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Thursday 28 August 2014
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Free software movement gaining ground

By S Chatterjee

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the doyen of Indian nationalism described ‘swaraj’ as his ‘birthright,’ which had to be had by all means.

 Tilak’s mantle fell on Gandhi. In March 1930, Gandhiji led the salt satyagraha against the Salt Act, 1882, which gave the British, a monopoly on collection and manufacture of salt. The source of salt was there in the sea water that surrounded our coast and also salt was deposited on the coast land, on evaporation of the sea water. He gave the call to assert the right to access and use the natural source.

The Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK) reiterates a similar demand. I will illustrate this with an example. If I buy a pen, I can choose the brand of ink, change the nib and also lend it to anyone. But no, this freedom is not allowed to a user of a proprietary software like the MS Word and others.

If you have bought the software, it is only you who can use it and in the specified machine. Copying it is termed as ‘piracy.’ The Free Software Movement (FSM), world over, rejects this label. “Pirates destroy ships”, they say, “while we restore freedom.”
At the core of the software is its source code. Proprietary software does not allow the purchaser an access to the source code. This prevents reverse engineering, perpetuating the purchaser’s dependence. The situation was different in the 1950s and ’60s, when the computer industry was growing from infancy to its maturity. The programmers would exchange, study and improve upon each other’s code. This allowed the field to grow.
But proprietary rights entered the field in the 1970s , to protect the interests of aspiring monopolies. The FSM challenges these proprietary rights. It upholds the following fundamental freedoms. 1. Freedom to use a code, 2. Freedom to know the original source code,  study and modify it, 3. Freedom to distribute the original code and 4. Freedom to redistribute the modified code.


The freedom, however, is not the ‘the freedom from monetary costs,’ ie not ‘free lunch or free beer’ but ‘freedom to to learn and to innovate’. These ideas were first conceptualised by Richard M Stallman of the MIT in 1983.
Since then many a software professional, rose to the challenge and the GNU-LINUX system appeared in the early 1990s. Its opponents scoffed it then but there has been no looking back for the FSM, whose ranks are growing, world over.  
The challenges before it are not technological but the powerful political lobbies, which are beholden to Microsoft. The Kerala government’s implementation of its e-governance programme exclusively through GNU-LINUX and introduction of the GNU/LINUX at school curricula is a boost to the movement.

Popular demand
The FSM further demands that the UAIDI project, for giving a unique identity card to all our citizens, should be executed with free software, by involving the Indian IT industry and is interacting with the industry to popularise many of its ideas in the IT industrial sector itself.

The FSMK is running IT schools in slum areas with enthusiastic participation from the members of the community, who not only proved to be quick learners but showed surprising levels of innovation. Also, the training schools in several technical institutions have received overwhelming support from students, academics and the management, since the GNU/LINUX is considered essential to keep one abreast with the technological developments and the liberty that this method guarantees is welcomed by all.
The FSM’s forthcoming National Level conference will be held at the Jnana Jyoti auditorium, Central College, Bangalore on Saturday and Sunday (March 20 and 21), bringing together around 1,500 participants from all walks of life. Great interest has been evinced in the student community.

Kannada literary figures have given overwhelming support to the ‘localisation programme,’ ie usage of the local language fonts for learning the free software and also using it to promote teaching, thus helping to make education mass based. This, the FSMK considers it to be an important component of its future activity.
To end, let me recall a recent personal experience. Six months ago, my laptop had got corrupted with viruses and I decided to change completely from the Windows system to the GNU/LINUX, which is virus free. But all the e-mail service providers said that they could provide service only with the Microsoft systems.

As a matter of challenge, I went on my own form of salt satyagraha. I stopped using the laptop for mail checking. For mails I used the institute’s GNU/LINUX system. Finally, I approached the FSMK and they ‘tweaked’ the existing data card and made it compatible with the GNU/LINUX (contact@fsmk.org, raghuarr@gmail.com).

It was not easy but they did it. I thus now enjoy all the above four freedoms and also the freedom, not to worry about the intrusion by unwanted visitors, called viruses. These freedoms are like salt to me now.
(The writer is an associate professor at Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore)

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