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As the use of computer systems has increased radically in modern society, the significance of software has risen to high levels. This significance has led some researchers to acclaim software as the building blocks of modern day society.
The increased importance of software has led to the growth of a very lucrative software industry that develops and sells software to users. Software giants such as Microsoft and IBM have made billions of dollars over the years through software sales.
This commercialization of software has been opposed by some developers who feel that software should be available to every person without charges.
The idea of free software was first articulated by the programmer Stallman in 1980 who wrote a Manifesto that proclaimed that “software should be free of charge, and give everyone the unrestricted right to learn from it, use it, change and distribute it” (Pfaffman 2008, p.25).
Free software advocates regard software as a public good that should be freely available to all. Arguments have been made that commercialization of software benefits a few while depriving many off the chance to enjoy the benefits that software could provide.
This paper will argue that all software should be available for download free of charge to all users in order for the society to reap the benefits attributed to its usage.
Arguments in Support of Free Software
Innovation and progress in the software sector will grow exponentially if all software is made available free of charge. The commercialization of software has led to a dramatic increase in the patenting of new knowledge by companies (Stallman 2009).
This habit is in contrast to the community philosophy that was responsible for the invention of some of the greatest technologies such as the internet. Patents impose a burden on future innovation since a patent holder can charge other programmers who want to build on his/her concepts.
Free software encourages innovation and progress that leads to immense development in the field of computing. Schoonmaker (2007) observes that the free software community of the 1970s progressed because of this freedom up to the point where it was able to give the world the internet.
The popular web server software Apache has also grown because it is free. Feller (2005) confirms that because of the contributions of many users, Apache was able to become the strongest Web server software within a space of only four years.
By offering the software on the internet so that users could download it free of charge, Apache grew to become the most popular web server software, winning many industry awards for excellence.
Commercial software is partly to blame for the digital divide currently experienced. By definition, the digital divide refers to the gap between people with regard to their access to information and communication technologies.
Economic considerations have played an important role in creating and expanding this digital divide (Demaziere 2007). Low access to ICT is still closely correlated with the income levels of the members of the society.
The pricing of most software products is beyond the reach of the low-income groups. As a result, only the economically sound members of the society can afford these products and benefit from them.
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If software was available free of charge for all, every person could have the opportunity to benefit from it. Providing software free of charge will therefore assist in the reduction of the currently existing digital divide.
Pfaffman (2008) states that software is made more valuable when more people use it. If people are provided with software free of charge, they are empowered to develop skills and use them to increase their productivity.
The economic prosperity of many nations will be enhanced by making all software available free of charge. Unlike in the past when the economy was driven by physical resources, today’s economy is driven by information.
Conceicao (2009) declares that we are moving towards a knowledge economy where information systems play a pivotal role in the economic well-being of the nation.
In such future, the prosperity and sustainability of economies will depend on knowledge and information in an unprecedented way. The value associated with software will therefore be very great.
Countries whose citizenry have greater access to software will enjoy greater growth than their counterparts that have limited access. If software is still sold to people, not everyone will be able to benefit and the poorer nations will continue to lag in their economic growth.
Providing software free of charge will therefore benefit all nations since they will have a huge pool of informational resources.
Unavailability of free software causes some people to engage in the illegal activity of software piracy. Teston (2008) reveals that the primary motivation for most individuals who engage in software piracy is to revolt against the exorbitant pricing by software publishers.
Price considerations are especially of importance in low income countries. In many developing nations, the income per capita for individuals makes it impossible to purchase legitimate copies of software products such as Microsoft Windows or Symantec Antivirus.
Piracy is an illegal practice that might result in the imprisonment of the individuals who engage in this activity. In addition to this, piracy leads to people being provided with lower quality software.
If software was made available free of charge, people would not be forced to resort to illegal copying and distribution. Everybody will have a chance to get the best quality software without having to break any law.
Arguments against Free Software
The information technology sector has become one of the most important economic drivers of the County’s economy in the last 2 decades. Conceicao (2009) observes that the software industry has become a significant contributor of revenue for the government.
This monetary contribution can be expected to rise over the years as computer usage expands and more software products are developed and sold to both the local and the international market. If all software is made free for all users, the software industry will shrink with many negative implications.
To begin with, the decline of the software industry will led to the loss of jobs by the many people who are currently working in the industry. Subsequently, the economic growth of the country will deteriorate as more people join the unemployment list.
The county’s economy will further suffer from financial losses since the government will no longer be able to acquire the revenue that it currently obtains from taxation on the software industry.
While it is true that making all software free will damage the software industry, the economy will benefit from increased innovation as people exploit the software for productive means.
Opponents of free software argue that the software industry will not be able to sustain itself if software is provided free of charge to the users.
The software development industry is vast and it offers employment to hundreds of thousands of people who acts as developers, analysts, testers, and many other occupations.
Software development companies will not be able to employ people if they cannot make money by selling software to the users. Making all software free will potentially render the software industry unprofitable and this will lead to a shut down of many software firms.
Pfaffman (2008) observes that the idea that computer users have a right to download software free of charge is in direct opposition to the commonly perceived right of a software creator to restrict redistribution.
While it is true that the software companies relies on sales to ensure its survival, software production would still continue even without these companies.
Demaziere (2007) reveals that there are developers who are willing to dedicate their working time and knowledge to the production of software despite the fact that they are not going to benefit from their efforts.
Studies on free software development communities demonstrate that people are able to come up with marvel software products even when contributions are voluntary and not remunerated.
If software is provided free of charge, the consumers will suffer from a lack of many beneficial after sale services. For example, most proprietary software includes regular updates for the user.
In addition to this, users are provided with customer support services as well as free technical support that results in an enjoyable user experience. While it is true that bought software may come with free support, this support is not always guaranteed.
If the software vendor goes out of business, then the individual or organization will remain with their purchased software but without support. Free software also has support that is mostly in the form of posting in forums where other users with extensive experience offer help.
Schoonmaker (2007) contends that this form of support is comparable to what is received from commercial vendors.
Proponents of free software note that the imposed updates are malicious features that restrict the freedoms of the user. Free software would not have such restrictions since it respects the freedom of the user to do what they like with the software.
Opponents of free software argue that this software is more likely to be of inferior quality compared to commercial software since there is no financial incentive for the developers to come up with perfect products.
The quality of software is a very important factor since people are becoming more and more reliant on computers and software products. Selby (2007) warns that the economic prosperity of a country is going to be endangered if the society relies on systems that are dependent on fragile, unreliable, and insecure software.
It would therefore make sense for the nation to invest in the most robust and reliable software. Free does not mean low quality in software. The quality of free software equals and at times even exceeds that of commercial software. For example, Apache web server that is one of the most popular servers available is available free of charge.
The reason behind this is that the developers in the public domain are very motivated. In addition to this, free software is subject to intensive and excruciating peer review that results in the end product being of very high quality.
Discussion and Conclusion
The development of free software has experienced a boost over the past few years as more developers embrace the philosophy of free and open source software.
Free software has transitioned from the margins to the mainstream of society with largely the support of a network of active, individual coders (Zhu & Eschenfelder 2010).
The paper has revealed that free software is responsible for some of the most basic and widely used innovations and utilities including the internet. The proposal that all software should be provided free of charge is therefore not absurd since this practice has already been happening.
This paper set out to argue that all software should be available for download free of charge to all users.
To reinforce this claim, some major advantages that would be gained from making all software free have been discussed.
The paper has revealed that many prospective users are prevented from benefiting from software because of the expensive price tag. Giving software free of charge would lead to the economic empowerment of all nations.
The paper has shown that providing free software will not result in the decline in growth of the software industry; instead, it will promote innovation and cause an exponential growth of software products. Free software has continued to spread globally because of the efforts of its advocates.
As more people begin to consider software as a public good, it can be expected that more software products will be available for download free of charge. When this happens, the many benefits to be attained from making all software available free of charge will be enjoyed by everyone.
Conceicao, P 2009, Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy: Opportunities and Challenges for the Knowledge Economy, Greenwood Publishing Group, NY.
Demaziere, D 2007, “The Functioning of a Free Software Community: Entanglement of Three Regulation Modes – Control, Autonomous and Distributed”, Science Studies, 20 (2), 34-54.
Feller, J 2005, Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, MIT Press, Massachusetts.
Pfaffman, J 2008, Transforming High School Classrooms with Free/Open Source Software: It’s Time for an Open Source Software Revolution, The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina.
Schoonmaker, S 2007, “Globalization from Below: Free Software and Alternatives to Neoliberalism”, Development and Change, 38 (6): 999–1020.
Selby, W 2007, Software Engineering: Barry W. Boehm’s Lifetime Contributions to Software Development, Management, and Research, John Wiley & Sons, Georgia.
Stallman, R 2009, “Why ‘Open Source’ Misses the Point of Free Software, Communications of the ACM, 52 (6), 31-33.
Teston, G 2008, “Software Piracy among Technology Education Students: Investigating Property Rights in a Culture of Innovation”, Journal of Technology Education, 20 (1): 12-22.
Zhu, X & Eschenfelder KR 2010, “Social construction of authorized users in the digital age”, College & Research Libraries, 71 (1):548–68.