WikiEducator:Libre Software

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Free Software

Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program's users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The problem is

Proprietary software
On account of the dominance of a few major players in the software industry, many are first exposed to a proprietary operating system, and because everyone else uses it, assume that that is all there is and there are no ethical issues involved with using it.
Indeed it is very difficult to purchase a computer without an operating system as nearly all retailers only sell computers with a proprietary operating system pre-installed[1].
The licences of these systems dictate behaviours contrary to the basic value that sharing is good.
Again, because everyone seems to accept those licenses, people assume that there are no ethical principles at stake. Alternatives are not available or even discussed. Names of particular proprietary software packages become common nouns referring to generic types of application such spreadsheets, word processors and even operating systems.
Mindsets have developed which exclude the possibility of alternatives and people remain unaware of the excellent alternatives[2] and their freedom of choice.
The problem is compounded by monopolistic behaviours of some companies which make it very difficult for people to exercise freedom of choice even if they have the awareness[3]. One of these is not supporting free and open standard file formats.
Associated ideas perpetuate mindsets and the problem: "intellectual property"[4], software patents, etc.[5].

The ethical choice

Which software you use is an ethical choice.

Choosing to use libre software, also known as free software (free as in "free speech") gives you the freedom to

  1. help yourself
    • there are no restrictions on how or for what purposes you may use the software, and
    • the source code is available, so you can learn about how the software works, and you are free to change it to suit your needs
  2. help your neighbour
    • there are no restrictions on making copies and sharing the software with friends and neighbours
  3. help the community
    • you are free to share your modified versions of the software so that the whole community may benefit from your changes.

These freedoms are core principles for developing good citizens of a strong, capable, independent, cooperating and free society[6].

By choosing to use and support libre software in the context of contemporary education, where learning resources are easily shared electronically, you can be sure that learners around the world will be able to access the learning resources and enjoy the same freedoms to help each other gain access to knowledge.

As a matter of principle, all learning resources should be accessible and editable with libre software. Producing and sharing learning resources which are not has the following consequences, which are most severe for the very people who need your help as an educator the most.

Consequences of not making the ethical choice

Choosing to use non-free software[7] yourself for convenience is one thing, but forcing this choice upon others by producing learning resources which require non-free software to be fully experienced has consequences for learners:

  • Learners who cannot afford the non-free software or who have made the ethical choice to use only libre software on principle will not be able to access your learning resources.
  • Learners will be required to purchase licenses for non-free software.
    • For many, the costs are prohibitive (see for example Ghosh 2003[8] on relative costs in developing countries).
    • Even if this non-free software is donated, the learners will have to pay eventually[9] when the license expires or the agreement comes to an end, and
    • they will not have the freedom to help their neighbours or communities by sharing the software or adapting it to make it usable in the local context.
      • Not having the freedom to copy, adapt and share software to help friends and neighbours conflicts with the cultural values of most communities.
  • Learners will feel pressured to help each other gain access to the knowledge (paradoxically) by sharing non-free software which includes conditions which contradict the spirit of sharing.
  • Many people will simply not be able to access the knowledge.
    • Let's hope this does not happen in cases where having the knowledge could save lives[10].

WikiEducator's justification for compromising


The majority of teachers around the world have lost their freedom regarding software choices. They are forced to use non-free software by virtue of their employment contracts where employers and Ministries of Education dictate what software is to be used. In many schools, teachers do not have admin privileges to download software including codecs to play free and open file formats on non-free software or to download free software browsers with native support for free and open formats.

A bigger concern is how the OER movement may result in restricting the freedoms of learners - hence the WikiEducator policy on free cultural works licensing which includes a requirement for a version to be available in a free and open file format. Sadly, as in the case of educators, learners may not have the freedom to access materials by virtue of decisions made by the School, Boards of Trustees or Governments.

i.e. the non-free software that the learners and educators are required to use wont play media files in free and open formats[12].

WikiEducator compromises by allowing Flash files (whose format specifications are controlled by one company which supplies non-free software to render the files) to be included on WikiEducator pages, so that such restricted educators and students may also experience rich multimedia learning experiences with non-free software.

Using Richard Stallman's example of when faced with the ethical dilemma to help a friend by making an unauthorized copy or uphold non-free licensing arrangements, it is better to accept the lessor of two evils and to make an unauthorized copy. We do not wish to deny access to free cultural works and we do our best to respect the free choices of others including the use of non-free software.

Sadly, as a fledgling Foundation we simply do not have the financial resources to remain true to all our values. However, we are doing our best at educating educators about the issues. You can't fight for freedom if you don't know what freedom is. So we try to meet people where they are at - insofar as we can. We don't permit the upload of closed document formats on the site. However, rich media is a problem - and we don't have an affordable or acceptable solution yet.

Towards freedom to learn for all

The policy of accepting files in non-free formats is reversible and it is hoped that it will be reversed at some stage. One step in this direction (an invitation to programmers) is to implement a web service (or extension to MediaWiki) to convert files automatically so that all learning resources are seamlessly available in free and open file formats.

We encourage users of WikiEducator to stay true to our values by only uploading (and including links to) learning resources in free file formats which may be viewed, played and edited with libre software, unless they have no choice as mandated by their institutions. Where the latter applies, we urge these restricted educators and learners to lobby[13] within their institutions for free and open file formats and the use of libre software.

How to make the change

See: Migration to Libre Software

See Also


  1. There are exceptions. See: List of open source computer hardware suppliers.
  2. See for example List of free and open source software packages and List of software products.
  3. See for example Windows refund, Criticisms of Apple Inc. and Criticism of Microsoft.
  4. Did You Say “Intellectual Property”? It's a Seductive Mirage
  5. See Words to Avoid (or Use with Care) Because They Are Loaded or Confusing.
  6. Why Schools Should Exclusively Use Free Software
  7. The term "non-free" refers to software licensed in a way which prohibits users to help their neighbours and community by sharing and adapting the software. Typically such software is available for a price and the source code is not available which means it may include anti-features, spyware or various forms of malware.
  8. Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. 2003. Open Source Software: the case for developing countries. South Centre Intellectual Property Briefing: “Utilising Open Collaborative Models to Develop Public Goods”, Geneva, Nov. 3, 2003.
  9. A tactic employed by some non-free software companies is to hook people while they are young creating a demand by limiting awareness of and desire for alternatives.
  10. This applies to knowledge about health care for example, or situations requiring knowledge urgently; see for example When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
  11. This section includes minimally edited input from Wayne MackIntosh.
  12. This situation is linked to the desire of prominent players in the media and software industries to control culture and software users. They are clinging to outmoded business models of selling non-rivalrous goods as if they were rivalrous (creating artificial scarcity).
  13. For ideas on how to go about this see: FLOSSAdvocacy and Advocacy of libre knowledge.