How Important Is Freedom, Really? – by “Dan”

Protector of the Free Software. Image by Victor Powell

Richard Stallman, the leader of the Free Software movement, has sacrificed his life to fighting for open-source code and our right to modify existing software. But should we sacrifice as well?



Since he left his position at MIT in 1983,  Richard Stallman has devoted his life to the rights of individual creators and programmers. He singlehandedly created the Free Software Foundation, and went on to write a number of high quality system utilities for Unix and Unix-like operating systems. Most importantly, he created a movement that changed the face of software copyright and distribution. Today, that movement is thriving, with a plethora of codebases for many different problem domains publicly available, free for any use under the GPL.


This past summer, I experienced firsthand the possibilities of an open-source world. I worked on an Apache Foundation software project, Hadoop, licensed under the Apache License, which the FSF views as compatible with their own GPL. Because of this license, and the spirit of free software prevalent in the marketplace, I was able to view the source code of the project that forms the backbone of products and services offered by such software giants as Yahoo!, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, eBay, HP, IBM, LinkedIn, Netflix, The New York Times, and Twitter. Perhaps more importantly, the code that I implemented may someday become part of the software that these companies, and any other interested parties, use. It is easy to imagine an alternate situation where each of these companies maintain similar, proprietary solutions to the same problem (scalable, distributed computing in this case). It is because of the philosophy and work of the Free Software Foundation that these companies are able to collaborate so freely, and that I could in turn study and modify their combined efforts. In many situations, the work of the FSF results in software products that are more accessible and just easier to use. But in my experience, this is not always the case.


The GNU site hosts many essays on the philosophical musings and practical recommendations of Stallman and the others at the Free Software Foundation. Looking recently through the list, my attention was directed to an article titled “Is Microsoft the Great Satan?” Despite the exciting title, the essay was not very incendiary. One line stands out, however.

 “…you need to reject all proprietary software, regardless of who developed it or who distributes it.”

This sounds like a great idea, but as I thought about the implications of this clause, I realized just what I would be missing out on if I rejected all proprietary software. I wouldn’t be able to listen to MP3s.

Audacity is one of the most popular digital audio editors available today, with a download rate of over 1 million copies per month. It is written and maintained by The Audacity Team, and is released as free, open-source software. The program allows users to record and import audio files as tracks, and then cut, mix and otherwise modify the tracks to create a single audio file as output. It is designed to be easy to use, yet powerful enough to handle the needs of audio engineering amateurs and prosumers working on a wide variety of projects. Under the terms that Audacity is distributed, that of the GPL, all source code must be freely distributable, without restriction on its subsequent use. According to Section 12 of the GPL, if the conditions on any part of the distributed software contradict the GPL, then the software cannot be distributed at all. It is for this reason that Audacity does not support the MP3 file format.


The MP3 file format, used ubiquitously for sharing and storing songs and other audio tracks, is protected under patent law. The format is the intellectual property of the Fraunhofer Society, the German applied science research organization which invented the standard. In the USA, Canada, the EU, and Japan, among other countries, the patents are enforceable, and through the administration of Thomson Consumer Electronics, the Fraunhofer Society has received royalties and licensing fees for use of the MP3 standard in software and hardware equipment since 1994. In 2005 alone, they received 100 million euros in such fees. When an individual acquires a consumer music product, whether hardware or software, whether free or paid, the producer of the content pays a fee to the original creator of the MP3 standard. Developers who distribute their code as open-source cannot be expected to pay licensing fees for the users of their contributions, and so the GPL expressly prohibits that kind of arrangement. In effect, there cannot be a truly useful music player or editor program released under the GPL, where usefulness is (reasonably) defined to include the handling of MP3 files.

Although Audacity does not come with support for MP3s out of the box, it is designed to work with third-party extensions that provide exactly this functionality. There is even a link to LAME, a popular free MP3 encoder, on the dialog box that informs the user that MP3 output is not supported. But use of this workaround violates the Free Software Foundation’s call to “reject all proprietary software”, as LAME or any other encoder used will be protected by a proprietary license. By clicking the link, you propagate the control of software by restrictive contracts and submit to the authority of an outside owner who retains complete control over the software and any modification of it.

Downloading LAME may violate the spirit of the FSF, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing to do. Rejecting all proprietary software can only stifle innovation and put limits on our creative output. While it is conceivable that all individuals would be better off in a world where all software was released under the GPL, in our world today, I am content to use free software when it is convenient and useful, and unafraid to use proprietary software otherwise. For most users, a computer is merely a means to an end, and in this regard, the philosophy of the Free Software Foundation may be alienating and ridiculous to many who hear of it. It is important to separate the ideology and rhetoric from the reality of the situation. Fight for a free tomorrow, but work flexibly within the intellectual property framework in place today.

2 thoughts on “How Important Is Freedom, Really? – by “Dan”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful article. But I did want to say that at the FSF, we do not call the MP3 format the same as proprietary software. Rather, it is patent-restricted, which, as you point out, makes licensing it incompatible with free software for playing and making audio. The alternative is to write software for MP3 without licensing the patents, and this is obviously legally dangerous for the people doing it.

    For this reason, we ask people to use patent-free formats like Ogg Vorbis, or Google’s WebM (for video). It’s a subtle but important point — an MP3 file is not the same as proprietary software; it’s not even the same as an actual proprietary format like .doc, whose specification you are not permitted to know.

    Stallman’s suggestion that people not encode audio in MP3 is a pragmatic one, in order to protect them from patent risks. He makes an analogy with C#, which has issues with known Microsoft patents:

    “The way to avoid this danger is not to write programs in C#. If you already have a program in C#, by all means use a free platform to run it. But don’t increase your exposure to the danger – don’t write additional code in C#, and don’t encourage people to make more use of C# programs. We need to guide our community away from dependence on an interface we know Microsoft is in a position to attack.

    It is like the situation with MP3 format, which is also patented. When people manage to release and distribute free players and free encoders for MP3, more power to them. But don’t ever use MP3 format to encode audio!”



  2. This post along with the Is Microsoft the Great Satan article hint at but don’t explicitly say why software patents suck. Writing software isn’t like writing a book or even like manufacturing a car. Software is built using other software to interface with other software. This led to the conclusion of some in the free software community that only free software is acceptable not because of some moral crusade but because our legal system creates a clusterstorm for open software developers otherwise.


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