how acceptance of proprietary software prevents Free Software innovation

There has been this argument in the community for a while that using some non-free software to further the Free Software advocacy might be a useful thing. As an example say you have a graphics card that there is no Free Software driver for. Then using a proprietary driver and therefore being able to use a mostly free software OS becomes justifiable. Because at least in this way we are increasing the amount of people who can use free software and the amount of people supporting it. I have for the most part been onboard with this argument or at least sympathetic to it. However there has been an interesting turn of events recently that has slightly changed my mind.


I recently installed Trisquel GNU/Linux on my desktop. I have an Nvidia card on there and I was thinking “oh great I am going to have to replace my graphics card and find one that’s supported”. Up until this point I had been using Ubuntu with the proprietary Nvidia driver installed. However within about 30 minutes of use or so I realized something. That actually the rendering seemed smoother then what the proprietary driver had been offering me. With the non-free driver video had been choppy at times. Sometimes the screen would get a bit flickery on me. With the free driver I was using video playback was smooth and not choppy at all and my screen has never flickered once. Needless to say I was a bit confused I had always had bad luck with the nv driver and my cards.


A little poking around revealed I wasn’t using nv it was nouveau. Looking at their website I found that they listed my card as having full 2D rendering support under the version I was using and limited 3D support. Somehow when I wasn’t looking the nouveau project sprang up and matured right under my nose. I instantly went to my laptop and uninstalled the proprietary Nvidia driver on there and switched to nouveau as well. And again amazing 2D support resulted. Videos suddenly played full screen that use to drag my CPU down and cause the fan to spin up. Actually some of these videos would barely play full screen under battery before. With the Free driver they played no problem and with much less memory usage. I have noticed my battery life has improved since making the switch as well.


So what does this mean? While we have all been using the proprietary drivers we have been ignoring the need to replace them with free drivers. We have become complacent. And of course our developers who are replacing them are ending up doing a better job then the people who have the specs on the card. So I am saying we need to try and replace these non-free parts with free ones. If there is no replacement yet find the projects that are working on them and pledge your support.


I think that we have accepted non-free software onto our systems has hidden some of the gaps in our technology. We don’t even notice that there is a problem we just think we are using Free Software when we are actually using tons of proprietary. When you remove the proprietary the holes become apparent. The thing is there are people trying to fix those holes but no one knows about it because they are using the non-free drivers. So what I think I am trying to say is not to necessarily not use any proprietary software but always try to be replacing with free options. And when a project is trying to fix a hole we should get behind them and support them not ignore them until the job is done. It’s like if we were trying to feed the homeless. What if everyone said well I will only contribute once the soup kitchens are built and they have all the food ready. Well then we would never feed them would we.



About drascus

I am a quirky guy with an array of interests. Here is Short list, Open source and Free Software, Astronomy, Physics, History, Philosophy. I am also a pretty good Amatuer musician.

Posted on March 25, 2011, in Activism, Opinion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Another clue for you :
    Encourage the manufacturers with an opensource-friendly policy. It isn’t hard :
    – Intel’s Linux graphics policy is “free driver only” (although Intel’s chipset are miserable).
    – AMD has a policy of releasing the specs for every single one of their cards, and are keeping two full-time employees working on the opensource AMD driver (radeon), in addition to the Linux team for the catalyst (closed source) driver. You might want to check that driver.
    – In the meantime, Nvidia is releasing NO SPEC AT ALL, and not helping in any way. The nouveau driver you discovered was developped by individuals, without any help from NV, through reverse-engineering and using binary dumps. This policy shouldn’t be encouraged.

    So yes, we should replace proprietary with free, but this should also be done through hardware choice, which makes it simple : simply blacklist NVidia, and buy Intel/AMD preferably.

  2. I totally agree. The problem though is that people are switching all the time from non-free (windows, MAC) to Free Software all the time. A lot of them especially if they use laptops are stuck with whatever hardware they have. Of course if they aren’t very savy with hardware this could be true of desktops as well. So it’s tough to tell them to just throw away their hardware and but new stuff. Especially if they are students (which is the majority of people that make the switch) because they have very little money. So while we should try to blacklist and not buy NV hardware we should try and support those people who are already stuck with it. We should make the choice of Free Software as easy as possible. Once people become advocates then all of their future choices of hardware will most likely only be choices that work with Free Software.

  3. We live in a 3D world and nouveau still doesn’t work with some applications that require 3D support. This was what moved me to Nvidia in the first place as ATI (now AMD) only supported 2D with their Linux drivers.

    Until Nouveau works with Stellarium, nouveau blacklisted on my system.

  4. I’ve just checked on Ubuntu help that Nouveau is the default driver for Nvidia. (

    But, in a way, the message “restricted drivers available” is misleading since there is no need for the restricted driver in order for the card to work in 2D.

    I agree that the use of some proprietary software should not be a barrier to using GNU/Linux but it should only be used when strictly necessary.

    The point is that, proprietary drivers cannot be improved by the community while free software will always get better all the time.

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