Freeware, Free Software and the Corona Virus Crisis – Choose your tools wisely!

[ Original @ Free Software Foundation Europe ]

Cheering on doctors and nurses, sewing face-masks, donating gloves and disinfectant gel, building respirators, running errands for elderly neighbours. Everybody wants to contribute to alleviate the dramatic situations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The software industry is trying to do its part by giving users access to trial versions of proprietary programs. But, before you go ahead and take advantage of this generosity, you may want to read the fine print. What looks like a great relief today, might turn into a burden tomorrow.

Of course, everybody appreciates all contributions, anything that can help overcome the crisis together. But you should be wary of offers coming from proprietary software vendors. Among self-employed workers, home office programs (word processors, spreadsheets, databases) are in great demand, for example. But be careful with what you choose: Once the crisis is over, you may wake up to a stringent vendor lock-in, with unexpected costs and other problems attached.

The same goes for companies asking employees to work from home. The solutions they choose to overcome the challenges of remote working can causes problems which will backfire in the future, once the crisis has passed.

It is understandable that software companies, many of which are under a great pressure themselves, would try to lure new customers in this way. But you must ask yourself if what is in most cases just a marketing strategy, will be helpful for you in the long run. Proprietary software companies are peddling freeware programs, limited both in time and usability. They offer no way of adapting the solutions to your needs, no permissions to modify and improve the tools, and legal penalties if you share them with others. You can only use the tool for limited purposes and you are not allowed to study the code. Freeware grants you none of the four freedoms of Free Software, to use, study, share and improve the software.

What’s more, your colleagues and employees may get used to this software, build their workflow upon it, and then will find it difficult to switch to another solution in a couple of months time when the crisis is over. The application you choose may also be part of larger suite, forcing you to acquire and license software you don’t need once the offer is rescinded. You may also be stuck with data locked to closed applications, making it difficult to switch vendor later on. What looks helpful today can be expensive and a hassle to deal with tomorrow. We strongly advise you carefully decide which software you choose.

Because many proprietary programs can be replaced with Free Software solutions that adhere to Open Standards, you can run your software in a way that fits your needs, without having to worry about additional and unpredictable costs down the road. If you need a new solution today, take a solution which is also good for you tomorrow and choose Free Software. Take advantage of your rights to use, study, share and improve the software, at any time, during or after the crisis.

Checklist for your solution:

Even if a tool is advertised as Free Software, check that it really is. Some software companies have no scruples in calling their products Free Software, even when they aren’t with the sole purpose of gaining new customers.

Ask yourself: “Is it really Free Software? – Can I use, study, share and improve the software without any restrictions?” Check the licence. If in doubt, get in touch with the FSFE licence team and ask if the tool you are considering is a Free Software solution.

Here you can learn more about the concept of Free Software.

Here are some tips on what you should look for when looking for Free Software
  • Is the software offered for free, but time-limited? – It is not a Free Software. It is very likely you will have to pay fees for using the software after the crisis.
  • Can the software only be used for some workstations / by a limited number of users? – It is not a Free Software. It is very likely that you will have to pay fees for using the software for the workstations you are now using for free in the near future.
  • Is the application provided free of charge only for businesses? – It is not a Free Software. It is very likely that you will have to pay fees after the crisis to continue using this software.
  • Is the word “trial” included in the description of the software? – It is not a Free Software. After the trial period, you will have to pay full fees to use the tool.
  • Is the software only available for hospitals, schools or other specific sectors? – It is not a Free Software. It is freeware only for certain industries and it is very likely that these industries will have to pay for it some day.
  • Does it say you can win a license? – It is not a Free Software. Even if you are one of the lucky winners, you will not be able to adapt the software to your needs. Also, you will incur in unexpected costs when you want to update to a new or higher version of the tool.
  • Do the creators say they will make the tool open source? – It is not (currently) Free Software. Be careful with promises! The creators may only free parts of the software and might stop supporting the tool with updates soon. This will force you to upgrade to a new, non-Free version.

These times are also hard for charity organisations like the FSFE. They work to empower users to control technology. They have been fighting for users’ rights since 2001 and they remain independent thanks to the help of donors and supporters. To remain an independent voice for Free Software, the FSFE depends on your donations. With your financial support, you contribute to strengthen the foundation upon which the FSFE can build its work for freedom in the information society.

[ Original @ Free Software Foundation Europe ]