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Software? They're just giving it away: Greg Wilson reports on the new advocates of an idea that computer pioneers simply took for granted

THE MOST expensive part of a computer system is the software that makes it useful. But according to a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is exactly the wrong way to organise such an important business.

The Free Software Foundation believes that software itself should be freely available - free in the sense of 'unrestricted' rather than free of charge - just like laws, for instance, or medical techniques. The user should only have to pay for training and particular adaptations.

Robert Chassell, treasurer of the foundation, explains the principle by making an analogy with medical practice. Only a small number of people develop new techniques, but these are put into the public domain (usually by being published). Most professionals simply provide a service, such as customising the technique to local needs, training people and providing expert assistance (such as performing operations).

Mr Chassell believes this is a better model for software development. The present rules, based on patent and copyright, are inappropriate for something that is so easy to copy and modify. What is worse is that consumers face high prices and a mass of incompatible products.

The foundation has been putting its ideas into practice since 1985, along the way creating some of the world's most useful and widely-used programs.

In the early days of computing, all software was free. Gradually people realised how difficult programming was and how much easier customers would find it to buy ready-made software than to write it themselves. Companies such as IBM found that if they could bar people from making and distributing copies of software, they could charge ever-greater amounts of money for it. By the late Sixties freely-distributed software had almost disappeared.

One exception to this trend was the American telephone company, A T & T. Until it was broken up in the early Eighties, it was legally prevented from selling software for profit, so it distributed the elegant Unix operating system developed in its research labs virtually free. So Unix became the operating system of choice in many universities, and from them spread to become a de facto standard on workstations.

When A T & T was split into separate companies, however, it was suddenly able to charge real money for Unix. Coming on top of the first big shake-out of microcomputer companies, and an increasingly hard-nosed attitude on the part of major software vendors, this alarmed people who had grown used to fixing what was broken and improving what was not with impunity. Led by Richard Stallman, the author of a popular text editor called Emacs, a group of these people created the Free Software Foundation in 1985.

In the FSF's ideal world, anyone would be allowed to use any software however he or she wanted. If no public domain product did exactly what was needed, users (either a company, a trade association or the public sector) could hire specialists to tailor an existing package to individual needs.

The only restriction would be that the resulting software itself could not be sold for profit, although companies would be able to charge for distribution costs, customer support and the like.

The GNU ('Gnu's Not Unix') project run by the foundation has produced editors, file-handling utilities, and some of the best compilers in the world. While only 17 people are employed by the foundation, hundreds have contributed by extending tools and by finding or correcting errors. Most tangible support so far has come through donations from hardware vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sony, for whom the existence of free software means lower costs for users of their hardware products.

According to Mr Stallman, the chief architect of the GNU project (or, as he puts it, chief gnusance), the project has almost finished producing a complete operating system. As it gets nearer to this goal, more effort is going towards tools for end-users, such as databases and spreadsheets.

At the same time, there are signs of the free software model being more widely adopted. One of these is the foundation of Cygnus, a company to provide services for users of free software; another is that branches of the Free Software Foundation are being set up in republics of the former Soviet Union and in Japan, both of which want access to low-cost, high-quality software.

The main threat to free software comes from recent decisions by courts in the US and Europe which suggest that some of the building blocks fundamental to most software, called algorithms, are themselves patentable. To understand the effect this is having, imagine how little-used calculus would have been if a court had decided that no one could study, use or do research on it without paying a royalty to Newton's designated heirs.

Mr Stallman and others fear that this trend must be reversed - which means educating jurists about the nature of software and the process of constructing it, so they can appreciate how existing ideas and structures need to be adapted and re-used if progress is not to be severely hampered. Otherwise the quality and availability of software will be greatly restricted, and new software developments could come to a halt.

The Free Software Foundation can be reached at 675 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.

(Photograph omitted)