Thursday, January 31, 2008

Understanding The Free Software Philosophy

Free Software may not be as visible in the media as its younger,
breakaway sibling, `Open Source’. You seldom hear of GNU/Linux, compared to the frequency with which you read of the term `Linux’. But,quietly, and mostly away from the glare of publicity, a small group of committed techies is slogging hard in India, to make a difference through skill and commitment. They are the Indian chapter of the Free Software Foundation. So, when it comes to fighting the patents threat that software faces in India, the Free Software Foundation-India (FSF-I) is there. Recently, this organisation put together an ambitious four-nation meet in Kerala,involving Venezuela, Brazil, Italy and India.Some of the techies in the group have achieved amazing feats, spurred on not just by their skills, but also by the ideology of Free Software.

Knowing the `Free Software’ philosophy

The first step towards acknowledging the Free Software Movement is to understand that `Free Software’ and `Open Source Software’ are two different entities. And that we, in the media, have been quite unjust to the movement by using the terms `Free Software’ and `Open Source’ interchangeably. In an e-mail conversation with LFY, Richard M. Stallman,the founder of the Free Software Foundation Understanding the Philosophy `(FSF),explained that the Free Software Movement built this community of cooperation in 1984, by developing the GNU operating system. “We did this for the sake of freedom—specifically, the freedom to cooperate.

In 1992, when the Linux kernel became free, it turned out that
GNU+Linux was so good in practical terms that millions of people
switched to it for its practical advantages. The result was that there were many users that were not aware of the issues of freedom and community that motivated us to develop the system. Some of them disagreed with our philosophy. In 1998, some of those people started using the term `Open Source’ instead of `Free Software’. A major motive was that they could talk about our community and its free software without mentioning the issue of freedom to cooperate. These people are part of our community, and some have helped build it. But their philosophy did not build our community, and it shouldn’t be named after their philosophy. Our community was built by the Free Software Movement. It is the Free Software Community.”

and for more clarity]

But, then again, `Free Software’should not be confused with a
technology that comes free of cost. It is a philosophy, an ethic of
sharing. This is what FSF-India has put on the website [] “Free software is a matter of freedom, not cost. It is a matter of liberty, not price.The word `free’ in free software has a similar meaning as in free speech, free people and free country, and should not be confused with its other meaning associated with zero-cost.Think of free software as software that is free of encumbrances, not necessarily free of cost. Think of it as a Swatantra software.”

Free Software gives users the freedom to be used on any number of computers, to share with others, to be studied, modified and
redistributed. Technically, Free Software is more stable, secure and compatible with open standards,compared to proprietary software. System crashes are extremely rare,which makes Free Software very popular for servers. These qualities arise from the fact that Free Software provides the freedom to study the source code, and millions of programmers and users worldwide contribute to the code, report bugs and bug fixes. Free Software is also different because the pace at which software is being produced and modified is much faster than in any other technology. This again is the result of contributions from the large number of developers worldwide.

Thiruvananthapuram becomes Indian Mecca for Free Software

The plot to form FSF-India was hatched in 1999, when a conference in Thiruvananthapuram came about,and a Free Software festival was held in the city. At that time, the core group was formed by the Mumbai-based G.Nagarjuna, who is chairman of FSF-India, apart from being a scientist at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, national centre of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR); M. Arun, V. Sasi Kumar, and others from Thiruvananthapuram, like TeX guru C.V. Radhakrishnan,Raj, RaghOO from Kochi, and Krishna, a mathematics professor from Thiruvananthapuram.Recollects Nagarjuna, “A formal organisation finally took shape. We identified a working group and board members. Then we all came down to write the `Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU).”

That was when the FSF enthusiasts declared Thiruvananthapuram the `Free Software capital’ of India. Today, a series of events,ranging from an international TeX users meet, to the
recent four-nations conference, seem to be underlining the role of
Thiruvananthapuram as a `Free Software Mecca’. Incidentally,the Kerala capital even has an organisation known as SPACE (Society for the Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment). It aims at promoting youngsters to enter the world of Free Software, both for skills and jobs.

FSF-India has registered itself under `Section 25’ of the Indian
Companies Act, which makes it a not-for-profit company. Nagarjuna explains, “We were thinking big. We wanted to have a large number of smaller units scattered across the country. If we didn’t form a company, in each place, members would have had to form a society. It would mean huge paper work for each group. So we thought we’d have one office, which would take care of everyone’s accounts (and paperwork). That was the thought.”

As its logo, the FSF-India has a charkha that morphs into a CD,
symbolising the philosophy `Weave your own code’, giving a hi-tech slant to the message of the Mahatma,which was `Weave your own cloth’.With its headquarters inThiruvananthapuram, FSF-India currently has units in Hyderabad,Calcutta, Bangalore, Chennai, Kochi,Kannur, Vellore, Mumbai and New Delhi.

Creating people’s technology

The FSF-India sees localisation of Free Software, or translating Free Software into Indian local languages,as a crucial task, so as to create a true people’s technology. Says Nagarjuna,”We thought we should have members essentially for promoting the free software philosophy, and also to join in various localisation groups all over the country.”

Some of the achievements that the foundation can proudly look back on is one of their first projects of localising GNU/Linux into
Malayalam, that was done in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific
Development Information Programme (APDIP) and Keltron.
Recollects Nagarjuna, “We did localisation of GNU/Linux to
Malayalam, about three years back.At that time, a Tamil version of GNU/Linux was available. Then came Malayalam.” But localising
Malayalam wasn’t easy. Tamil being a linear script, it was easier,
believes Nagarjuna, whose mother tongue is Telugu. Says he, “Other people had to wait till Pango gave us Indian language support. The same was true for KDE and Qt. So the browsers started speaking Indian languages only much later.” Nagarjuna is honest. “If you’re speaking about complete support, we’re (in the Free Software world) still behind. We don’t have dictionaries in Indian languages.

Proprietary software has fonts as well as dictionaries.

“But he’s also optimistic. Now that the Free Software world has solved the encoding problems, FSF-India hopes to tackle such
issues. But these problems cannot be solved unless some help from academia is also forthcoming, he suggests. “We need more support. The operating system has enough technical support; what we need now are databases—a glossary of terms in all the languages,”says Nagarjuna. FSF-India is trying to find out if the TDIL (Technology Development for Indian Languages) network of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, Government of India,can release some of their glossaries and make these freely available to those working in the Free Software world.

Battle to play it fair

Every battle that the foundation fights seems to qualify as a full
story in itself.Take, for example, the PlayFair fight with Apple. PlayFair is Apple Computer’s name for its digital rights management (DRM or Digital Restrictions Management) built into the proprietary multimedia technology and used by the iPod,iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store.Every file bought from the iTunes Music Store, with iTunes, is encoded with PlayFair. It digitally encrypts AAC audio files and prevents users from playing these files on unauthorised computers. PlayFair is a tool to enable fair use for music purchased from Apple’s iTunes music service. It lets people play music in non-Apple authorised hardware like a GNU/Linux PC or most digital audio players. It does that by stripping the DRM provision from a song,provided the key to playing the song is available.PlayFair is licensed
under the GNU General Public License. The PlayFair version 0.1 was released on March 30, 2004.V e r s i o n 0.2 came along on April 2, 2004.These were posted on the [] for all to view. But on April 9, 2004, it got taken down from []. Apple had sent in a Cease and Desist (C&D) letter to invoking the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copy Right Act of 1998) and instructed them to take down PlayFair within 24 hours. On April 4, 2004, PlayFair had moved over to, the India-based hosting site for Free Software projects. By April 16, 2004, PlayFair had been taken down from
[] as well. Apple sent a C&D letter to the sponsors, maintainers and ISP of invoking the IT Act 2002 and Indian Copyright Act, and instructed them to take down PlayFair within 24 hours.

FSF-India could not accept such breach of freedom and started
contemplating on a court battle. Says Nagarjuna, “When in Thiruvananthapuram was asked to remove the project, we could have gone to court saying Apple had no locus standing in India, since India does not have a DMCA law. However,the company hosting Sarovar is a small company, and decided not to fight on its own. It asked us, FSF India,
to sort it out.”

At this juncture, Anand Babu, a Free Software proponent and the maker of one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, `Thunder’, currently being used by the US Department of Energy, came up with a neat solution.Babu took over the maintenance publicly and re-launched the project as [] from within the United States with legal backing from FSF-India and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which promotes free speech in cyberspace), as well as ISP support from CTYME.COM. SaysBabu, “We claimed that the Hymn Project is legal, based on the Fair Use rights, and we were prepared to fight Apple in the court. What also helped us was the work of the actual authors of PlayFair.” On the ideological plane, he says, “DMCA imbalances the copyright law, by overpowering its Fair Use provision. Not only the user of the DRM stripping software, but also the developer and the ISP hosting
this software are treated as criminals under the DMCA Act.”

Drive to make India patent-free

Another proud milestone in FSF-India’s career is that of making the Indian Parliament remove the software patents from the patents bill. Says V. Sasi Kumar of FSF-India, “We have been able to convince the Government of India to drop the clauses related to software patents,from the recent patents bill. We thank the help rendered by the left parties, the CPI in particular, in achieving this.”

The foundation believes that software patents are a serious menace in many countries. Agreements like the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Treaty clearly mandate that computer programs shall be protected by copyrights (refer] for more details), and further aggravate the practice of `software patents’. Sasi Kumar says.”Software patents are an illegal trade barrier wherever practiced, and a thorn in the flesh of software developers. Creating more awareness and co-operation will help us move closer towards software freedom for one and all, everywhere.”

Other issues, like the exclusive use of proprietary software in education across many states, and even several governments opting for proprietary software for many of their programmes and actually entering into agreements with software companies like Microsoft,are still live. FSF-India intends to take it all up.

Keeping promises

FSF-India made some promises to itself when it was founded. It vowed to promote the development of globally useful Free Software, in India and elsewhere; create awareness about Free Software specifically among students; increase access to Free Software by users, and promote the development of local solutions to local problems by empowering local programmers in the use of free platforms, tools and technologies.

The foundation is striving towards the above objectives by:

Concentrating on popularising the ideology of Free Software, and
bringing to the attention of authorities the dangers of adopting
proprietary software for public use.

Emphasising on the inclusion of Free Software into the IT textbooks
for high school classes in Kerala, and the subsequent promotion of
Free Software in schools.

Inclusion of Free Software in the IT courses conducted by the UGC
Academic Staff College in Thiruvananthapuram.Inclusion of Free Software in the curriculum in institutions like the Vellore Institute of Technology.

Running the media centre of the World Social Forum in Mumbai
exclusively on Free Software. Sasi Kumar cites some examples of the foundation’s achievements,”We have made a significant impact in Kerala, where the phrase Free Software is now understood by virtually everyone. FSF India has helped the education department here to create a GNU/Linux distribution for teaching IT in high schools, and about 4,000 teachers are now being trained in the installation and use of the system.Anna University in Tamil Nadu has now started courses that
should produce about 3000 engineers trained in Free Software
annually. The Madras Institute of Technology, under the university, has a good number of developers working in Free Software. The Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education has been developing Free Software-based applications that can be used in education, and has brought out its own version of GNU/Linux, known as Gnoware.” Further, in order to increase access to Free Software by users, including the economically backward people in India, FSF-India is helping Sarai, the New Delhi-based
NGO in its Cyber Mohalla, to exclusively use Free Software.
The final utterance Despite these good works, FSF-India lacks
membership, strength and volunteers. Says Nagarjuna, “Lack of
sufficient volunteers is the main problem. We have a lot more
sympathisers than people who can work. Everybody who is spreading Free Software doesn’t always identify that that work is being done on behalf of FSF-India. Yet, a lot of work is getting done.” The organisation is also keen to employ 2-3 full-timers to work for it. Convincing people to start using Free Software for the sake of principles is another area of concern. Laments Nagarjuna, “This requires moral commitment, not just pragmatism. Moral commitment is seldom seen in the ethos currently, all over the world. That’s a major challenge. If you look at it like this, at the time of Independence, during the freedom movement, people talked highly about morality. Not just about throwing out the enemy.”

After all, how do you motivate youngsters to go in for free software, when proprietary software tempts the best brains with mega-bucks?
Nagarjuna reiterates, “If you choose to do it, it’s for freedom, not
because of economic reasons. The point I keep talking about is that we keep working and struggling to maintain freedom, even if it is expensive. Freedom is more valuable than just the `total cost of ownership ‘that opensource followers talk about. Our arguments, unlike those of the open source promoters,
are not based on economics alone. Not even just technology. It’s ethics and politics (of technology) that we are concerned about. Ours is a cultural movement.”

By: Jhinuk Chowdhury, LFY Bureau

Richard Stallman tells LFY ‘Why India is special’.

Q. What do you think of the Free Software movement that is going on in India?

India is among the few countries with the strongest understanding of Free Software as an ethical issue of freedom. (The others are Spain,Colombia, Brazil and Argentina.) Many countries have people whoappreciate the practical side-benefits that can result from freedom, but if that’s all they see, they don’t really understand what Free Software is all about.

Q. What’s made you visit the country so many times?

Partly because India is an important place for software development, partly because of the intense support for Free Software in the country and partly because I love Indian classical music and dance, and I’m very glad to have a chance to go to India and see it.

Q. What is that one special thing that makes you think India can or
cannot make its mark in the Free Software Movement?

I am hoping, rather, that the Free Software Movement will make its mark in India. Millions of Indians use computers, and millions more will start in the coming years. If we can convince Indians to demand freedom with their computers, that will be a victory with world-wide consequences.

Richard Stallman tells LFY Why India is special.RICHARD STALLMAN, founder, Free Software Foundation

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