Freeing oneself from corporate software

“It may be illegal, not all the features may be working, but if you download it... it's free,” the Future Shop employee responded after I inquired about Adobe Photoshop's price. It's Boxing Day, everything must go, and if a tip on pirating illegal software means one more computer is sold then this employee shows no qualms about it. He knows that his “This Boxing Day only” $599 laptop will increase by almost $1000 if I'm considering buying Photoshop CS4. On top of that, Microsoft Office retails from $159-$599 and he doesn't want the accumulated costs to scare me away. “Just download it,” he assures me.

When a Future Shop employee himself is recognizing the ridiculous costs of computers and is telling me to steal from another company so that he can make a sale on the hardware, we have a problem. This is not just one sole employee – after speaking to other employees at popular tech retailers from Best Buy and London Drugs, and admittedly coaxing them a little, they admit they're not entirely against the idea of pirating either.

About 41% of all software worldwide is pirated, according to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which comprises of software corporations such as Apple and Microsoft. The BAS claims that pirated software has cost these companies more than $50 billion a year: "The retail value of unlicensed software — representing revenue 'losses' to software companies — broke the $50 billion level for the first time in 2008. Worldwide losses grew by 11 percent to $53 billion. Excluding the effect of exchange rates, losses grew by five percent to $50.2 billion." Yet, some of these same companies in the alliance haven't set out to completely prevent piracy. Bill Gates once pointed out to a room full of business students at the University of Washington: “As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours.” Gates was referring to the rampant piracy of Windows that occurs in China and how Microsoft would rather have their software pirated than a competitor's.

When both the consumer and the sales-people are justifying what they themselves deem as illegal activity towards larger corporations, there is a problem. To solve the ideological difference between the producers, middle man, and consumers, we need to visit the root of the problem.

Who controls the prices?

What you pay for a computer can be divided into three elements: the hardware, operating system, and the software. In our global free market, the hardware element is represented relatively well compared to the other elements. That is, computer hardware has a competitive market where different manufacturers, from Intel in USA to Panasonic in Japan, can compete to provide you a suitable service. These companies are represented well by large computer retailers such as Future Shop and Best Buy. The same can be said about software, although 'out of the box,' consumers are left with what the operating system and retailers chose to run natively (such as Internet Explorer or Safari). The control of what is on your computer is left to the operating system.

For operating systems there are one two main contenders: Apple and Microsoft. With Microsoft holding a monopoly on about 90 percent of the market share and Apple holding about nine percent. So what's the alternative one percent? Future Shop and Best Buy do offer one alternative: GNU/Linux. But after speaking to their employees, it was surprising to find that most of them were unaware of what exactly GNU/Linux is other than it being a third alternative. One of their Apple representatives incorrectly stated that it's what the Apple OS runs off.

Their ignorance of the GNU/Linux OS not only benefits Microsoft and Apple but it is the raison d'etre of the piracy of their own product: “It's easier for our software to compete with [GNU]-Linux when there's piracy than when there's not” Gates tells a group of students at Washington University. “Outside of Windows on PCs, it's hard to see other examples of software and hardware decoupled and working well yet.” Steve Jobs chimed to a forum in 2007. Often, Jobs neglects the amount of reliance Apple has had on the open source community and GNU/Linux. What are these two men hiding? What is this third operating system, GNU/Linux, that they fear?

With these questions I approached the father of GNU/Linux OS, Richard Stallman. He is to GNU/Linux what Steve Jobs is to Apple or Bill Gates is to Microsoft. Visiting university to university and forum to forum, this man is asking for us to look differently at software. Not only is he a computer programmer for his own OS (something which neither Gates nor Jobs is) but he is also a hacker and a freedom activist. After graduating Harvard magna cum laude he went on to MIT for his graduate studies while programming for MIT's AI laboratory. This was where his new operating system began to take root.

When MIT's computer laboratory installed a password system, Stallman decoded how to get around it – not out of malice, but to prove a lesson. The other users in the lab received a message from Stallman which revealed their decoded passwords and a suggestion: that they basically shouldn't bother with passwords. Stallman holds a slight smile as he retells this story and is perhaps boasting. But his point was clear: closed systems aren't as secure as they seem to the average user. And as the MIT admins continued to re-secure their system, Stallman continued hacking and leaving messages to users. One message he left read: “There has been another attempt to seize power. So far, the aristocratic forces have been defeated.”

If this analogy seems dull, consider the fact that Stallman left his MIT account open for all users to access his system. Other hackers from as far off as California were able to use Stallman's computer. And this wasn't just any computer, this was ARPAnet- The foundation for what is now the Internet. The symbolism is more complete when we consider that Stallman was allowing the world to access ARPAnet before there even was an Internet for the world to access. During this time of battling “aristocratic forces” Stallman announced, in 1983, that it was time for a new, free, and open operating system. As Stallman was finishing the operating system, another programmer, Linus Torvalds, created the kernel so that the OS could work properly with computer hardware. The final product was the GNU/Linux OS.

This operating system, whose founder fought the securities of other systems, has now evolved to be what many consider as the most secure operating system for computers. In 2008, Vancouver was host to a hacking competition, “PWN to OWN,” where hackers competed by trying to hack into computers running Mac's OSX, Microsoft's Windows and GNU/Linux. Mac lost first and was hacked into in about two minutes, Windows was hacked into on the third day and GNU/Linux was left standing unscathed and unhacked for the three-day competition. In 2009, the same contest was held but this time it was focused on web browsers. Once again, open software lasted longer than closed software. Mac's browser, Safari, was hacked into within a couple of minutes and then IE8 followed. The open browsers Firefox and Chrome lasted the longest, though they did finally fall later in the contest. From browser to operating system, open systems were the most secure.

But these impressive results for open software are merely a by-product in the eyes of its father, Richard Stallman. Although GNU/Linux is open, the more important aspect is that it's free as in freedom. “I am an activist in the free software movement, which is totally different at the level of spirit.” To be brief, the difference between open and free software is that while they are both generally the same thing “free” software adds an ethical spirit to open software. The ethic is that users should be free to “run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes.”

A flower power outlet

With his long hair and beard, he stands in stark contrast to his clean shaven contemporaries, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. To put it bluntly, Stallman reminds me of hippies from the '70s. And his views chant “power to the people” just as much as a Lennon album. Views that are revolutionary in so much as they require almost a paradigm shift in our current understanding of software.

Take, for example, when I ask him about piracy: “When talking about sharing I refuse to label it as 'piracy'. I say, 'Piracy means attacking ships.'” Stallman explains that when a user provides their friends or family with a piece of software they're sharing it, to label users that do so as pirates “is propaganda; it assumes that copying and sharing is wrong.”

So what of Gates' statement that China's “sharing” of Windows software was helping Microsoft keep an edge over China? Stallman interprets it as such: “What Gates said has an explicit statement, 'the sharing we forbid is ironically good for us,' and an implicit assumption, 'Microsoft is entitled to forbid sharing.' I think the explicit point is a side issue; what I really want to reject is the implicit assumption. 'If I were writing an article to criticize his statement, I would make the assumption explicit, and attack that.”

So let's make it explicit: Is Microsoft entitled to forbid the sharing of their product? Although Bill Gates could not reply by press time, a Microsoft developer gave me a resounding: “Yes, because Microsoft owns the copyright.” Microsoft's and Apple's position on piracy of software is quite clear as both have a paperwork of legal trials against pirates. But GNU/Linux has a different approach, as Stallman had one main goal: To keep it free. From GNU's equivalent of Photoshop to their version of a word processor to the entire operating system itself, the code is left completely open and free to the user. And to ensure that his OS and software remain free, Stallman created his own license known as the General Public License (GPL). The license protects the freeness of popular software such as Firefox, VLC, and Gimp.

But what of the sharing of products that are not under the GPL, like Windows? I ask Stallman if this will hurt GNU/Linux as Gates has claimed? “The direct practical effect of unauthorized copying of proprietary software is to somewhat reduce the pain of the proprietary software social system. The result could be that fewer people feel motivated to escape to freedom. Conversely, when the masters of proprietary software carry out unusual or spectacular acts of repression against people who made unauthorized copies, that can rebound to our benefit. But we must never encourage or endorse such repression, because that would make us morally responsible for the repression. We must not act like unethical people who only want to 'win' and never mind how they do it.”

The ethics he speaks of are expanded on in Stallman's book “Free as in Freedom” that he is selling. It's under a similar license as the GPL. Noticing the $34.95 price tag of the book, I put it up to the test of his license and question whether I'm allowed to copy and distribute the book for free, much like the free software under his license. “All published works should be sharable, and these articles are sharable. Each article comes with permission to share exact copies, and the articles are available [at],” Stallman tells me. Sure enough, his entire book is there to read on the Internet for free. “I am very careful to practice what I preach,” he reminds me.

He passed the test, but I have one last question. I inform him that Capilano U's library lacks computers running GNU/Linux and ask for a personal recommendation: “I recommend the distros that are totally free software ... I have heard that Trisquel works pretty well.” Trisquel is free for downloading at"

To date the Business Software Alliance that Apple and Microsoft belong to has issued out 2.4 million takedown notices to networks facilitating “piracy.” GNU/Linux has issued zero and chooses to recognize the activity of copying and distributing software as “sharing.”

[Author's Note: In spirit with the Free Software Movement, this article, although not software, was made open and free to the GNU/Linux community of Much like open software, this article was parsed by GNU/Linux users for inaccuracies. A total of around 80 edits and 30,000 reviews were made by the community. The author would like to thank the community for their participation.]

//Alamir Novin


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