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Sounding Off: Free Software

Mr X
By Julian Bentwood

Soon all software could be Free — like it or not...

When most of us think of free software, we simply think of software that doesn't cost us anything; those useful VST plug-ins we can download from the web without first having to supply our credit card details, for example. However, there is another, more specific definition of free software which has been attracting a lot of attention in recent years, thanks to a steady growth of interest in the GNU/Linux operating system.Sounding Off

Advocates of this kind of Free Software make a distinction between software that is available at no cost, and software that is Free in a larger sense. For software to be truly Free, the argument goes, a specific set of freedoms and rights must be granted to its users — including the right to redistribute copies.

Many supporters of this species of Free Software argue that all software ought to be Free — not because this represents the most efficient or cost-effective method of distribution, but because it is morally better; better for society as a whole.

I'm not writing to argue either for or against Free Software in principle, although I think there are some interesting arguments to be had. I'm writing this piece because I'm increasingly convinced that, regardless of the arguments for and against, those of us who use computers to compose, record and produce music may well find ourselves dependent on Free Software before too much longer.

This may seem like a strange claim to make. At present only a minority of enthusiasts use exclusively Free Software for anything, and a still smaller minority is experimenting with Free Software for music. Even these 'early adopters' would probably concede that Free audio applications still lag some distance behind their commercial counterparts, in terms of both features and usability.

So why am I convinced that Free Software is our future? To use a military metaphor, while commercial software may be winning the features arms-race, it has already lost the political battle for hearts and minds.

One of the central tenets of the Free Software philosophy is that users ought to be free to make and distribute copies of software, so that more people may benefit. This is condemned as piracy by commercial software developers — and yet it's exactly what a great many musicians and producers do already, without giving it a second thought.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, and if neither you nor any of your friends has ever used any pirated software, then you can congratulate yourselves on belonging to a virtuous minority. To say that, in my experience, the use of pirated software is 'widespread' would be an understatement.

The people involved in this unauthorised redistribution may have given little thought to the arguments on either side of the Free Software debate. However, whether they realise it or not, their actions represent an implicit endorsement of one of the key claims of Free Software advocates — namely that the social benefits of sharing software outweigh any harm done by refusing to recognise the intellectual property rights of commercial software developers.

A great many computer users, perhaps even the majority, apparently do not feel that the limits these developers seek to impose on them are reasonable. Consequently they abide by neither the letter nor the spirit of the End User Licence Agreements they supposedly consent to by clicking 'OK'.

You may feel this is lamentable. You might even point to it as evidence of the intrinsically iniquitous and selfish nature of human beings (although you'd be open to an accusation of cynicism if you did). I would ask you what, practically speaking, you think can be done about it.

Copy-protection is not the answer. I'm talking about changing people's minds; persuading them that it's actually more important to respect the wishes of software developers than it is to allow their Internet peers to upload. I don't know how this can be done, or even if it's possible. As things currently stand, commercial software developers appear to be swimming against the tide, and I see no sign that the tide is about to turn. If unauthorised software copying is anything like as widespread as I suspect it is, it must represent a considerable disincentive for programmers to continue developing commercial products.

Whether you're convinced by the arguments of Free Software advocates or not, it's hard to deny that their vision of how things ought to be done much more closely resembles the reality of what actually happens than the average End User Licence Agreement. In the end, Free Software may win by default.

About The Author

Julian Bentwood is a pseudonym. The man in the bag has worked for several of the major music software companies and wishes to remain anonymous.

Published May 2005