CES 2010: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times for Free Software

By Lysandra Ohrstrom | January 15, 2010

The 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the best of times and the worst of times for the free software movement.

It proved that the first stage of the revolution that the SFLC, and many others, have long predicted, is complete: free software has been embraced by commercial developers and is now powering a much wider range of embedded devices than any single proprietary program. Behind any one of the smartphones, eBook Readers, netbooks and LCD-televisions that debuted last week at CES is almost certainly a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) application or platform.

But it also highlighted the extent to which proprietary software developers have taken advantage of the ability to adapt, improve, and customize free software in embedded devices that deny customers these very same freedoms. This is the paradox of free software’s growing popularity: anyone can view, modify, and distribute source code, whatever their intentions.

Now that free software is inside almost everything, it is time for users to learn about their rights under free software licenses to protect their freedom to share, tinker, and adapt the devices they buy.

These values, ingrained into our consciousness in kindergarten, are the ones that drive free software innovation and that many of the commercial developers at CES have benefited from, yet hope their customers will forget.

Most of the eBook Readers at CES use free software in locked-down devices that restrict customers’ access to certain publications, prevent them from sharing, and violate their privacy. Telecommunications companies have harnessed Android in the battle for a larger share of the smartphone market and collaborated on applications with FOSS programmers while preventing customers the right to chose between carriers. These companies have a vested interest in limiting the functionality of the devices they sell so consumers buy the next model in a couple of years, rather than improve the one they already own.

Individuals can reclaim the rights they take for granted in other commodities by educating themselves and choosing to buy the most free devices whenever possible.

While none of the smartphones or e-readers on the market is perfect, there are options that allow users to retain more choice and control of how a device functions and what content they can access. Choosing a Nokia N900 or a free Android phone over a carrier-subsidized, locked-down model gives customers the option of running any application and making modifications so it is more useful. Readers can chose an open-format e-reader over an alternative that only allows them to download books in proprietary format.

Owners of open-format e-readers can download public-domain content, such as “A Tale of Two Cities,” for free from a variety of sources and be able to read and re-read it whenever they want, on multiple devices, forever. Amazon, on the other hand, charges Kindle-owners a license fee for the privilege of reading the free Dickens’ classic on their e-readers. Amazon also reserves the right to revoke this license at any time and yank the free book from Kindle-customers who already paid to download it.

At CES 2011, the SFLC predicts that commercial software developers will continue to distract users from these basic rights with sleeker, smaller, and smarter devices that run on free software. The SFLC will continue to fight against people who violate the terms of the GPL by using FOSS in locked-down devices that restrict, rather than empower users. But the second stage of the revolution will be won by individuals who educate themselves about their rights in order to realize the full benefit of free software.

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