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Document: Bernard Lang, The battle for free software, institut universitaire d'études du développement, Genève, 11-2003 iuéd
Copyright: © iuéd novembre 2003
Education; recherche & savoirs, Logiciels, Propriété intellectuelle
Autres langues disponibles:
Allemand Français

The battle for free software

Bernard Lang

Dematerialisation, in the form of software, of critical technical elements implies that the control over software has become one of the major challenges of the economy and the technical development of the information society. This shift provides an exceptional opportunity for developing countries, since the immaterial economy is quite different from the material economy and of much easier access, as long as one can adapt to it by appropriate economic and technical structures. Free software provides a good example.

In a large number of industries, the development of information technologies is accompanied by a division of products and activities between a material (adaptable/programmable) and an immaterial part (which achieves the programming and adaptation to specific needs). This allows for a trivialisation and standardisation of material components independently from final uses, resulting in increasing competition and favouring mass production. These two factors result in an important decrease in prices of elements difficult to industrialise in most of the emerging economies, because this would require investments and infrastructure supplies, production and distribution infrastructures which are generally beyond reach.

This frequently inevitable decrease of import prices is all the more welcome as it is accompanied by a much greater sustainability of materials whose functions, use, innovative character and evolution rely increasingly on the computer programs that control them. The use of these materials can often be adapted and sustained by a simple reprogramming of their software.

A key resource for poor countries

The part played by software thus becomes a determining element. Indeed, if the material economy is severely restricted by its costs and organisational structures, the software economy follows much more lenient regulations, making them naturally available to all. As all immaterial productions which are now digitalised, the software technologies can be developed in a cooperative manner by the Internet, without industrial infrastructure, then reproduced and disseminated through the Internet at marginal cost. Dissemination and use can thus be economically viable, at no cost, if it pleases the authors.

In such a context, two opposing economic trends can be noted:

-The so-called "proprietary" software disseminated only in the form of executable applications, with very restricting licences for their use and with the prohibition (legal and technical) to proceed with any analysis, adaptation or improvement whatsoever.

-The "open source" software, with no restriction on its use, provided with its underlying code (necessary for its technical understanding, evolution and maintenance) and the legal and technical option to study, transform, adapt and redistribute it1. Indeed, the authors of free software choose to exercise their rights by making this software available to the public2.

One of the initial effects of this situation is that free software is generally available almost free of charge, since anyone with a copy can give it legally. The proprietary software (usual commercial software) has generally to be imported and paid in hard currency. Free software, used without paying a licence, constitutes thus a particularly attractive resource for all countries, especially the poorest, as long as they respond to technical needs.

The three software markets

To simplify, there are three software markets: PCs (family or professional), servers and embedded software that manage internal data processing for several products (telephones, car, various electronic equipments).

Regarding servers, the demonstration of free software in not necessary anymore: the Linux free system represents almost 30% of the systems of exploitation on company servers and 62% of all websites world wide which are managed by the free software Apache. This is the future.

Regarding PCs, the free software is less used, mostly because of the users' habits which are difficult to change. A notable evolution can yet be observed, in particular with regard to office automation which is available for any system.

Less known by the public, the embedded software constitutes the major part of the market. The free software constitutes a considerable part, sometimes at the initiative of large industrial corporations because, with the establishment of public standards, they facilitate inter-operability, and thus cooperation and competition. The advantage of free software in this context is that it leaves the company in total control of its software resources, outside the ambit of any arbitrary decision of a provider, without however imposing its development - to which it can still contribute - and without paying any licence, which improves its competitiveness.

The freedom of software use and transformation allowed by free licences is not a mere ideological choice, but a tool enabling everyone to contribute freely to the elaboration of a common software heritage. This leads to a mode of development copied from that - and experienced throughout the centuries - of open science. Like scientific research, open development blends cooperation between developers, competition between different approaches, and the control and recognition by colleagues (developers and users), who play the same incentive and selective role on the market of knowledge as competition and selection in traditional economic markets3.

Advantages for countries of the South

This mode of production has positive effects on quality level, as testified over the past eight years by empirical studies4 whose results preceded numerous analyses which explain this success5. The transparency of the free access to the code for a large community enables a better correction of errors6, especially the traps and spying components all too often found in the proprietary software, which is a very serious matter for an essential component of informational infrastructures. Furthermore, the decentralised development of networks requires a rigorous software design as well as the strict respect of standards, both factors contributing to quality, sustainability, adaptability and above all inter-operability and free competition.

The efficiency of the standard also derives from the fact that its actors are both developers and users, whether we are dealing with large industrial corporations (SUN, IBM, HP, EDF), SMEs (O'Reilly, Trolltech), associations (Debian, KDE), territorial communities (Estramadure) and central governments (Germany, France), or individuals (R. Stallman, L. Torvalds). The economic reasons are manifold, but the most important are technical quality, cost reduction by a mutualisation without external control, greater independence in the use of a strategic resource, and the promotion of related economic activities. Thus the global interest of political authorities to promote free software7.

For developing countries, free software offers several advantages. On the economic level, it allows considerable saving of hard currency to pay for licences and services, by shifting previously imported activities towards the local economy. This encourages technological independence and economic development through the creation of an industry of local services adapted to the needs of the country. More generally, the availability of open sources is an educational resource which allows for the development of technical skills of the same level as that of the rest of the world. Finally, this access and educational equality enables local technicians and developers to integrate into the global technological environment and contribute to it.

Software is and will increasingly be the compelling medium of communication, knowledge and culture. This is an opportunity, since all countries are at the same level when they face immaterial resources - as long as they can use them freely, in total independence, by using the characteristic flexibility of immaterial creations to adapt them to their needs and specific values. This will allow free software regarding the media and the electronic medium. The same goes for "free contents", namely intellectual resources - artistic, educational, technical or scientific - offered by their designers in free shareware for all. Software and free contents promote, within the context of natural cooperation among equals, independence and cultural diversity: integration without alienation.

Patenting threats

The development of free software relies particularly on copyright which, thanks to licences such as the GPL8, avoid propriety by secrecy. Copyright traditionally protects immaterial creations, which includes software. It is a free right, thus well suited to non-profit production and dissemination of creations.

This situation, however, is called into question by several interest groups wishing to patent software techniques. For some large proprietary software publishing corporations, patenting is a powerful tool against newcomers, companies or countries.

In a series of reports, known as "Halloween"9, Microsoft corporation provides its perspective on free software and its analysis of its impact. It considers that patenting software is an efficient way to contain this evolution. Indeed, a non-profit process of creation and dissemination cannot cover costs of patents or litigation. These are inevitable since, if it is exceptional - and very rarely accidental - to be purposefully counterfeiting a copyright, it is however very usual to be accidentally unaware of patent counterfeiting, which can lead to dramatic consequences.

The free software development is technically and economically efficient, and it constitutes a great opportunity for the countries of the South - even, although less critically so, for the countries of the North. But in this respect, as in so many others, developing countries run the risk of being the first victims of excesses and uncontrolled and unjustified expansion of intellectual property. On the occasion of international negotiations such as WTO or WIPO, it is crucial to encourage widespread mobilisation geared towards addressing those challenges that underpin the participation of all in the information society and its economic, social and cultural success.

[1] The availability of the underlying code for study purposes, without a free use authorisation, has the opposite effect to free software. For instance, the independent programming of similar software can result in legal suing for plagiarism.

[2] Free Software Foundation, GNU's Not Unix!, <>; Open Source Initiative (OSI), The Open Source Definition, <>.

[3] First Monday, Peer-reviewed Journal on the Internet, <> (cf.: Linux, OSS, open-source, free software, GNU, FSF).

[4] Stephen Shankland (CNET News), Study Lauds Open-source Code Quality, 19 February 2003, <>.

[5] Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, 1997, <>.

[6] Ibid.

[7] GrULiC (Grupo de Usuarios de Linux de Córdoba), Proposal for the Use of Open Technologies in the Government/Proposición para el uso de Tecnolog�as Abiertas en el Estado, 03/02/03, <>; Sam Kritikos, The State of Open Source (SOS), 3 February 2003, <>; Reply of Edgar Villanueva Nuñez, Peruvian member of parliament, to Microsoft (10 languages), 8 April 2002, and similar documents, <>.

[8] GNU General Public Licence, Version 2, June 1991, <>.

[9] The Halloween Documents, <>.

- Monographies
-- Raymond, Eric Steven. The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1997)
- Articles
-- Study lauds open-source code quality (2003)
-- First Monday - Peer-reviewed journal on the internet  |
-- OSI - Open Source Initiative  |
-- Projet GNU - Free Software Foundation  |

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