Forty librarians, library students, and library lovers attended the LACUNY Emerging Technologies Committee’s summer event, “Free and Open Source Software for Librarians: Why Software Freedom Matters,” on July 10 at New York City College of Technology. Our speakers were Scott Dexter and Samir Chopra, authors of the book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software and Associate Professors of Computer and Information Science at Brooklyn College.
Because librarians increasingly understand the pragmatic benefits of adopting free and open source software, Professors Dexter and Chopra chose to speak not on practical issues or specific software applications. Rather, they focused on the history, characteristics, and implications of the free software movement. Of course, thinking and talking about code can be difficult for non-programmers, so they helpfully structured the talk as a series of easy-to-understand dualities:
Two Types of Code: Programmers write source code in programming languages such as C and Java. Source code is translated into executable binary code by compilers. All 1s and 0s, binary code is easily read by computers but cannot be read by humans.
Two Modes of Distribution: Software can be distributed as executable binary code only, which provides functionality but conceals details of implementation and innovation. Alternatively, it can be distributed with source code, which allows others to see, learn from, and build on the programmers’ coding approaches and innovations. Both free software and open source software are distributed with source code.
Two Definitions: Free software and open source software are very similar, but they are defined quite differently. Free software is defined in terms of freedoms: users of free software must have the freedom to run the program for any purpose, the freedom to study and adapt the program, the freedom to redistribute copies of the program, and the freedom to improve the program and release those improvements to the public. Open source software, on the other hand, is pitched as a smart business model: “Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.”
Two Styles of Advocacy: The Free Software Foundation promotes free software by focusing on ethical considerations, such as users’ freedoms and social good. The Open Source Initiative instead focuses on the technical benefits of open source software, including better code and more flexibility.
Two Kinds of Property: Unlike commercial software, which is the property of the creator, free software is common property, created to build, protect, and expand a software commons. Copyright law is perfectly compatible with both perspectives.
Two Forms of Freedom: Free software usually has a “copyleft” license, which allows people to use the software for any purpose and modify it in any way. But copyleft licenses have one key constraint: anybody who distributes a modified version of the software must distribute it under the same license. In other words, copyleft licenses restrict one freedom in order to support other freedoms.
After exploring these dualities, the presenters argued that free software has implications far beyond software creation. For example, free software requires a new way of thinking about property — it is not adequately described by any previously conceived notion of property. Also, free software reveals much about collaboration, creativity, and the connection between technical quality and aesthetic quality. Furthermore, it allows computer science to be practiced like other sciences: with openness, mutual critique, and public testing.
As technology plays an ever increasing role in our environment, existence, and interactions, the software that controls technology becomes ever more important. What kind of software do we want to mediate our expressions and actions? Professors Dexter and Chopra compellingly argued that it should be free software. As they put it, “the technical is political: to free software is to free ourselves.”
The slides from Professor Dexter’s and Chopra’s talk are available on the LACUNY website.
Jill Cirasella (Brooklyn) and Maura Smale (City Tech)