Legals jumping on the free software bandwagon

Legals jumping on the free software bandwagon

I, being currently involved with free software, see it being mentioned so often in publications that specialise on the subject and which target sad geeks like myself who have nothing better to do. However, an advertisement caught my eye in my non-technical local newspaper—Cambridge Evening News (That is Cambridge UK, not the one in Mass). It was entitled...

"Free software—but at what price?"

Naturally this grabbed my attention. It was an advertisement using one column for the depth of the page. It was for Hewitson’s Solicitors, a local law firm, and it was largely prose with a photograph of one of the partners, a Mr Bill Thatcher, at the top, whom I assume was responsible for the content.

The advertisement had no copyright assignment so I assume I can repeat sections of it here under a “fair use” umbrella.

He starts the article “Why pay for software when you can download it for free?”, and then gives a very brief generic introduction to free software and GNU/Linux in particular. He then mentions the possibility you may need to employ IT specialists to implement and support this software properly and states “so ‘free’ software often comes with a price”.

He then goes on to mention some restrictions in the licenses. In particular he gives two examples, that “some of these [software packages]... prohibit commercial use”, and also that “[if you] combine the free download with proprietary software... [it] could mean... you are obliged to share that as well”. I think this is a bit our of order on behalf of Mr. Thatcher. I am running a freely downloaded Fedora Core 4 software suite. This includes full functionality of desktop, office suites, web browsers, databases, file servers, web servers, lots of other things and even Blog writing software. Not only does none of the software I use have any of the restrictions stated, I do not know of any current free (as in speech) software that contains the restrictions mentioned.

Granted, I have in my time come across “only free for personal use” restrictions, but that is getting rarer now, and I cannot remember when it was part of a GNU/Linux distribution. I remember that restriction a lot in the proprietary world, especially under the “shareware” umbrella, which is very contrary to the free software philosophy. Maybe Mr. Thatcher is getting confused here.

The second restriction mentioned is a common misunderstanding of the GPL. The restrictions of the GPL only kick in if you distribute the software. You may combine it, alter it, put it in the oven at gas-mark-6 or do anything else with it with no restriction at all, if you just use it for yourself or your company. It is only if you distribute it that you need to do so under the same terms as you received it, and any derivative works. “Ah-ha!” I hear you cry—“Derivative works—isn’t that combining it with your proprietary software?”. The answer is yes, but if you are distributing proprietary software the chances are you are a software house, or at least a business which sells software or a product or service that includes it. In this case the same restrictions apply to you as they would for any other piece of software. You are limited to what the copyright holders say you can do. In the case of GPL software and its derivatives, it is as stated: ALWAYS re-distributeable so long as it is done so under the same license. Details can be found at the GNU web site. Like proprietary software, if you want to redistribute free software or a derivative under a proprietary license you need to either get the permission of the original authors of that software, or rewrite the GPL components yourself without copying them. Granted, the first may be impracticable, and the second too difficult, but it is for ALL software, not just for the free (as in speech) variety. To re-iterate, there is a third choice for GPL software of course, make YOUR software free! After all, chances are that you are making money on the product or service that goes with it, not the software—but I digress.

The advertisement finishes by mentioning the Open Source Initiative, stating that it sees itself as providing a service for the good of the community. But the ad goes on to question if these programs are good for your business. The final conclusion was, of course, that you may need legal advice... I wonder who they had in mind that you should see?

My reactions to the advertisement are mixed. My first was approval that Free Software had made it into the business pages of the local newspaper that was not IT oriented, even as an advertisement. However, my second reaction was not so good. I realize that the legal firm was trying to drum up business, that is the point of advertisements after all, but I felt they could have been more informative and less self centered than they were. Proprietary systems need to be implemented and supported just as much as free ones, sometimes more so. The restrictions on the license were misrepresented as a far bigger threat to the end user than it actually is, and the restrictions of free software are irrelevant to most people anyway, and representing the entire free software community as “do-gooders-who-are-unaware-of-business” types (although he did not say that in as many words, he sure as anything gave that impression) was very unfair.

Another thing he “forgot” to mention was that people and businesses rarely “roll there own” as far as free software goes. They use a specific GNU/Linux distribution from a free software vendor such as SuSE/Novell or Mandriva. These are hardly fly-by-night organizations, and would have checked the legal status of the software they include themselves. This makes the legal risks of using this software even more remote.

By far his biggest sin was misrepresenting the word “Free”. The entire advertisement was saying that “Free Software” was “Free-as-in-beer”, in other words no cost. He did not mention the "Free-as-in-speech", in other words the vendor independence, the removal of worry that the software vendor would pull the product (in Free Software land anyone, even you, can pick it up and continue), the departure of expensive forced software and hardware upgrades, the freedom from being reliant on someone who is not answerable to you or your shareholders. In other words, he missed out the ACTUAL benefits of Free (as in speech) Software.

Hewitsons Solicitors are a law firm. They must have read and understood the free software licenses. I feel slightly saddened that they wrote an article that, in my opinion, misinform people about the real benefits of free software and mislead them regarding the risks.


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Edward Macnaghten's picture


Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.