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)

people And here is why...
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?