Software Freedom & the status quo

Next Saturday, the 15th of September, we will all celebrate the Software Freedom Day 2012. As usual, it will be a worldwide event with lots of big and small conferences, parties and presentations happening all around the globe and driven by teams of volunteers. Such a day highlights the momentum of the FOSS community and the importance of Free Software, and it has done so for several years now with a growing success.

I wish to seize this opportunity to point out an often less discussed aspect of Free Software. While I’m not sure it was fully intended in the first place -it obviously was somehow- Free Software carries the important ability to break the status quo in various fields related to software. I have been discussing here in various instances how Free Software helps creating a level-playing field for competitors and how this ultimately benefits to software users (customers or not). As it turns out, Free Software breaks the status quo in markets that are rigged or de-facto monopolized and this is something that is now known. But what is less known and understood is the ability of Free Software to break the status quo even among large software vendors and established players, may they be customers, service providers, regulators or otherwise.

This is a pattern that seldom gets picked by blogs or by journalists: even to this day, where you will hear that FOSS is definitely an important part of the ecosystem (and it is!), the temptation to control Free & Open Source Software is still prevalent among large vendors. Of course the kind of control may be very different from one project to another. It ranges from subtle (and quite acceptable) influence to de-facto lock-in. There are many shades of grey in this area. In this regard, Software Freedom does not preclude such control and arm-wrestling on a software project, as it does not mandate a specific way to develop software. It does however provide anyone with the necessary willpower and focus to get rid of any party’s influence or control on the software in question. Whether that party ends up mending its ways or the software gets forked and its community relocated is not the point. The important thing is that Software Freedom does not bode well for entities willing to control software development projects even when that’s done in public. If the actual agendas and commitment of a software project’s contributors are not communicated clearly, the confidence in the project itself will quickly become problematic, and ultimately the sanction will be clear: whatever the community chooses for itself, whatever the formal outcome of this choice, the entire value of the community and much, if not all of the value of the software itself will disappear from the vendor’s hands. Instead what might be left is often a set of liabilities no one really wants to deal with.

Because of this, Software  Freedom has the disturbing power to break the status quo: it flies in the face of established fiefdoms, zones of influences and strongholds. Because of this, Software Freedom is dangerous to a few, yet beneficial to many. We, at the Document Foundation, have learned and known this truth since our inception. That’s why we must protect and promote Software Freedom. Next Saturday will be a great opportunity to contribute to this effort. Join the movement! Because today more than ever, Software Freedom matters.

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