Intellectual property laws make free/libre/open source software hard to use

Many reviews of free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) comment about how it doesn’t pay multimedia correctly or it doesn’t interact with the most common file formats. What is missing from these reviews is any comment about the legal and political hurdles which face the FLOSS community. There are legal and political reasons that GNU/Linux hasn’t conquered a sizable portion of the desktop market, and it isn’t just the fault of the “tinkers” and “enthusiastists” that GNU/Linux doesn’t “just work” for the average user.

First of all, Fedora, Freedows, OpenSuSE, Debian and all the other distributions which are true FLOSS distributions will never be able to “just work” as long as they can’t legally include proprietary codecs like mp3, mpeg, avi and essential bits like Adobe’s Flashplayer and SUN’s Java.

The ridiculous intellectual property laws which make it legally impossible to reverse engineer a codec are a much bigger barrier than the attitudes of the ethnusiasts who like to tinker. Yes the command line tools are there for the enthusiasts, but almost all the major distributions include a very easy GUI which aren’t any harder to use than the MS Windows GUI.

Look at the Ubuntu interface. Can you honestly tell me that it is harder to use or harder to understand than MS Windows? Is it any harder to alter the background screen, change your keyboard, set your clock, change the volumn settings? It is only harder because you are more accustomed to the Windows’ design than the Ubuntu design. But for a new user who has no preconceptions, the Windows interface isn’t any easier than Ubuntu’s. Look at FireFox and OpenOffice. Can you honestly say that they are any less user friendly than Internet Explorer and MS Office? Yes, some applications like the GIMP are more difficult than their proprietary competitors, but the applications that the majority of users need on a daily basis aren’t any more difficult to use.

Why is GNU/Linux hard to use? It isn’t the enthusiasts who are making it hard to use. The reason that GNU/Linux is harder to use is because it doesn’t play my favorite CDs and my favorite DVDs when I stick them in the optical drive. It doesn’t show my favorite websites because Flash and Java don’t work properly. When I plug in my USB modem and my USB wireless receiver, they fail to run. When I want to play my favorite game, the 3D doesn’t work on my nVidia or my ATI graphics card. These things don’t work because we have let large corporations take away our rights through intellectual property laws.

Until we get organized to fight these laws, these things will never work. Until we can legally reverse engineer proprietary codecs without fear of patents and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, we will never have a FLOSS operating system that “just works”.

There is another reason why all your favorite hardware doesn’t “just work.” The Bush administration pandered to a big campaign contributor and dropped the Justice Department’s suit against Microsoft with a slap on the wrist. Essentially the Bush administration has given Microsoft the go-ahead to continue using illegal monopolistic business practices which make it virtually impossible for the average buyer to find a computer without MS Windows loaded on it. Microsoft knows that it can continue twisting arms in the industry and threatening computer manufacturers if they dare to try and sell a desktop computer with GNU/Linux. When Microsoft can illegally threaten to cut off the 70% discount which it gives Dell, HP-Compaq, Gateway-eMachines, Sony, Acer, and every other big manufacturer, none of them will dare to sell a desktop machine with GNU/Linux. Since all the hardware manufacturers know that GNU/Linux will never be sold on machines at Best Buy or CompuUSA, why bother writing drivers or trying to support GNU/Linux. The FLOSS distributions will never “just work” until the US government starts to enforce its anti-trust laws. How do we get our government to act? We get organized politically and demand change.

So we can blather on about how difficult GNU/Linux is to use, but the reality is that it isn’t the fault of the FLOSS programmers or the enthusiasts who like to tinker. It’s our own fault, because we as Americans have become so politically slothful, that we have allowed special comercial interests to hijack the public interest.


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