Free Software Needs Free Tools

I finally finished an article I’ve had in one form or another for years about on the use of proprietary tools in the creation of free software. From BitKeeper to SourceForge to Google Code to GitHub, non-free tools and services have played an important role in free software development over the past decade and, I argue, continue to create a number of important, if sometimes subtle, problems for our community.

The article was published in the Spring 2010 FSF Bulletin which was mailed to all FSF associate members. I’ve also posted the article on my website and in PDF form as well.

14 thoughts on “Free Software Needs Free Tools”

  1. About the phrase: “The GNU GPL license and source code mean little to a user attempting to modify a program without free access to the software required to make that modification.”. In this context, a critic to private project manager web services, I don’t think is correct to talk about “to the software required” since that kind of software (web service) is not  needed in any way to modify the source code. You need editors, (if it’s the case) compilers, libraries, etc. With the access to the source-code and the associated tools, is enough. Anyway, if the user wants to use the repositories tools (for example diffs from git, subversion, mercurial or any system), he is still working with free-software tools. He is not free to access to the software behind the system of tickets, wiki, etc.
    Another comment, those private services could use free-software and still not be completely free as you claim if they use software under licenses like GPLv2 since they are not distributing software or binaries, thus they are not forced to share their changes or improvements. I think that’s the main difference with GPLv3. Cheers.

  2. The “Freedom” on a web service has nothing to do with the availability of the source that powers the website; if you have the source, you still can’t change the server, because you don’t own it.

    What’s important is having control over your data, and having the ability to migrate away whenever you feel like it, without losing your data.

    This is already possible with github, you can move your git repository anywhere you like.

    Even the wiki system in github is now backed by a git repo and the wiki system is open source.

    I believe github also offers an api (I’ve never used it).

    I would claim therefore that github is a free service (as in freedom).

  3. You write: “the skeptics were vindicated” in the case of Bitkeeper, but I don’t think your argument supports that at all.

    (1) The kernel community had the opportunity to work for years much more effienctly in a distributed way,

    (2) they gained knowledge and experience of this way of working, which allowed them, and Linus in particular, to figure out what they need. When the need arose, they could write what they needed (git).

    So from an end-justifies-the-means point of view, this worked out famously. The skeptics were trounced.

    I fully agree that becoming beholden to non-free tools is a great danger, but that particular example shows a battle won.

  4. In addition to what Mark said, I think it’s very important also to apply this rule on forums and discussion tools.
    Sadly, most major operating systems (including Ubuntu and Fedora) use vBulletin as a main support platform.
    It’s critical to campaign to change this, especially with the existence of pretty good, pretty powerful free tools like FUDforum

  5. I’d extend the issue to Free Culture as well. Too many Free Culture works are created using non-Free tools and assets. The final result might be Free, but it prohibits interested parties from easily modifying or learning from the work.

    The Ubuntu Free Culture Showcase is one example where (IMO) the organisers should be showing what can be achieved with a Free Software stack, even if it means some artistically “better” works no longer make the grade:

    http://www.peppertop.com/blog/?p=915

    And whilst there are some lovely photos in the supplied desktop wallpapers, they’re hardly reproducable. Where are the SVG or layered XCF images that users can tweak and modify? Wallpapers can have source code, too:

    http://www.peppertop.com/blog/?p=435

  6. Osama: It’s CC BY-SA it’s linked from the bottom now. It might not have been when you looked. I forgot to include a license originally.

    Let me know if and when you translate it and I’ll link to it from my webpage. Thanks in advance!

  7. Agreed. There were many people howling about Launchpad for this same reason. The whole toolset needs to be free ASAP, which GNU got for us, but we keep running back into the darkness.

  8. I think I agree Tom about the communication infrastructure. Mike Linksvayer has made a similar suggestion about communication tools on Identica.

    All I can say is that it’s hard to do everything in a single article — and especially in such a short one. Perhaps I’ll take up these issues in a further article at some point in the future!

  9. Very cool post, but shouldn’t user sites like stackexchange and forums etc. be included.
    For example the whole Ubuntu user support infrastructure is very proprietary. Just focusing on the code side of things is shortsighted IMO.

  10. Yup, freedom is good :-)

    I just made a FSF / GNU blog in php

    keep software free, only use free software when possible
    only resort to nonfree as a last resort

    or invent the tool yourself, did that with my blog :P

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