Ubuntu Forums Profile
Email: <mcopple AT SPAMFREE gmail DOT com>
IRC: PenguinistaKC (you'll often find me in the #ubuntu-missouri and #kclug channels)
Ubuntu Forum Handle: Penguinista
I am a long-time GNU/Linux user and free software advocate. I recently began the [MissouriTeam], a LoCo organized for Ubuntu users in the Show-Me State. I am a software developer in the financial services industry. I have used Linux and open source tools since 1999. I am a recent convert to Ubuntu; I started using it sometime in 2006, after giving up on trying to work around SELinux on Fedora.
My role in the Ubuntu world is small, but fun. I have always been an advocate of free software, ever ready to extol its virtues to the world. More recently, I have tried to focus my advocacy. Free Software has made great inroads in the education market; schools are attracted by the low total cost of ownership (TCO) and the fact that open source licensing gives students the ability to determine how the software works, enhancing the learning experience.
I am convinced that the non-profit space is another area where Free Software can make a significant difference. Charitable organizations and libraries are often eligible for steep discounts on proprietary software. However, this accounts for only a small portion of the tax-exempt organizations in the United States. Groups such as neighborhood organizations, churches, labor unions, political advocacy groups, and fraternal organizations are all tax exempt, but not eligible for the discounts IRS-recognized charitable organizations receive. They often have too few seats to qualify for the volume discounts larger business buyers receive, and therefore are often faced with the choice of continuing to use obsolete software that came with their aging computers, or upgrading at retail prices.
I also try to get on the #ubuntu IRC channel when I can to provide support to folks there.
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention; if that is so, then information is its father. Nearly every invention humanity has developed over the past 100,000 years or so of existence has been built upon a previous advance. Whether the subject is paper, gunpowder, or genetics, our understanding today is the direct result of communicating discoveries made yesterday. Even the American form of government is based on transparency and information sharing -- the basis of the free press.
When we choose to lock that information up, either through draconian legislative regimes, forced obsolescence, or obfuscation and obscurity, we deprive our society of the raw materials it needs for tomorrow's innovations.
I support Free Software because I believe that without a free, unhindered flow of information, and the ability to build on it, innovation is not possible. Look at the telephone developed by Alexander Graham Bell and the technology in use during AT&T's monopoly years; in a century when rapid development took place in medicine, engineering, and agriculture, the technology used to communicate those discoveries did not advance much beyond its state in 1876. It wasn't because the telephone had reached the pinnacle of perfection; it was because AT&T jealously guarded its asset and refused to allow innovation. Only when a Federal court broke the monopoly up did services we enjoy today -- high-speed internet service, wireless phone service, VOIP, television over fiber -- become a reality.
I support the Ownership Society. I believe that when you give the individual control over his own destiny and the ability to move up in the world by his own work, that all of society benefits. I defend the right of the Bells, the Edisons, the Orschelns, and the Disneys of the world, to profit from their creations. But there must be a balance between the right of the creator to profit from the original work, and the right of society to profit from further innovation.
Free Software is an example of that balance. Using copyright (or "copyleft," as Richard Stallman famously said), the right of the original owner to profit from his creation is preserved, but the creation is opened to the world to be improved. The results have been dramatic -- a new software ecosystem, characterized by continual innovation rather than the stifled monopolization practiced by proprietary companies, a new paradigm for interaction between the user and the developer (wherein the user becomes the developer), and new business models that have revolutionized not only the software industry, but other industries from telecommunications to literature to scientific research.
A House Built Like Proprietary Software
Just as importantly, Free Software gives its users control. Imagine, if you will, a house built like the proprietary operating system which now sits on 96% of all desktop computers. You still pay $150,000 for it, but you don't own it; it is being licensed to you, on terms that can change without notice, and which you accept unknowingly every time you open and close a door. Three years after licensing your new home, you come home after work to discover that your key no longer works. The builder believes that you made an unauthorized modification to the home (remember those new curtains you put up in the bedroom), and upon inspection (without notice or your consent, of course), it decided that it was no longer "genuine" and locked you out as a safety measure (you never know what kind of danger new curtains can put you in).
Once you get back in your home by agreeing to remove the curtains, you discover that the toilet has stopped working. You valiantly but unsuccessfully attempt to use the toilet plunger (which you had to purchase from the builder, since using a plunger from Wal-Mart or the local hardware store is a violation of that license you've never been allowed to read). You do not have a phone number for the builder, so you have to file a ticket on its website (using the computer you also had to purchase from them as a condition of occupancy in the house). As eau de toilette begins to waft through the house, you finally get a note back four days later saying that there is a known issue with the plumbing in your house, and that the preferred way to fix it is by upgrading to a newer version (of the house, that is). Lucky for you, they are offering you a special discount, and they won't charge you the normal price of $200,000; instead, you only have to pay another $150,000.
You complain that you bought the house in good faith, expecting everything to work as advertised. When you finally get a reply, it is a curt form letter reminding you that the house is not warranted for any particular use, and therefore, they are not responsible for anything that happens in your home. Because you have been such a vocal customer, they offer to cut another $25,000 off the price of an "upgraded" house.
You decide to upgrade, having no other choice. After shelling out the cash from your IRA, the site engineer informs you that he cannot upgrade your home because you replaced the evergreens in the front yard with Home Depot substitutes and had the back yard leveled and filled. You inform the engineer that this was done by the builder when the home was put up, but the engineer is unconvinced. You call the builder, who says that because you already agreed to the terms of your new license (which you still haven't seen), they won't refund your money. And you still can't fix the toilet, because doing so would invalidate your home and cause it to lock you out again.
Your blood pressure is going up at an alarming rate, so you decide to watch some TV. You flip the channel to Animal Planet, intrigued by the show, "Mating Habits of the Three-Toed Sloth." Only the television informs you that this channel is prohibited, because it contains content that might be too racy for children, and it is before 9 p.m. You don't have any children, so you file another ticket with the builder (yeah, he owns the TV *and* the channels you watch -- read your license agreement!). All you say is, "I have no children. Is it possible to get the child restrictions lifted from my account?" This time you get an immediate answer. "According to our records, you have children in your home at least twice a week. Your request is denied. In addition, our records show that you have viewed several racy DVDs during the Child Protection Window. We have shut off access to your DVD player."
The children are your niece and nephew, who come over after school on Monday and Wednesday and stay until 5 pm. You are a little disturbed that your builder knows who comes in and out of your house on a regular basis, but how do they know what DVDs you watch? You own those! The builder refers you to your license agreement (which you still haven't seen).
In frustration, you decide to tear the house down and rebuild it yourself. Your neighbor has a pretty nice house, and everything in it works. So you order some lumber and some nails, and begin building. You have the house framed and are getting ready to install drywall when an attorney comes to visit you. "I'm sorry, but this house is a copy of your neighbors' house, which was built and is owned by my client, ABC Developers. We have a patent on all construction made with wood and nails."
That evening, you squeeze your family into the canvas tent you licensed from the local camping store, wondering what to do as the rain begins to fall.
You are probably laughing as hard reading this as I am laughing while I write it. Of course you are free to modify anything on your house you want. It is absurd to think that you would pay good money for a house you can't own, can't maintain, can't even furnish without complying with terms that you are not allowed to see. Why then, is it not equally absurd that you can pay thousands of dollars for software that you don't own, but instead have to "license" under terms that can change without notice to you? Why is it OK for your software vendor to cripple your software without your consent, and with no recourse? Why do we allow software companies to monitor our computer usage and sniff around on our hard drives? If it does not work, why do we accept that we cannot fix it, or pay someone else to do so for us? And most importantly, why do we compound the problem by continuing to buy it?
Free Software eliminates each of the problems above. No matter how you obtain it, you own it, lock, stock, and barrel. You can do anything you want with it, put it anywhere you want, and change whatever you want. If you are concerned about who is looking at your data, or what happens to it after you feed it to the program, you are legally free to read the code, or get someone else to read it for you. If there is a problem, and the vendor can't or won't fix it, you can crawl in there and fix it yourself, no matter what the vendor thinks (or alternatively, you can have someone else do it). And if the vendor changes the code, you can apply those changes or reject them. If your neighbor changes his code, you are free to copy it. 'It belongs to you!'
Free Software gives you control. Control over your data, control over your programs, control over how and when it is used. You may not be a programmer; even if you are, you may not be interested in the inner workings of your web browser. But at least you have the choice of control, which is better than the proprietary alternative.
The House the GPL Built
I think I've made my point, but just in case you want another laugh, here's what might happen if your house were built like GPL software:
While playing poker with your buddy the architect, he notes that he just came up with an awesome new house plan. After he has cleverly relieved you of all your spare change and most of your clothing except your socks and your stocking cap (you never could bluff), he invites you over to his desk to see it. You like most of it, but you really think the kitchen should be a few feet longer and the house should have an attached garage. You mention this to your buddy, who replies that you are almost as bad at architecture as you are at poker playing, and he doesn't feel like changing it. "Fine," you reply, "I'll do it myself." He charges $200 for house plans; you write him a check. As he rolls up your new blueprints and puts them in a cardboard carrier, you retrieve your clothing and the $5 in pennies you lost in tonight's game and head home with visions of your new house dancing in your head.
You are pretty handy with tools, but you know nothing about blueprints. Since the blueprints are licensed under the GPL, you own them and can change them any way you want. You just have to find someone who will do so. You call up your father-in-law, who is a draftsman and general contractor. After repeating your buddy's statement that you are as bad at architecture as you are at poker playing, he redraws the blueprints for you, adding a few feet to the kitchen and an attached garage.
You can't build the house yourself, so you invite ten friends over to help. Together, you get the the framing done and the floor taken care of. You hire a plumber after taking three bids; the plumber says that because the kitchen is longer, your heating ducts have to be extended. He annotates your blue prints and builds the extension.
As your house completes, your new neighbor pops over. He loves your house and says he wants to tear down his place and build one just like it. The two of you run down to a copy shop and run off a copy for the neighbor. While you are at it, you run off another copy for your poker buddy. He may not like it personally, but someone else might want to do the same modifications, so you'll give him a copy to have on hand.
In the middle of the construction, your friend decides he doesn't like the attached garage after all, and he detaches it. He, too, sends a copy of the changes to your architect-cum-poker-buddy, who now likes the longer kitchen after all, and modifies his own plan.
You level the backyard (it belongs to you, after all), and you put fountain grass in front of the house instead of evergreen bushes. A few days after completion, you discover you're locked out of your house; you call the locksmith and have him open the house for you, then you spontaneously decide to just switch out doors (you own the house now; you can do that!).
When the toilet breaks, you call a plumber. When he doesn't answer the phone, you call another one (you aren't locked in, because you own your house -- you can call anyone you want!). When he gives you an outrageous price, you get mad, call your neighbor, and offer him a couple of beers to help you pull up the toilet and repair the broken pipe.
Your father-in-law comes to dinner and apologizes for questioning your sense of aesthetics -- he loves the longer kitchen and detached garage (he still thinks you are horrible at poker, though). When he learns that you repaired your own toilet, he offers you an obscene amount of money to come repair his toilet, too. You refer him to the plumber.
The next night, you meet your architect buddy for another round of poker. He says your changes were so popular that he no longer sells his original plan. He asks if you would like to review his other plans and give your opinion. You think that is a great idea.
But first, you need your socks back. You really are bad at poker.