Free Software Is Even More Important Now
A substantially edited version of this article was published in
Suggested ways you can help the free software movement.
It is 30 years since the launch of the Free Software Movement which
campaigns for software to respect the users' freedom and community.
We call such software “free” and “libre” (we
use that word to emphasize that we're talking about freedom, not
price). Some proprietary programs, such as Photoshop, are very
expensive; others, such as Flash Player, are available
gratis—either way, they subject their users to the program
Much has changed since the beginning: most people, in advanced
countries, now own computers (sometimes called “phones”)
and connect to the Internet with them. Nonfree software still makes
the users surrender control over their computing to someone else, but
now there is another way to lose it: Service as a Software Substitute,
or SaaSS, which means letting someone else's server do your own
Both nonfree software and SaaSS can spy on the user, shackle the
user, and even attack the user. Abuses are common in services and
proprietary software products because the users are not in charge.
That's the fundamental difference: nonfree software and SaaSS are
controlled by some other entity (typically a corporation or a state),
and the users have no say. Free software, by contrast, puts the users
Why does this control matter? Because freedom means having control
over your own life. If you use a program to carry out activities in
your life, your freedom depends on your having control over the program.
You deserve to have control over the programs you use, and all the more
so when you use them for something important in your life.
Users' control over the program requires four
(0) The freedom to run the program as you wish, for whatever purpose.
(1) The freedom to study the program's “source code”,
and change it, so the program does your computing as you wish.
Programs are written by programmers in a programming
language—like English combined with algebra—and that form
of the program is the “source code”. Anyone who knows
programming, and has the program in source code form, can read the
source code, understand its functioning, and change it too. When all
you get is the executable form, a series of numbers that are efficient
for the computer to run but extremely hard for a human being to
understand, understanding and changing the program in that form are
(2) The freedom to make and distribute exact copies when you wish.
(It is not an obligation; doing this is your choice. If the program
is free, that doesn't mean someone has an obligation to offer you a
copy, or that you have an obligation to offer him a copy.
Distributing a program to users without freedom mistreats them;
however, choosing not to distribute the program—using it
privately—does not mistreat anyone.)
(3) The freedom to make and distribute copies of your modified
versions, when you wish.
The first two freedoms mean each user can exercise individual
control over the program. With the other two freedoms, any group of
users can together exercise collective control over the
program. With all four freedoms, the users fully control the program.
If any of them is missing or inadequate, the program is proprietary
(nonfree), and unjust.
Other kinds of works are also used for practical activities, including
recipes for cooking, educational works such as textbooks, reference
works such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, fonts for displaying
paragraphs of text, circuit diagrams for hardware for people to build,
and patterns for making useful (not merely decorative) objects with a
3D printer. Since these are not software, the free software movement
strictly speaking doesn't cover them; but the same reasoning applies
and leads to the same conclusion: these works should carry the four
A free program allows you to tinker with it to make it do what you
want (or cease do to something you dislike). Tinkering with software
may sound ridiculous if you are accustomed to proprietary software as
a sealed box, but in the Free World it's a common thing to do, and a
good way to learn programming. Even the traditional American pastime
of tinkering with cars is obstructed because cars now contain nonfree
The Injustice of Proprietariness
If the users don't control the program, the program controls the
users. With proprietary software, there is always some entity, the
“owner” of the program, that controls the
program—and through it, exercises power over its users. A
nonfree program is a yoke, an instrument of unjust power.
In outrageous cases (though this outrage has become quite usual) proprietary programs are designed
to spy on the users, restrict them, censor them, and abuse them.
For instance, the operating system of Apple iThings does all of these,
and so does Windows on mobile devices with ARM chips. Windows, mobile
phone firmware, and Google Chrome for Windows include a universal back
door that allows some company to change the program remotely without
asking permission. The Amazon Kindle has a back door that can erase
With the goal of ending the injustice of nonfree software, the free
software movement develops free programs so users can free themselves.
We began in 1984 by developing the free operating system GNU. Today, millions of computers
run GNU, mainly in the GNU/Linux
Distributing a program to users without freedom mistreats those users;
however, choosing not to distribute the program does not mistreat
anyone. If you write a program and use it privately, that does no
wrong to others. (You do miss an opportunity to do good, but that's
not the same as doing wrong.) Thus, when we say all software must
be free, we mean that every copy must come with the four freedoms,
but we don't mean that someone has an obligation to offer you a copy.
Nonfree Software and SaaSS
Nonfree software was the first way for companies to take control of
people's computing. Nowadays, there is another way, called Service as
a Software Substitute, or SaaSS. That means letting someone else's
server do your own computing tasks.
SaaSS doesn't mean the programs on the server are nonfree (though they
often are). Rather, using SaaSS causes the same injustices as using a
nonfree program: they are two paths to the same bad place. Take the
example of a SaaSS translation service: The user sends text to the
server, and the server translates it (from English to Spanish, say)
and sends the translation back to the user. Now the job of
translating is under the control of the server operator rather than
If you use SaaSS, the server operator controls your computing. It
requires entrusting all the pertinent data to the server operator,
which will be forced to show it to the state as well—who
does that server really serve, after all?
Primary And Secondary Injustices
When you use proprietary programs or SaaSS, first of all you do wrong
to yourself, because it gives some entity unjust power over you. For
your own sake, you should escape. It also wrongs others if you make a
promise not to share. It is evil to keep such a promise, and a lesser
evil to break it; to be truly upright, you should not make the promise
There are cases where using nonfree software puts pressure directly
on others to do likewise. Skype is a clear example: when one person
uses the nonfree Skype client software, it requires another person to
use that software too—thus both surrender their freedom.
(Google Hangouts have the same problem.) It is wrong even to suggest
using such programs. We should refuse to use them even briefly, even
on someone else's computer.
Another harm of using nonfree programs and SaaSS is that it rewards
the perpetrator, encouraging further development of that program or
“service”, leading in turn to even more people falling
under the company's thumb.
All the forms of indirect harm are magnified when the user is a
public entity or a school.
Free Software and the State
Public agencies exist for the people, not for themselves. When they
do computing, they do it for the people. They have a duty to maintain
full control over that computing so that they can assure it is done
properly for the people. (This constitutes the computational
sovereignty of the state.) They must never allow control over the
state's computing to fall into private hands.
To maintain control of the people's computing, public agencies must
not do it with proprietary software (software under the control of an
entity other than the state). And they must not entrust it to a
service programmed and run by an entity other than the state, since
this would be SaaSS.
Proprietary software has no security at all in one crucial case
— against its developer. And the developer may help others attack.
Microsoft shows Windows bugs to the NSA (the US government digital
spying agency) before fixing them. We do not know whether Apple does
likewise, but it is under the same government pressure as Microsoft.
If the government of any other country uses such software, it
endangers national security. Do you want the NSA to break into your
government's computers? See
policies for governments to promote free software.
Free Software and Education
Schools (and this includes all educational activities) influence the
future of society through what they teach. They should teach
exclusively free software, so as to use their influence for the good.
To teach a proprietary program is to implant dependence, which goes
against the mission of education. By training in use of free
software, schools will direct society's future towards freedom, and
help talented programmers master the craft.
They will also teach students the habit of cooperating, helping
other people. Each class should have this rule: “Students, this
class is a place where we share our knowledge. If you bring software
to class, you may not keep it for yourself. Rather, you must share
copies with the rest of the class—including the program's source
code, in case someone else wants to learn. Therefore, bringing
proprietary software to class is not permitted except to reverse
Proprietary developers would have us punish students who are good
enough at heart to share software and thwart those curious enough to
want to change it. This means a bad education. See
for more discussion of the use of free software in schools.
Free Software: More Than “Advantages”
I'm often asked to describe the “advantages” of free
software. But the word “advantages” is too weak when it
comes to freedom. Life without freedom is oppression, and that
applies to computing as well as every other activity in our lives. We
must refuse to give the owners of the programs or computing services
control over the computing we do. This is the right thing to do, for
selfish reasons; but not solely for selfish reasons.
Freedom includes the freedom to cooperate with others. Denying
people that freedom means keeping them divided, which is the start of
a scheme to oppress them. In the free software community, we are very
much aware of the importance of the freedom to cooperate because our
work consists of organized cooperation. If your friend comes to visit
and sees you use a program, she might ask for a copy. A program which
stops you from redistributing it, or says you're “not supposed
to”, is antisocial.
In computing, cooperation includes redistributing exact copies of a
program to other users. It also includes distributing your changed
versions to them. Free software encourages these forms of
cooperation, while proprietary software forbids them. It forbids
redistribution of copies, and by denying users the source code, it
blocks them from making changes. SaaSS has the same effects: if your
computing is done over the web in someone else's server, by someone
else's copy of a program, you can't see it or touch the software that
does your computing, so you can't redistribute it or change it.
We deserve to have control of our own computing; how can we win
this control? By rejecting nonfree software on the computers we own
or regularly use, and rejecting SaaSS. By developing free
software (for those of us who are programmers.) By refusing to
develop or promote nonfree software or SaaSS. By spreading these ideas to others.
We and thousands of users have done this since 1984, which is how
we now have the free GNU/Linux operating system that
anyone—programmer or not—can use. Join our cause, as a
programmer or an activist. Let's make all computer users free.