Information Technology Wants to Be Free

Jonathan A. Poritz

Department of Mathematics and Physics
Colorado State University, Pueblo
2200 Bonforte Blvd.
Pueblo, CO 81001 USA

Colorado State University — Pueblo
College of Science and Math
Food For Thought Colloquium
25 September 2014





If you are coming to this page after missing the talk itself, there is a video available at the bottom of this page. I would suggest starting the video and then following along with this page while listening to the audio, since an enormous amount was said which is only suggested in this presentation page.
[Perhaps some day I will make a screencast which uses the live audio, follows along at the right spots on this page, and makes the same excursions to other web sites I made during the live presentation....]


The original motivation for this presentation, or at least for me to be invited to speak, is two things I've been involved in recently.

  1. An on-line math homework system, competitor to things like MyMathLab from the publisher Pearson, about which I took a summer course given by the Mathematical Association of America:
  2. A textbook I used last semester. The obvious choice would have been to use the quite good, but somewhat closed, forbidding (in its immobile closedness), and expensive book I'd used in the past when teaching Number Theory:
    But instead I used a book I wrote, and whose openness I guaranteed by giving it away.


Q: What doandhave in common?
A: They both come out of the Free Software Movement.
     (in a certain sense)


Some linguistic background for the terminology I will use:

  cost = $0 unencumbered
IT: gratislibero
FR: gratuitlibre
DE: kostenlosfrei
Free/Libre Open-Source Software


The standard quip here is that we mean

Free as in Speech, Not as in Beer [or Pizza].

(This is due to Richard Stallman, about whom more later.)


Another important technical term which is hidden int that "FLOSS": Source [code]

/* Hello World program */


    printf("Hello World");
in the language C. There are many others. [E.g., here is the famous Hello World program in a language called Brainfuck:
Which is really an elaborate inside joke.]


Source code is run through a compiler to produce a binary/executable file. Which computers like but humans don't — look at one.


The difficulty in trying to make money selling software: preventing copying.

Technical attempts involve distributing only the binary, which incorporates some form of DRM [="Digital Restrictions Management"].


Hardware identities, spoofing, sandboxing, trusted paths.

It's about control. Who controls your machine, your software, and your data.


Current neo-liberal ideology would describe all of this as the following tension:

coders who want to earn a living
innovative companies
engines of the economy
job creators
the good guys
        vs         hackers
data pirates
the bad guys


But, particularly in this room, the economic argument for closed-source should be obviously ridiculous.

For example, do you, my academic colleagues, think that I should I have my students sign an

Calculus End User Agreement

Any student in Poritz's Calculus II may use the method Integration by Parts so long as they remain enrolled at an accredited four-year institution of higher education. Immediately upon graduating from such an institution, said student must cease and desist from using IbP in any context whatsoever. ["U-substitution", however, is considered a basic human right by the United Nations and so is not restricted in any way by this license.]

For an additional annual fee of $500, graduates may purchase an employed person's Calculus license, which permits up to up to 17 [seventeen] uses of IbP per annum. Of particular interest to graduates in STEM fields is also the CalculusPRO® license which costs $1000/year and allows 50 uses of IbP and unlimited trigonometric substitutions in each and every year!


[Maybe that first clause is too generous: we might improve student retention if it read instead " long as they remain enrolled at a campus of the Colorado State University System." Should I propose this to our Provost or BoG?]


Likewise, perhaps chemists and biologists should start publishing papers without a Methods section, unless an extra fee is paid, or mathematicians should likewise embargo the proofs of their new published theorems without particular financial recompense.


Actually, the philosophical (ethical!) argument motivated some of pioneers of the FSM, particularly Richard Stallman




Stallman started the GNU project and wrote the GNU General Public License, which is now in version GPLv3. These licenses are called viral by detractors.


Fruits of this movement:


FLOSS tends to be more efficient, more reliable, and more secure than unfree software: e.g., there are around 100,000 known Windows viruses in the wild, but probably fewer than a dozen known for GNU/Linux. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Virus writers are more drawn to Windows, since it is a larger target.
  2. The fundamental security model which underlies Windows is quite different from that which underlies GNU/Linux, in a way quite that makes a lot of sense in the context of the control issues we've been discussing:
  3. The FLOSS community, for historical, political, and emotional reasons, contains many who are very concerned (not to say paranoid) about security and privacy. These individuals have written FLOSS software to support their concerns and of course given them out to the community for peer review, customization, and free (as in speech and beer) adoption. In fact, the overwhelming majority of computer security and cryptography academics use and write FLOSS, providing a solid intellectual foundation to the FLOSS tools in this area.

This is not to say FLOSS is perfect! (Nothing on this mortal plane is....) E.g., the recent Heartbleed bug was in a piece of FLOSS software called OpenSSL.

But generally FLOSS is far superior software: this should come as no surprise in this room, since all of those eyes reading the source code are essentially doing continual, ongoing peer review. (We believe in peer review, don't we?) E.g., a recent back door was found that someone had submitted to the Linux kernel by vigilant readers of that open source code; so it was not allowed out in the official version — who is creating or looking for back doors in commercial software?


Which brings us back to the issue of control and forward to some very current events.


Final plug for open textbooks

The FSM and GPL also inspired Lawrence Lessig, an intellectual-property lawyer at Stanford, to found an organization called the Creative Commons and to make viral licenses for no-software [digital] materials. This license is sometimes call copyleft.

There are now more than half a billion CC licensed works which can be found all over the Web, for example at the Wikimedia Commons.


Now, why should my students be paying $130.62 for a textbook about number theory which is filled with theorems (so, ideas, and ideas cannot be copyrighted) which are mostly more than a hundred years old. And why should my calc II students pay $214.09 for a textbook? The first calculus textbook was published in 1696 (written by L'Hospital, he of the famous Rule) — while it would be ridiculous to assign this to my students, it is hard to believe that this aren't other calculus textbooks from the last 300 years which would be, like L'Hospital's, in the public domain (so: cheap!), and would also be modern enough to be useful to my students.


Here's a nice future to imagine:

  1. Before every semester starts, in most classes (at least in math, maybe in STEM, maybe more widely in the university...), the instructor would go to a central repository and download a bunch of copyleft chapters on the subject they would teach.
  2. Simple tools would enable the materials to be put together easily, with the instructor's desired emphasis, examples, special topics, etc.
  3. If the instructor wished a topic for which there was no existing material in the repository, or wished to use a novel presentation approach, or wanted new examples or problems or applications, she would use simple tools to write those new sections and to incorporate them into the bespoke textbook under construction.
  4. During the semester, the students could read the textbook online entirely for free, or could purchase an on-demand printed hard copy for a few dollars.
  5. At the end of the semester, anything newly created this time would be uploaded back to the repository, under a Creative Commons license, for others to use in the future.


I don't want to prevent authors (professors) from charging for new books on new topics or topics never before described in a particular way. I do want to save my students thousands of dollars, and I want never to see a story like this one again.

When total US student debt exceeds $2trillion and we professors have the technology (almost!) to make better, customized, (essentially) zero-cost textbooks for many of our classes, I cannot justify our inaction.


Early FSM and CC activists loudly declaimed

Information Wants to Be Free.

I assert that, at least in a university (although probably everywhere in a free society), we should stand on the principle



Information Technology Wants to Be Free



Remember, this is the "free as in speech" meaning of that word — how much it costs is a different issue... maybe I should change my proposed slogan to


Information Technology Wants to Be Libre


[although as a thing to chant on the street in our assembled thousands, it looses some of its punch when you have to stop to explain that last word.]
Whatever the slogan is, the take-away for a university, at the very least, is

Every time we buy a piece of commercial software or e-mail a Microsoft Word document to a student (or colleague), or require our students to buy an expensive textbook when there exists a free alternative, we are violating the foundational ethic of what we do as scholars and educators, and not even getting a better product for it. We should stop these violations immediately.






This presentation was filmed and can be seen here:









Some of the things I would have liked to have time to talk about: