Metaphors of Free Software

Alessandro Rubini rubini at
Tue Sep 30 21:37:04 UTC 2014


I read the thread, and I disagree with all opinions expressed.

Software is information, and has zero marginal cost in replication and
spreading.  Any "metaphor" with physical goods is weak; people will
soon find the weak points of the metaphor, and disregard free
software.  I quote the last posts here, to show a different point
of view, not because I've anything against people I quote.

Erik Albers:
> I also like an analogy between Open Standards and screws/screwdrivers:

This is good about file formats. We need to be interoperable, and we
need to reject technical choices designed to lock-in people.  It is
unrelated with free software, although I'm now convinced we need to
win the file-format battle before we even fight the FS one with any
chance of success. (FWIW I changed my mind over the years, I argued
vehemently against this point of view when I was younger).

Nicolas Jean adds to the "specific screws" idea:
> A tool that's preferably very, very expensive. And that you can only
> buy from said hardware manufacturer. Because other companies aren't
> allowed to build it let alone sell it to you, thanks to patents.

Now, I wouldn't ever bring patents in a discussion about freedom,
especially patents about mechanical stuff.  I'm personally convinced
that patents are nowadays detrimental to society in every field. but
most people think patents are the holy solution to save the poor and
smart inventor against big companies.  Besides, people is happy
nowadays to have a very good tool even if it is unfixable because of
special screws.  Who tried to fix stuff nowadays? Me and you: statistically

Let's talk about freedom and rights.  Whether patents are good or bad
is another topic that can only be introduced later. And people will
*not* agree about patents even after they agreed on user's protection.

I mean, if we look at ways to explain free software to the unaware, we
should avoid talking about patents. Patents are a good and hot topic
to discuss with informed people, not the ones that need "metaphors"
to get the basic concepts.

Paul van der Vlis:
> But I like: "Proprietary software is like patented seed".

This works for you, because both ideas sound very bad to you.  For too
many people, patents on seeds are the proper compensation for the ones
who make research for the benefit of mankind.  I see no similarity
between seeds and software, I'm sorry.

If we need a metaphor to explain free software to people, we need to
remain in the field of information, of knowledge that can be spread at
no cost.

I usually refer to the market of lawyers and physicians, teaching in
general, fiscal consulting and architectural work.  Each with its own
differences and limitations, they are information-based markets.

Information is available to everyone, but still I go to lawyers and
physicians rather than studying a completely new subject matter for
months/years.  And the result I get back can be reused.  Just like our
clients come to us instead of coding by themselves, and we don't put
any restrictions on what we deliver.  And they even *pay* us for
free information, like we pay teachers and lawyers.

That said, software is so "technological", so "black box", so "illegal
to copy", so "intellectual property" and so "magic" in the end, that most
of my audience refuses to see that it is the *only* information that
is so constrained by a perverse market tradition -- a tradition that
was born especially because software was for an elite, not for everybody.

With this social environment, I wouldn't make comparisons with any
physical good, because such similarities just don't apply. Calling
information "products" helps spreading false views, and comparing with
real products brings to ideas like "the software industry" and
"intellectual property".

That said, I'm happy we have different views, and I'm ok with any
disagreement I might get back, whatever strong.  Being different is
our biggest strength, not only our biggest weakness.

thanks for this discussion, and for reading so far

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