The year 2000 problem (Y2K) has been made worse by restrictive licensing practices which are now common among software vendors, according to Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Free Software Foundation.
The Y2K problem mostly affects older software programs which use a two-digit date field instead of today's four-digit date field. Computer programs using a two-digit date field may not know whether "00" means 1900 or 2000, which could cause them to malfunction or shut down on Jan. 1, 2000.
Giving the opening keynote at the Singapore Linux conference on Saturday, Stallman said that free software -- in terms of freedom to use, modify and redistribute source code -- would have made the Y2K problem easier to handle.
"Users who bought proprietary software are now helpless in the face of Y2K because they never had the source code," he said. "You now see companies having to try and patch binaries and all sorts of terrible things. Proprietary software means proprietary support, where you have to wait for the vendor to give you an upgrade."
Stallman, whose GNU project provided much of the software which eventually became the Linux Unix-like operating system, said that the idea of proprietary software is relatively new, and is bad for both business and society as a whole.
"When you sign a software licensing agreement, you make yourself the prisoner of that software," he said. "Without the freedom to adapt software for your own needs, to help your neighbor by redistributing the software, and build the community by adding new features, you get caught in a horrible proprietary tyranny and lose your morale and enthusiasm," he added.
"One basis for society is that of helping your neighbor -- but in the software world this is piracy," Stallman said. "To prevent this, the U.S. is putting in place practices which are like those in the former Soviet Union -- computerized guards, propaganda in favor of licensing, rewards for informing on co-workers, and penalties which make distributing software as serious a crime as armed robbery."
Stallman said that proprietary software not only represents a restrictive regime, but that much of it is less functional than earlier collaborative software.
"MS-DOS gave people a strange idea of what an operating system (OS) was," he said. "OSes used to have lots of stuff included in them -- not just a kernel. No single company in the world can match the resources of an entire computing community."
Stallman's decision to start the GNU project in 1984 to develop free software came about when he considered the alternative of writing proprietary software, he said.
"I would have been able to use my programming skills, but I would have been abusing them," he said. "I would have looked back and realized I had spent my life building walls and helping to divide and conquer people. My conscience would not allow me to take part in this disgusting social system."
By 1990, Stallman said, GNU had everything in its Unix-compatible OS except a kernel, and his group decided to adopt the Linux kernel. The result was not only free software, Stallman said, but an OS with the greatest amount of support available.
Stallman said that the concept of free software is not to prevent companies making money, but just to give people the ability to freely use a product they have bought.
"Business and making money are not bad, unless they're based on bad things," he said. "You should keep respect for people's freedom to cooperate. You may not be able to make as much money as Bill Gates, but I don't see that as a tragedy."
The GNU Free Software Foundation can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.fsf.org/.