Free Software and the Early Church

First, I will provide a brief definition of each these type of software; and then I will compare them with the early Church.

This guest post is by Casey Callaghan, a computer programmer from South Africa. Casey can be reached by email at caseyc37@gmail.com

The early Church, in the time shortly after the Ascension of Jesus, was a place of generosity and sharing – the early believers shared all they had, and none found himself lacking in necessities. This is well illustrated by Acts 4, verse 32 to 35:

“The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all. There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned fields or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale, and turn it over to the apostles; and the money was distributed according to the needs of the people.”

Of course, they did not at that time have access to software of any kind; but let us consider the different types of software that are available today, and compare them against the generosity of that early spiritual mindset.

There are a great variety of software types available for use today, with many shadings and gradations. Proprietary software is a well-known and well-marketed type; free software is becoming very popular in certain areas; and some pieces of software are licensed in a way that allows them to be shared, but also allows modified versions of the software to be released in a proprietary form.

First, I will provide a brief definition of each of these types of software; and then I will compare them with the early Church.

Proprietary software can be defined as that software which is rented out by a company for a lump sum. The source code is generally not provided; users of proprietary software are generally warned in strenuous terms not to give it to anyone else, except under very narrow conditions; the aim being so that the company that provides the software can continue to profit by selling it to others. An example of such software are the Microsoft Windows, OS X and iOS operating systems.

Free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation is software which embodies four essential freedoms:

  • the freedom to run the program for any purpose
  • the freedom to study and to modify the program (requiring access to the necessary source code)
  • the freedom to redistribute the program
  • and the freedom to redistribute modified copies of the program to others

One common way in which to enforce this definition is to use the GNU General Public License, or GPL. An example of such software is the Linux operating system.

Public domain software is released without license encumbrances of any sort; BSD-style licensed software is released with a license requiring only attribution and a disclaimer of warranty. Such software can be used for any purpose, including adding it to either free or proprietary codebases at any point in time. An example of such software is the FreeBSD operating system.

PROPRIETARY SOFTWARE

Most proprietary software is protected from redistribution by various legal threats; fines and jail time may be threatened for redistributors. Many of the early Apostles were no strangers to jail time; they were often imprisoned, and would have been quite willing to face further jail time for something that they felt was right. I personally suspect that they would not have risked jail time for the unauthorised distribution of software – the longer that they were free, the more time they could spend in spreading God’s message.

However, in the case of most proprietary software, it is technically possible to share it by letting someone else use the installation discs (though this is illegal in many places, and software companies are finding ways to prevent it).

Though such software can be shared between large groups, it has a flaw in that it cannot generally be improved; in order to obtain an improved version of the software, one has to wait for the authors to release one. And should the company go out of business and all copies of the source code be lost, further improvements are impossible; the only way to get an improved version at that point is for someone to re-create the original software with improvements.

FREE SOFTWARE

In this case, (where “Free” means “free as in freedom, not free/gratis as in free beer!”) the ability to redistribute the software at will is guaranteed. Though there may still be restrictions involved in some countries (e.g. export controls) these restrictions are not imposed by the software license, but rather by external agencies.

Unlike proprietary software, free software can be improved on by anyone who knows how to make improvements. As an added bonus, access to the source code gives a student an example to learn from, to teach him or her how to write code and therefore how to make improvements.

A common free software license, the GNU GPL, requires that any modified versions of software released under the GPL be also released under the GPL. This is an intentional feature of the license; should someone wish to incorporate a GPL text-editing library in a program, forcing that program to also use the GPL increases the amount of software released under the GPL.

PUBLIC DOMAIN AND BSD-STYLE LICENSES

Such software can be used, modified, and redistributed at will – under any license. It can therefore be folded into a free or proprietary software product at will, in which case the comments under those sections will apply. The biggest difference between this software and free software is that free software cannot be legally included in a proprietary system; public domain and BSD-licensed software can be.

CONCLUSION

Software is unique in that it can be given and retained at the same time – we can both have our cake and eat it. Given this, the generous, sharing spirit of the early Church is only a sensible response; and free software, public-domain software and BSD-licensed software make this an easy option to exercise. Though many people are unskilled in improving software, those who are skilled can make continual improvements and share these with everyone else, to the benefit of all.