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The Car Analogy

By Tal Schechter: Free Software FoundationWhat if buying a new car were like using nonfree software? While the following example may seem a little far-fetched, it is a pretty good analogy to understand the importance of user freedoms in software.

Imagine going out to buy a new car. After deciding on a brand, you go to that dealer and start looking at what they have to offer. You decide on a model you like, and the salesman tries to sell you on all sorts of things you don’t need and some things that really you are not sure about. Undercoating? Is that necessary? After making an agreement with the dealer, you are handed your key.

You opted out of the trunk-use charge. While there is a trunk built-in to the car, they were trying to charge you extra to get a copy of that key. ‘I don’t really need a trunk,’ you think. ‘I’ll add it later if I feel I’m missing it.’

Upon opening the door, you find a huge pile of papers attached to the clipboard on the front seat. The first page states, “Thank you for your purchase of a new Nonfree Car. We hope you enjoy it for many years to come. By unlocking and opening the door, you have implicitly agreed to every term in these contracts. Please peruse them at your leisure.” Outraged, you return to the salesman’s desk. “What do you mean I have implicitly agreed to these? Aren’t I supposed to read contracts before signing?” He responds that everyone found the contracts to be an inconvenience, and to allow a higher level of customer satisfaction, they are signed for you. Satisfied with this answer, you take your shiny new car home.

A few months go by without a hitch, and you generally love that car. When driving one day, you hop on the highway. You love the sound the car makes when you rev that engine. Wait a second, you can’t seem to go above 55 miles per hour! You hear a computerized voice say, “Due to a required firmware safety-update, you can not accelerate above fifty-five miles per hour. Enjoy your drive.” You shrug your shoulders and think, “Well, it’s for safety. There could be worse things.” You get off at your exit, and go home.

The next morning during your commute, you notice some funny noises coming from beneath the hood. You have a friend who is really good with cars, so you ask if she can help you out after work. When she sees your car, she tells you, “Nope. Can’t do anything for you. This is one of those Nonfree Cars. I can’t even open the hood.”

So you bring it to your mechanic, and they do not even bother with charging you a diagnostic fee. “Sorry, sir. This is a Nonfree Car. Even if I had the right tools, I can’t even open the hood lock, let alone fix what might be wrong with it. It’s against the law.” Dismayed, you go back to the dealer to ask, “What’s the deal?”

After waiting for a while, finally a service representative calls your name. You explain the noise the car is making and all the steps you have gone through in order to get it serviced. She explains that because the Nonfree name has such a great image, they don’t allow just anyone to service their cars. You have to be trained and accredited. You ask to see the contracts you signed. One of them states that the addition of any third-party, non-approved parts, will void your warranty. You ask the representative what this applies to, and she says that even painting your car a different color without approval from the dealership would void the warranty.

Your car goes into the dealer’s repair shop. They charge you a diagnostic fee, as well as an “accredited repair license surcharge.” They call you up to pick up your car, and they say they found nothing wrong. You get the car back, and it still makes that unnerving noise. You ask the mechanic and he says, “Oh, well some Nonfree Cars just make that noise. It’s nothing to worry about.”

While this story may seem ridiculous, it is exactly what happens when a person chooses to use nonfree software. You choose the software that best fits your needs, and sometimes a salesperson will help you out. You agree to a contract that you probably did not read, or sometimes you even implicitly agree to the terms by using the software. You use the softare. However, you can only use the software in ways that the publisher agrees with (driving, in our analogy). When the software malfunctions, or even when you want to make something better, there is nowhere to go except to the publisher of the software. You cannot go to a friend who is good with computers. You cannot go to a company to have them fix it for you. You must go to the developer. When you bring your problem to their attention, they may say, “We can fix that for you.” They may say, “We will think about adding that in our next release.” Or they may (probably) say, “That’s a feature of the program, there is nothing to fix.”

Free software, on the other hand, promotes user freedoms. Free software is defined as: software that you can use for any purpose (driving, paper weight, art, etc.); software wherein you have the freedom to study it and change it if you wish with access to the source code (pop the hood and look at what’s inside, repair or modify in any way you see fit); software that can be redistributed; and software where you can improve the program and release your improvements (add an active hood scoop and turbo-charger, and put the plans for doing so on your favorite modding site).

We don’t accept infringement on our freedoms when buying a car, so why should we with software?

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