Obama and Free Software

06/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Love Director, Knowledge Ecology International

One of the more interesting aspects of the modern knowledge society is the free software movement. The most famous and influential leader of this movement is Richard M. Stallman (RMS). Richard recognized the value of a new model for software development and the various risks to that model. He also created a philosophical and ideological framework, and a new set of slogans, legal strategies and ideas to protect and promote the environment that would make free software more common and powerful. If Richard had not began his work in the 1980s, the Internet today would be less open, less innovative, and less useful.

In recent years the free software movement has grown in many different dimensions, and become much more diverse in terms of its leadership and approach. Playing an important role are Stallman critics like Eric Raymond or Bruce Perens[2], gifted software development leaders like Linus Torvalds, thousands of independently managed software development communities, corporate supported ventures like OpenOffice, MySql, Redhat or Ubuntu, and a host of influential academics like Eben Moglen or Yoachi Benkler. Today Google Scholar has 53,900 hits for the term "free software."[3]

[Clockwise: Obama ( Marc Nozell) and free software leaders Richard Stallman (Leonid Dmitriev), Eben Moglen (Andrew McMillan), Linus Torvalds (t3rmin4t0r), Bruce Perens (Manon Ress) and Michell Baker (Dead Squid). All photos available under licenses from Author, Wikimedia or Flickr]

While free software was once considered by some as a fringe movement, it is now mainstream. Fortune 500 companies are embracing free software programs like R to analyse data. Linux, Apache, MySql and PhP (LAMP) servers power much of the Internet. Many cell phones, Kindle 2, and other devices run Linux, an operating system that features much software developed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). [4] There is enormous interest in the development of every aspect of free software tools and applications. Some of the most profitable software companies today are those that are providing services over free software platforms. Free software also is important for empowering and protecting other social movements that routinely rely upon free software for a wide range of services.

The "free" part of the free software movement is an important element of this. The ability to innovate, and specifically to create innovations that serve social needs, is well served by platforms, like the Internet, that are based upon openness and freedom.

What does all this have to do with Obama? Actually, quite a bit.

As important as free software has become economically and socially, it gets almost no respect among U.S. political leaders. People should insist that elected and appointed government officials be more explicit about policies. I would start by asking the Obama Administration to answer the following initial questions:

Is free software important?

1. To what extent is free software used today?

2. What are the efficiency benefits of free software, in terms of allowing code to be freely reused and re-purposed?

3. What are the benefits of having software code transparent?

4. What are the benefits of users having the freedom to modify software to meet their needs?

5. Does free software play an important role in avoiding harm from the monopoly control over software products and platforms?

6. How much money do users save by using free software solutions?

7. Does free software make it easier for young people to learn about and contribute to the development of software?

Next, I would ask the Obama Administration to address certain policy questions relevant to procurement and government services:

8. Does government procurement policy recognize the benefits of free software solutions?

9. If so, do procurement policies encourage or discourage the supply and use of free software?

10. Does the Obama Administration recognize the strategic importance and value of interoperability and open standards in the software field?

11. Does the Obama Administration recognize the strategic importance of open standards for data formats?

12. Does the Administration have a strategy to support and promote interoperability and open standards, including open data formats? If so, what is this strategy?

13. To what extent can someone who uses free software fully interact with government agencies, such as by editing collaborative documents, using web based services, viewing multimedia content, or using government funded databases and services? Does the administration have a policy that e-government services should not compel citizens to use proprietary software?"

Grant Related Issues:

14. Does the federal Bayh-Dole Act provide the flexibility for the US government to insert appropriate conditions in grants that would increase public access to the software code developed under a government grant?

15. Should federal grants require recipients, when publishing or sharing data, to use open formats?

Competition Issues.[5]

16. Is the impact of a merger of the free software sector relevant to a proposed merger? For example, will the Obama Administration examine the impact of the Oracle acquisition of Sun on the future viability of MySQL, Java or OpenOffice?

17. Would an agreement among the owners of the two leading proprietary operating systems to not distribute software on the Linux platform be considered a violation of competition laws? If competition law is not a good tool to address such issues, what is?

18. Would an aggressive effort to break an open standard for data formats be considered a violation of competition law?

19. Should the dominant personal computing OS be required to offer a fair choice for Internet browsers?

Patent issues.

20. Should there be a zone of fair use for software patents when used in free software projects?

A lot of these issues are technical, but the issues are quite important economically and socially. The trick is to make these geeky issues political enough that politicians engage.


[1]Yoachi Benkler, Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm, 112 Yale L.J (2002); Yoachi Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press 2006). Eben Moglen, "Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright," First Monday (August, 1999)

[2] Richard Stallman's work is often available at or Eric S Raymond's most well known work is "The cathedral and the bazaar: Musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary", 2001, O'Reilly & Associates. Bruce Perens work is available here:


[4] The term Linux is often used as a generic term for Unix-like computer operating systems based on the Linux kernel. As noted by Wikipedia, "Their development is one of the most prominent examples of free and open source software collaboration; typically all the underlying source code can be used, freely modified, and redistributed by anyone under the terms of the GNU GPL and other free licenses." Richard Stallman and many others use the term GNU/Linux, to remind people of the importance of the many GNU GPL contributions.

[5] For the views of an influential person in the Free Software community, see George Greve's Considerations on Innovation and Competition Policy, A paper providing input to the workshop "Technical Regulation of the Internet : From Standardization to Behavorial and Societal Norms,, Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE),