September 15 is Software Freedom Day, SFD for short. It’s an annual, international celebration observed on the third Saturday of September (i.e. this coming Saturday) to promote the use of FOSS, or Free Open-Source Software.
This September 15, parallel celebrations will be held in Manila (at the UP Diliman) AND in Cebu (at the University of San Carlos). Students and advocates will assemble to listen to various insights and share their perspectives on FOSS, and its relationship to various institutions and practices.
But before I go any further, I should answer: What does FOSS mean? And why is it important?
Free and Open Source Software is software that may be freely shared and freely rewritten. The word “free” in this case meaning free as in free speech, free as in malaya, walang hadlang, and so on. FOSS is software created to be shared and traded according to the idea that software — like scientific and mathematical discoveries — should be part of the cultural heritage of humanity. According to this vision, it should be shared like a recipe, scientific discovery or mathematical proof, and that anyone who wants to, should be able to tinker with it and share his version at will.
It should be immediately obvious that this vision of software use is NOT shared by the authors and owners of most of the software we know and use. Most of the software we use in our computers, tablets, phones, clocks, e-readers and video players — nearly everything made by corporations like Adobe, Autodesk, Samsung, Sony, Microsoft, Apple and their ilk — is proprietary.
Proprietary software is the opposite of free and open source software. You have to buy a copy of proprietary software, and once you have bought it, you are forbidden from copying it, sharing it, or giving it away. And not only is it illegal to do all of these things, it is also illegal to re-engineer the software, or to re-use bits of it in other software. The owner-corporations view their algorithms as trade secrets, and are careful to hide their code from prying eyes and plaster every copy sold with legal injunctions, user agreements, passwords, serial numbers and authentication tests to make sure that they are the sole owners and distributors of the software in question.
Again, this is exactly the kind of software most of us are familiar with. By the same token, it is exactly these proprietary injunctions most Filipinos break on a daily basis, both at home and at work, as no less than our own congressman Teddy Casiño details so candidly in this video, where he discloses that even the laptops distributed to the House of Representatives routinely contain (used to contain?) pirated software. This state of affairs can be described by saying that we are a nation of pirates. However, it occurs to me that a possible (and more interesting) way of describing this same state of affairs would be to say that we could be a culture or a people predisposed to use all software as if it was free and open-source. Describing the situation this way leads to discussing how we might maximize and encourage the use and creation of FOSS, instead of how to force people to buy legal copies of proprietary software.
(We should note here, just as an aside, that FOSS is not necessarily inferior software. In fact, there are very good arguments for the case that FOSS will naturally be more stable than proprietary software, just because there are so many more people inspecting the code for bugs. This idea is supported by the viral spread of FOSS like Mozilla, Android, and Linux.)
Most Filipinos would say that the reason we pirate software is that it just costs too much. Aside from legal and moral issues, what is becoming obvious is that there are also costs to piracy. In terms of the big picture, piracy costs the nation credibility and gives other countries ammunition in diplomatic negotiations. When our own congress uses pirated software it has consequences in how the politicians of other countries perceive us. It has consequences in how hard they can push us. Rep. Casiño, unique of all other congressmen, sees this as an issue, and has filed a bill that proposes that the government shift to FOSS, and only use proprietary software only when no FOSS software will fit the bill. It is not entirely clear what the implications are in terms of all the small pictures of personal use, but there will be implications, and SFD is an occasion founded specifically to open the discussion as to what they will be.
To use my own case as an example, I am an artist who writes programs as part of his practice, it means something in my small picture, whether the programs that I write will survive, and I am beginning to think using FOSS like Linux and Processing might be the best way to ensure my programs will not be tied to the fate and decisions of a single corporation, but to an independent community of users.
Again: proprietary software is the current norm. But FOSS has implications for the way things will go, both in the future and the present. Software will remain a fundamental element in the makeup of 21st century life. FOSS vs. proprietary is a cultural issue, one that is being taken up in congress, and one that will be discussed in more depth this September 15, in Manila’s UP Diliman, and Cebu’s University of San Carlos. Talks will run from 8 to 5 on September 15 next Saturday. There will be talks about FOSS and ecology, FOSS and mobile technology, FOSS and the arts, FOSS legislation, FOSS in Education and so on.
Schedules and updates will be posted on their Facebook page here. Check it out.
Tad studied Zoology in the University of Hiroshima, and graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines. He was a founding member of the seminal sound art band The Children of Cathode Ray and is a leading media artist who uses sound, video, programming and electronics in the creation of his films and installations, which have been exhibited in numerous local and international festivals and galleries. Email Tad at firstname.lastname@example.org.