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Business News/ Industry / Free software activism no longer a fringe movement

New Delhi: On 26 August, a 12ft high trash can was installed in the historic Boston Common park. In it were mock-up boxes of Microsoft Corp.’s new operating system Windows 7. Organized by the Free Software Foundation, an international community of people who embrace free and open-source software, it was the beginning of a series of events commemorating what is called Software Freedom Day.

Software Freedom Day is marked on the third Saturday of September every year, and hundreds of thousands of free software evangelists and enthusiasts celebrate the spirit and philosophy of free software, organizing events, seminars, protests and talks.

Founded in 1983 by US-based software developer Richard Stallman, the free software creed argues for openness in computer software, an approach that allows individuals and communities to use and modify software for free, and make the results available for everyone else in turn.

The term “open source" is also used when the source code, the nuts and bolts of any piece of software, is in the public domain, and most software is collaboratively written, like the variants of the Linux operating system, or Mozilla Corp.’s Firefox browser.

Free software has minimal restrictions in its use, and is usually free of cost.

The movement is pitted against its antonym, what is called “proprietary" software, such as Microsoft Windows or Apple Inc.’s OS X, which are copyright protected by companies and are not freely or legally editable.

Mint spoke to V. Sasi Kumar of the Indian chapter of the Free Software Foundation on Software Freedom Day, the open-source movement in India, and engaging with proprietary software companies. Edited excerpts:

How would you explain the importance of Software Freedom Day to people unfamiliar with the free software movement?

They are precisely the people that we are primarily targeting on the Software Freedom Day. The idea is to spread the message of freedom, and freedom is something everyone understands and wants. So, that is not difficult to communicate. A reference to India’s freedom struggle sometimes helps. The difficulty, occasionally, is with people who have been using illegal copies of proprietary software, and do not understand the need for freedom of software.

How has the free software movement grown in India?

Over the last few years, the free software movement has spread to almost all parts of the country, though it has really grown strong only in some regions. At the national level, we have been able to influence the government to a reasonable extent. I would say that the decision of the government of Kerala to adopt free software at all levels as a policy has helped a lot. It served to demonstrate that it is possible to migrate profitably to free software. We are also campaigning for the adoption of open and unencumbered standards for documents by the government of India.

Do you see free software, both as a movement and as a philosophy, making inroads into education or governance in India? How much is it understood at present?

In my view, free software, as a form of software and as an ideology, is gaining ground inexorably, and is now virtually unstoppable. It is no longer a fringe movement and there is no longer any need to demonstrate the feasibility of free software. The work we have to do hereafter is largely to make people aware of this possibility and its desirability. And even the awareness is spreading.

Free software is becoming accepted in education, especially school education in states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat. I am sorry to have to repeat mentioning Kerala, but I think the presence of a working example has really helped. The IT@School project in Kerala uses exclusively free software, and the Khadi and Village Industries Board has migrated to free software and has also become the first organization in Kerala to move to a so-­called “paperless office".

IT textbooks for schools are being published in India based on free software and under Creative Commons licences.

The government of India’s draft policy on ICT (information and communications technology) for school education speaks of sharing resources and opening access to all. The realization that software is something that should empower people and is not just another product of a hi-­tech industry that brings much profit to the companies and high salaries to the employees is beginning to take hold.

The free software movement is usually pitted against the so-called proprietary software companies. How does the movement engage with them?

I would say that proprietary software companies are slowly, but surely, losing their grip on their users. People are beginning to realize that proprietary operating systems are not the only ones available, nor are they always the best.

They are beginning to learn, for instance, that viruses are not an inalienable part of computers and that it is the problem of only the operating systems made by one particular company. They are also beginning to see that one could use a computer very well without having to pay more than the cost of hardware for just the essential basic software.

Admittedly, these are purely practical considerations. But it is not uncommon to see people migrating to free software because of purely practical reasons and later get attracted by its philosophy and vice versa. Proprietary software companies have begun to realize that they are fighting a losing battle. We find a reflection of this in the fact that these companies are using even unethical business methods to ensure that retailers do not sell machines pre-­installed with free software. We free software enthusiasts are fond of quoting Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “First they ignore us, then they ridicule us, then they fight us, and then we win".

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Updated: 18 Sep 2009, 10:38 PM IST
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