To Free Or Not To Free

"Shut up and play your guitar"

(Frank Zappa)

Aside from humanistic and ethical aspects of free music software (also free software in general), which are being discussed throughout this site, we may still ask ourselves what is the point in musicians' messing-up with computer science? Shouldn't musicians concentrate on making music, developers on developing, sales people on selling and lawyers on taking care that each one gets one's lawful share? Why making a case out of something, where every one is supposed to do their jobs?

This is of course true up to the point of creativity having to eventually deal with restrictions which may have been implicitely imposed by the behaviour of commerce and industry. A computer is different from any other musician's tool for the fact that its hardware determines its function only up to a certein extent. For a musician, it can serve as a score editing tool, a tape recorder, a mixer and special effects processor, a tone generator, an algorithmic composition aid, or a concert instrument, or all of that. Computer music is also specific for the fact that a composer may not only write a piece of music but also a virtual instrument which performs this music on a single machine. This functionality mostly depends on software. As commercial software is made by companies which make money on it, the one who buys it must also have a commercial reason to buy it. The laws of the consumer market do not apply here. A good piece of commercial software also includes a support service and some free upgrades. Just take a look at the license agreement for using a commercial software you want to buy, and you'll see where you are. Should one get surprised upon running into a license which grants a user the privileges of paying a company a few hundred euros, without getting a guarantee that the product would even work ? Not at all, but would a professional find a point in buying such a product if there was a choice? A piece of hardware, let's say a tuning fork, would at least do something.

There are even cases on the market, where one can find exactly the same piece of software both for free and for $80,000. So where's the difference if they work exactly the same? In the kind of end user's license. The cost free version entitles the end user to install and run the software as is, and that's it. If it crashes and your costumers sue you for commercial damage, you can't blame it on the software company. The commercial license entitles the user to have 24 hours a day, seven days a week support strategy. Furthermore, the company will assist in the system optimization for mission crtitcal tasks. So it depends on the nature of end user's business which version of the software will be chosen...

There are however, intellectual activities which don't necesarilly have to do with business and commerce, such as research and education. Would it be so wise to let most of the technology and knowledge needed for research and education stay within the monopoly of commercial corporations? Even if such a company had sense for educational and academic clients, one is still running risk that, due to the laws of market economy, it may sooner or later fall into the hands of shareholders who neither have much interest in serving the education, nor supporting a specific technology which education may find vital for its function. There are a few bright pioneers among for-profit manufacturers worth mentioning, such as SGI or Sun Microsystems, who have invented revolutionary technologies such as OpenGL or JAVA and proven exceptional vitality and innovation for over quarter of a century. With all compliments and sincere wishes for long life, science and education still need sources and resources beyond the realm of market economy.

One of the possible answers lies in free software. By these terms it is not understood that it is only cost-free, but also open source, which means that a program is available not only in the format in which a machine can execute it, but also in the format in which a human can see and understand how it was written and possibly extend and improve upon it. One may call this anarchy, but it's an anrchy which has been provenly functioning for more than fifty years. Furthermore, such software must also be protected by adequate law mechanisms which guarantee it would also stay free, without running risk that it may occasionaly fall under restrictions of who knows what kind of commercial monopoly.

One may further argue that "free software is unpolished junk, so full of bugs that any serious person would find it worth nothing, and that's why it's still free". Whoever comes up with such an argument is completely missing the meaning of the term free software. As already written before, free software is also open source, and therefore available to millions of programmers all over the web which are willing to contribute, not only to those few paid full-time developers in a company.

If this is not enough, let's bring in a few examples. IBM has recently released and opened the Data Explorer, a scientific visualization program that used to cost over $8,000. How come that it's suddenly become "worth nothing"? Apple Computers, the most profitable single computer manufacturer in the world has released its "new, revolutionary operating system", the MacOSX (ten), built on top of a modified BSD UNIX core called Darwin, which is open source and free . Yet, commercial programs worth $100,000 work on it like they've never worked before. Furthermore, programs that would not even work on a Macintosh (like Alias|Wavefront MAYA - an industry standard program for making animated cartoons) before, now perform remarkably.

Here one also comes to the point about musicians and computers. To shut up or not to shut up? Less than five years ago, a representative of a well known computer manufacturer tried to lure a music department of a famous university into signing a non-disclosure agreement for joint-developing some sort of commercial multi-media software that was not even the primary interest of that music department. The representative's argument was: "Well if the importance of media in computer business is like a flea on a hair of a dog, than computer music is like a bacteria on a flea on a hair of a dog, so if you join us we may change that." The head of that music department had courage to say no, and radically insist in pursuing the path of developing open source music software. By now, the movement of developing free audio and music software has reached the number of a few hundred products, including a completely free multimedia open source distribution, the DeMuDi, which stands for Debian Multimedia Distribution.

This is where one reaches the point of the main question, expoosing itself in it's true meaning: If even much of for-profit industry by now understands there is a point in seeking for foundation stability within the "anarchy of free software" what are the chances for issues more fundamental than making profit, such as research, education and democracy? How much sensitivity, understanding, initiative, resources and obligation can a society and its institutions dedicate to promote the free software issue? Not only in music, but also not excluding music. Here are some straight-forward answers:

  1. Programming is fun
  2. Knowledge is more powerful than ignorance
  3. Those things which are free somehow happen also to be invaluable

Is this not enough arguments to encourage reformulating this article's question into a better known form, that we all remember from a remarkable piece of drama literature:

To be or not to be?