Magazine article Computers in Libraries

What Librarians Still Don't Know about Free Software: Free Software Isn't about Cost, and It Isn't about Hype, and It Isn't about Taking Business Away from Vendors. It's about Freedom

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

What Librarians Still Don't Know about Free Software: Free Software Isn't about Cost, and It Isn't about Hype, and It Isn't about Taking Business Away from Vendors. It's about Freedom

Article excerpt

About a year ago, I wrote a column with a similar title as this one on the topic of free software. What's changed in the past year? Koha and Evergreen have sure become more popular in the U.S. as well as in many other countries. The two companies offering leading support for each of these solutions are growing and thriving (well, I haven't reviewed their financials, but I know they've been hiring, which is as good a sign as there is these days). Both of those companies have well-regarded librarians in full-time "community manager" roles, and they're both out there all the time pounding the pavement, dispelling stereotypes about free software, and helping move potential clients toward potential sales. All of which is possible because their software is good, and it's built in turn on rock-solid free software that's stood the test of time--great languages, databases, toolkits, and other support pieces that make up great building blocks for specific markets such as ours, letting developers focus on making software work for us.

So if you thought there wasn't a role for free software products and vendors in our library software marketplace, there goes that theory.

The Four Freedoms: Use, Study, Modify, and Copy

If you know nothing else about free software, you can remember this. Free software isn't about cost, and it isn't about hype, and it isn't about taking business away from vendors. It's about freedom--four different kinds of freedom, to be precise. These are the freedom to use the software for any purpose, the freedom to study how the software works, the freedom to modify the software to adapt it to your needs, and the freedom to copy and share copies of the software, with or without any changes you might make to it.

That's it. Use, study, modify, and copy.

These freedoms are enshrined in free software and open source licenses, which use copyright law and licensing terms to enforce them. (If you're interested in learning more about free software and open source licenses, see www.fsf.org/licensing and http://open source.org/licenses.) To date, the most commonly used among these licenses have stood up well and have not been successfully challenged, so when you accept these terms upon your use of free software, you're accepting terms that the software, business, and legal worlds have accepted. And don't think that's some trivial thing--free software is being used all over the world, in the largest of companies and in the smallest of computers. Businesses, governments, your own computers, and your own libraries are using free software today. If you didn't know that already, it might be because these free software packages appear in so many of our daily transactions--such as sending and receiving email, searching Google, wasting time on YouTube, connecting with friends on Facebook, and parsing MARC records--that you don't even think about it very often, like breathing air and drinking water. There's no simpler way to say it--the stuff we all do every day runs free software, and because of that, you gain the benefits of the freedom to use free software. You're also gaining the benefits of the freedom to copy free software because it's running in so many places, and you're gaining the freedom to study and modify free software because so many companies that we depend upon, such as Google and Amazon, adapt free software to their unusual needs so they can serve us better at lower costs while making more money for their shareholders.

So "use, study, modify, and copy" applies not just to you and me but also to our libraries, to our local industries, and to the biggest behemoths of business. "Use, study, modify, and copy" is an immensely powerful summary of both what free software is and why free software works. In my mind, the only more powerful statement of freedom apart from our national founding documents is the statement emblazoned on hundreds of older libraries, many built nearly 100 years ago with Carnegie funds: "Free to All. …

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