to important software components.

Amid all the passionate feelings about right and wrong, free and not free, Linux vendor Linspire recently turned the debate over free software on its head with the release of Freespire, a no-cost version of the company’s much-praised Linspire Linux distribution. Based on Debian GNU/Linux, Freespire has garnered praise due to its ease of use, installation, and software management.

But Linspire did something more than release a no-cost version of its product. Freespire includes a raft of proprietary software that Linspire has included at no cost to you. You can read the list of proprietary components in Freespire here.

These components range from software to play Windows Media (WMV) and Quicktime 7 files to a Macromedia Flash Plug-In, as well as NVIDIA and ATI graphics drivers and wireless networking and modem drivers.

Normally, when someone offers a gift like this to the community, you say thank you. In the Linux community, though, Linspire’s move created controversy. Freespire’s software, it turns out, is free of charge, but the program source codes, at least for the proprietary components, are not accessible to be modified.

Many in the Linux community feel that putting these components into a Linux distribution not only encourages vendors not to open up their wares, but also eliminates the benefits of freedom for software. A world without freedom in software puts users at the mercy of just a few vendors and makes users lose control over their information systems, be they home computers or large business data centers. When your organization becomes dependent on just one vendor, you are at the mercy of that vendor. Software freedom means that even if a vendor no longer supports a product, you have the chance to get support elsewhere, since the source code is freely available.

Linspire offers a version of Freespire, the Freespire OSS Edition, without any of these proprietary components. But Linux users clearly want this extra, proprietary, software, especially for playing Flash and MP3 content. Users want this software so much that projects have sprung up devoted just to meeting these goals. Easybuntu, for example, exists to add support for proprietary formats such as MP3-encoded music to the popular Ubuntu distribution.

In another, far less controversial front in the battle over software freedom, Intel has opened up a driver for the Intel 965 Express chip set. You can find the driver software here. The driver components are available under the MIT or GPL licenses. –Eric Foster-Johnson

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