Kuhn advocates 'GNU Age' of free software for computers

By Christian Bell

News Editor

Many people may not be clear on the difference between free beer and free speech when talking about computers, but to college students who frequently must `borrow' copies of expensive software from friends, the words ``free software'' sound intriguing.

Free software is a relatively new idea, but the concept is catching on. To address the new arena of free software, the Abstraction computer science student organization sponsored a speech by Bradley Kuhn, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, gave a speech entitled, ``Software Freedom and the GNU Generation.''

The Free Software Foundation is a well-known advocacy group for the Free Software foundation, which encourages open, community-centered software development which produces software that is both free of cost and who underlying code is distributed along with the software, allowing anybody the option of changing the software to fit their needs.

So what about free beer and free speech? Kuhn explained that the ``free'' in Free Software does not primarily mean ``free cost,'' or as GNU often puts it, ``free beer.''

``Some people get Free Software without paying for it, and others pay. The issue of price is not central,'' Kuhn said.

Rather, he said, the `free' in Free Software means freedom, as in ``free speech.''

Kuhn emphasized the philosophy of freedom that propels the Free Software Foundation. Free software promotes sharing and equality - everyone is required to respect each other's rights.

Kuhn said that ``the idea of free software fits well with `do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'''

``Free Software builds and augments cooperating communities that [in turn] share and help each other to make software better. By direct contrast, proprietary software tears down and impedes the creation of such communities.''

Kuhn juxtaposed the freedom and community spirit of Free Software against proprietary software by companies like Microsoft and Adobe, which he characterized as monolithic and greedy.

According to Kuhn, with proprietary software companies, ``profit and turning more and more profit is more important than helping users and making their lives better.''

GNU stands for ``GNU's Not Unix,'' referring to another computer operating system, Unix, that the GNU system, based on the Linux kernel, is modeled after. The key difference is that while Unix is proprietary, GNU/Linux is free and available to everyone, meaning that anybody who wants to modify the code is able to do so because it is provided to them.

GNU/Linux is a competitor to the Microsoft Windows operating system. According to Kuhn, the various versions of GNU/Linux have an estimated 20 million users.

Kuhn said that the key to Free Software is that ``all users get the freedom to copy, share, modify, and redistribute the software.''

To support his point, Kuhn described a situation at an old job where he required help from a software vendor to fix a bug he had discovered. However, the vendor refused to fix the problem. Although Kuhn was knowledgeable in computer programming languages and could have fixed it himself, since the vendor refused to provide the code to the software to Kuhn, the problem went unresolved.

``We were left helpless,'' Kuhn said. ``We didn't have the freedom to fix and improve the software.''

Kuhn also spoke against copyright laws, which he said hinder progress in software development and create roadblocks to creativity.

Laws exist to help people, Kuhn said, but copyright laws do the opposite.

To that effect, Kuhn also advocated ``copyleft,'' a general method for making free software and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well.

Kuhn also claimed that Free Software, despite giving away its product, stimulates the free market economy by creating a market for knowledgeable personnel to develop and improve software.

``It's liberating when you give someone the tools to solve their own problems,'' Kuhn said.