Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats

People sometimes ask me why I’m so adamant that Wikipedia must always use free software, even when in some cases it might be the case that proprietary software might be more convenient or better suited for some particular need that we have.

After all, the argument goes, our primary mission is to produce free knowledge, not to promote free software, and whlie we might prefer free software on practical grounds (since it is generally best of breed for webserving applications), we should not be sticklers about it.

I believe this argument is seriously mistaken, and not on merely practical grounds, but on grounds of principle. Free knowledge requires free software. It is a conceptual error to think about our mission as being somehow separate from that.

What is free knowledge? What is a free encyclopedia? The essence is something that anyone who understands free software can immediately grasp. A free encylopedia, or any other free knowledge, can be freely read, without getting permission from anyone. Free knowledge can be freely shared with others. Free knowledge can be adapted to your own needs. And your adapted versions can be freely shared with others.

We produce a massive website filled with an astounding variety of knowledge. If we were to produce this website using proprietary software, we would place potentially insurmountable obstacles in front of those who would like to take our knowledge and do the same thing that we are doing. If you need to get permission from a proprietary software vendor in order to create your own copy of our works, then you are not really free.

For the case of proprietary file formats, the situation is even worse. It could be argued, though not persuasively I think, that as long as Wikimedia content can be loaded into some existing free software easily enough, then our internal use of proprietary software is not so bad. For proprietary formats, even this seductive fallacy does not apply. If we offer information in a proprietary or patent-encumbered format, then we are not just violating our own commitment to freedom, we are forcing others who want to use our allegedly free knowledge to themselves use proprietary software.

Finally, we should never forget as a community that we are the vanguard of a knowledge revolution that will transform the world. We are the leading edge innovators and leaders of what is becoming a global movement to free knowledge from proprietary constraints. 100 years from now, the idea of a proprietary textbook or encyclopedia will sound as quaint and remote as we now think of the use of leeches in medical science.

Through our work, every single person on the planet will have easy low cost access to free knowledge to empower them to do whatever it is that they want to do. And my point here is that this is not some idle fantasy, but something that we are already accomplishing. We have become one of the largest websites in the world using a model of love and co-operation that is still almost completely unknown to the wider world. But we are becoming known, and we will be known, for both our principles and achievements — because it is the principles that make the achievements possible.

Toward that end, it should be a strong point of pride to us that the Wikimedia Foundation always uses free software on all computers that we own, and that we always put forward our best effort to ensure that our free knowledge really _is_ free, in that people are not forced to use proprietary software in order to read, modify, and redistribute it as they see fit.

7 comments on “Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats

  1. In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted we have fudged it on occasion, e.g. using Java while it was still on the way to being fully GPL, or using Solaris 10 on the image server *blush* But the principle is kept to.

  2. Pingback: » Quick Takes

  3. Pingback: At what level Open? Walking the walk or being a fanatic? « Lost In Open Source

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