Advocating free software in the real world

Advocating free software in the real world


Recently, in this column, I spoke about how we can lose our free software choices if we don't use them. Sticking with that choice is not always easy so how do we get others to make it, particularly in a world where the choice is often made for them. How can we advocate free software in a world where others don't seem to care?

Stick or Fold? What to do when choice is removed

I am writing this on a train travelling north through England from London to Newcastle. I arrived at the station with enough time to grab a newspaper and a coffee for the journey. Unfortunately none of the station booths supplied Fairtrade coffee and I have long since chosen to only buy Fairtrade coffee. The train operator also does not supply Fairtrade so I was faced with compromising on my ideals or a four hour train journey with--gasp--no coffee. I survived (just) but seeing many of my fellow passengers with their coffee made me wonder why they had bought un-fairly traded coffee. Did they not know all the facts? Perhaps they knew them but oppose Fairtrade? Do they not care strongly either way? Maybe they just chose convenience over principle?

You'll see where I am going with this: the same questions can--and are--asked about users of non-free software. I suspect, in both cases, an awful lot of people straddle the last two groups. Personally, I'd rather see people buying only fairly traded goods and using only free software and I want to help them change.

Regular readers may be a little puzzled to find me advocating a purist approach

Hang on--did you just say..?

Regular readers of this column may be a little puzzled to find me advocating a purist approach to using free software--considering how I had used this argument as an example of free software FUD. Just to clarify, I personally use free software wherever and whenever possible. Sometimes that is just not possible and so I compromise--although often with some kind of vocal protest. I believe advocacy to individuals has a higher chance of success if built on existing relationships, so I'm unlikely to be speaking to my fellow travellers about this. I'd like them to change their ways though and--as I suspect many probably don't care either way--I'll complain to the train company and the station outlet chains. I've done this before with hotels, cafés and supermarkets and where I don't succeed--and there is a choice--I take my business elsewhere.

Advocacy on a personal level

With the train company I have little option, direct trains to Newcastle are realistically provided by a single company so I can only keep nagging. This reminds me of a home-user buying a computer. There appears to be a choice of two operating systems and one of those has a proven monopoly. Asking either Apple or Microsoft to switch to free software may well be fruitless but what about asking the retailer? Does it matter if they fob you off? I think not. If we don't ask, they will say there's no demand just as the train company and supermarkets do. So lets create that demand.

We need to let retailers know that their customers want them to offer a free software option

I'm not suggesting a co-ordinated mass e-mail campaign--just in case HM Government is reading. I'm saying we need to let them know that their existing and potential customers want them to offer a free software option. Some music retailers offer download stations: where you can download music and burn it to a CD or an iPod, why can computer stores not offer a something like a freedom toaster with a charge for media and "handling"?

Keep on going

Something else we can learn from the Fairtrade movement is to not give up. If the train operator writes me one of those "we value your views but we're going to ignore them" replies, I shall wait until my next journey and--if nothing has changed--complain again. The Fairtrade movement, here in the UK at least, spent many years struggling to get people to recognise the importance of its message. In recent years it has seen significant fruit from its labours.

We can tell people how free software enables users in poorer nations to partake in this brave new world

Granted their message has a greater initial impact: we can hardly produce images of poor programmers who can't afford to send their kids to school, but we can:

  • tell people how free software enables users in poorer nations to partake in this brave new world we're building;
  • explain how our grandchildren will be able to play multimedia we create--if we use free software and open formats to create them;
  • explain how free software extends the usable life of a computer, meaning fewer need end up in landfills.

We can also demonstrate how--contrary to what some say--using free software does not have to mean losing out. The man next to me is running Windows XP, I'm running Debian: we're both using the free wireless internet connection available on the train and neither of us did much more than enable our wireless ports. Actually I'm probably a little more secure because I got to see the wireless services available and choose which one to connect to. His laptop just connected to the first available one it found--wonderful if you are a man-in-the-middle. I can also personally close every port on my laptop and know it is closed, if I want to.

Advocating in the real world

As said we live in a world where most people--probably--don't care about the licence for software they use. We live in a world where businesses will always care about the bottom line before our principles. We live in a world where people buy whatever coffee is available without much thought of the people who grew the beans. But it's a world world where people like us can influence change in a lot of ways. It's a world where it is possible--however unlikely it appears--that one day people will "get it", after all: we got it. We just need to tell them. Tell people one at a time, tell companies every time, understanding their position, their opinion but demanding the same in reverse. Don't leave it to others who are more experienced--they don't have your experience, they don't have the ear of your friends in the same way you do.

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Comments

Steve's picture
Submitted by Steve on

Ryan, thanks for bringing together fair trade and free software. I talked about this at length in my now-defunct one-man magazine (see http://justthings.info/files/JT-01-03.pdf), but never got the traction I hoped for. Still, I'm convinced the reasoning and values that underlie the two movements are more similar the participants in either one recognize.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Ryan, thanks for bringing together fair trade and free software. I talked about this at length in my now-defunct one-man magazine.., but never got the traction I hoped for.

Thanks for the link. As somebody with an interest in both ( My wife sells fair trade goods ) I found it interesting and well written. If you are looking for somewhere to write about free software, don't forget you can add community posts here at FSM.

Still, I'm convinced the reasoning and values that underlie the two movements are more similar the participants in either one recognize.

I agree and certainly many of the same processes are in place within both: collaborative working; a tangible link between producer and consumer; and of course the general ethics of not screwing people over.

I'm not sure I'd go so far (as you have in your article) as to say that free software is fair trade though. There are too many differences really to make that link and I think it might even be a distraction to both sides to say so[1]. BUT I do think that those who use one will find a familiar ethical basis in the other.

cheers
Ryan
[1] I know of at least one person here in the UK who caught some flak for suggesting that was true - even though what they actually said was something along the lines of your statement above. :o)

Terry Hancock's picture

"Fair trade" goods are mostly about ensuring that producers get paid adequately for their work, which if you think about it, sounds like an argument for proprietary software.

Free software emphasizes freedom (so it's more like "free trade", which is usually presented as the opposition case to "fair trade"), and it emphasizes the value to the consumer (the user), over benefits to the producer.

Personally, I'm not sure whether I favor the "free trade" or "fair trade" arguments. I'm kind of a fence-sitter. They both sound good until you start looking at the pragmatics: then you have to start asking some hard questions—painfully concrete personal questions like: "is it better to be underpaid or unpaid?"

Invariably these ideas are products of the upper or upper-middle class, promoted to middle class consumers, primarily to assuage latent capitalist social guilt (and not necessarily to help anyone else). They usually lack the perspective of the lower class workers who are usually the ones who get the bad end of every one of these policies one way or another. So I'm distrustful of anybody "selling sunshine" about them.

You should try to put yourself in the other guy's shoes and try to see past the hype: what does it cost to make sure your trade is "fair". Who's paying for that? If I want to sell you my wares, how do I sign up? What happens to the people who don't? What is the mechanism which gives producers the power to control the trade balance? And how should the rights of the consumer and the producer be balanced (E.g. Why is the consumer more important for software, but the producer is more important for coffee?)

Remember also that subsidy can promote over-consumption. If the going price for coffee is artificially increased, then more farmers will grow it as a cash crop, consuming farmland that might otherwise grow food to be consumed domestically by the farmers (something like this has been going on for decades in the US dairy industry, where tons of milk and cheese are routinely destroyed after being purchased by the federal government in order to keep prices up for dairy farmers). A lack of farmland can impact their standard of living significantly, and a greater dependency on trade of "cash crops" can increase their dependency on developed-world consumers rather than promoting their own material independence.

Mind you, it's just as easy to argue the opposite case! Real economics is really complicated: you start pulling on a thread, and it's hard to predict what will come unravelled.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Free software emphasizes freedom (so it’s more like “free trade”, which is usually presented as the opposition case to “fair trade”), and it emphasizes the value to the consumer (the user), over benefits to the producer.

I'm not sure that you can accurately describe free software in trade terms - mostly because there is no trade for the software itself. Yes, businesses sell free software but it's not trade in the same sense as with proprietary software. With proprietary software you trade money for a licence to use the product. With free software you generally don't -- you pay for services surrounding the software. Of course you can pay for free software licences but once you have it you can give it away fro free if you want so the business cannot be built upon trading licences.

This is one way that free software is changing the software marketplace. With free software, the software itself is no longer a commodity. This is why Microsoft et al have such an issue with it : their core products are software licences. If it were just about cost (i.e. trade) they wouldn't worry so much: they can afford to give software away much more than the rest of us. It's the fact that - once they have it - users of free software can do what they want with it, including giving it away.

In addition to this the "free trade" that is often touted as being in opposition to fair trade is in reference to the trade between producers not that between producer and consumer. Free software is -- I find -- counter-intuitive to this because it opens up the partnership between producer and user. In some ways this is similar to fair trade but free software users have a much closer/direct relationship with the producers than with fair trade, which stills has a lot of middle-men. As an example a distributor of GNU/Linux could be seen as a middle-man but there is still a greater direct link between the end-user and the producers of the software which is distributed.

I still think fair trade and free software share a common ethical backgrounds. A sense of fair play if you like but they cannot really be compared because they are like apples and air.

cheers
Ryan

Terry Hancock's picture

Free software ... opens up the partnership between producer and user. In some ways this is similar to fair trade ..."

Okay, so one thing they have in common is that both involve increased communication between the end-points of "producer" and "consumer". (FS makes that even more complicated, because the categories have overlap -- many people are both).

free software users have a much closer/direct relationship with the producers than with fair trade, which stills has a lot of middle-men.

Right. Although, in relative terms, they're the same, because "fair trade" involves much more end-point communication than does "free trade" (where, in the ideal case, consumers and producers communicate solely through price-setting and buying choices).

I still think fair trade and free software share a common ethical backgrounds. A sense of fair play if you like but they cannot really be compared

I think see your point, if by that, we mean this idea of increased communication/collaboration between producer and consumer of a product.

There is, of course, another PoV, in which this is less fair play, because that kind of "inside information" is "cheating" (Not that I'm supporting this PoV, but there are people who believe this).

they are like apples and air.

Beautiful phrase, I am so going to steal that. ;-)

Steve's picture
Submitted by Steve on

Ryan, I'd be willing to comment at length about why I think free software is fair trade. Actually, here's a preview...

Terry, I don't buy that fair trade is an argument for proprietary software. When I put out my magazine, my main thesis (discussed at length in issue 0, http://justthings.info/files/issue0.pdf ) is that the lynchpin is *not* the price the producer receives, but rather *who decides* what price the producer will receive. The more say the producer has in the transaction, the fairer the trade. Any other measure of the fairness of trade is both paternalistic and fragile. With that in mind, the free software model is dramatically more fair than the proprietary software model: the coders have entered into the transaction entirely without coercion, and have furthermore reduced the net amount of coercion in the lives of software users. This is not in contradiction to the market, this IS the market.

You are quite right to be suspicious of economic models that claim they will save the world. I was (and am) the same way. In fact, that's why I started the magazine in the first place -- to give myself a vehicle to research these issues in detail. I have done extensive research on lower-class perspectives, and gone well out of my way to put myself in the other guy's shoes. I've been to multiple farms where fair-trade coffee is grown, and recorded hours and hours of interviews with the farmers ( http://justthings.info/files/JT-02-01.pdf ). I've also recorded interviews with coffee processors, exporters, importers, and roasters. And it isn't just coffee I've researched -- there's also fair-trade travel, the recovered businesses of Argentina, fair-trade clothes, and of course, software.

You ask good questions. To what extent does fair trade artificially manipulate the market? In my experience, the answer is, less than either its promoters or detractors would have you believe. I looked particularly close at this on my trip to the hills of Nicaragua, and found that the increase in income that fair trade brings producers is noticeable, but there are so many other factors that it doesn't actually unbalance the local economy. This addresses your point about subsidies -- we're generally talking about a 5% or so increase in price, which is not enough to convince people to replace food crops with coffee, considering that a coffee tree will not produce beans for its first three years. It simply takes too long to come out ahead.

I could go on and on -- and I have. But if you want to hear more, I'm always willing.

Steve's picture
Submitted by Steve on

Ryan, I liked your points about Microsoft's products actually being licenses, not software, and about the increased communication. I only disagreed with one point, which happened to be your very first sentence:

I’m not sure that you can accurately describe free software in trade terms - mostly because there is no trade for the software itself.

I would argue that there is a trade, if not a traditional monetary one. When a volunteer programmer distributes GPL code, the whole point is to allow others to collaborate on it or fork it. When someone collaborates, or files a bug report, I see this as providing the same sort of signal that price does in the market for tangible goods, which is to say it demonstrates demand by returning value. Simply counting downloads also demonstrates demand, though not by returning value -- but increased downloads mean a broader base of users who might contribute code back, or at least bug reports, so the potential for increased value grows.

Thus, there's a market of pure information (code), without ever involving money. It's a tremendously large virtuous circle, when you consider all the GPL code out there. Most of us will not participate in that market very much, or at all, in the sense of contributing code, but the negligible marginal cost of software means coders have every reason to give it to us anyway. They will get a greater return on their investment by giving it away freely than by demanding a return, which is a positive-sum paradox.

And of course, that doesn't count the people out there who do get paid to create/support/promote free software.

Terry Hancock's picture

I generally agree with your response, and the tit-for-tat possibility of getting improvements back when you release a piece of software under a copyleft license is certainly an important motivation.

However, it's good to remember that it is rarely the sole motivation, and there are many cases where it isn't even an important motivation.

Many packages enter the free software realm more-or-less complete, sometimes because they were retired ("end of life") proprietary products or because they were developed by a government agency, or even by a non-profit organization. These packages are generally released primarily so as to spur further unrelated development or to benefit the public, without any clear tit-for-tat expectation.

For other projects, the need for collaborative development is seen as a necessary hurdle (which is served by the copyleft), but the main goal for writing the code is collective benefit, and not the benefit of the author.

In other words, altruism may not be the most important reason for writers of free software, but it does exist.

People also write software as a means of personal, social, and political expression. (E.g. writing gnutella, decss, and even bit torrent were certainly political acts).

Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Biography

Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.