Do you like lasagne? Let’s assume that you do, otherwise this whole thought experiment breaks apart. What if the recipe for lasagne were a secret, guarded by one chain of restaurants?
You’d have to go to one of the restaurants from that one restaurant chain to get your lasagne. The chef there is hiding in the kitchen with his assistants, masterfully layering the pasta, whisking bechamel sauce, and stirring in his huge pot of bolognese. The scents! Garlic, fresh herbs, onions frying in their pans, everything coming together in a choreography of knives, ladles, flour and white chef’s hats. Wonderful!
Only you won’t see any of that, because you don’t get to peek.
The restaurant chain has decided that no one else may know how to make their lasagne. You are welcome to come and eat the lasagne at their restaurant, but **you may not**:
– Share your particular serving of lasagne with anyone else.
– Have the recipe to make your own lasagne at home.
– Take apart the lasagne and guess how it might have been made.
– Change anything about your lasagne.
– Eat this casual lasagne in a business or otherwise commercial meeting.
– Put this lasagne on more than one plate. Only the plate the waiter brought you may be used with this lasagne. If you try to put it on another plate, it will be taken away from you.
The price of lasagne would be entirely at the restaurant chain’s whim.
Are you happy with this situation? Maybe not. Maybe you want to make lasagne at home, for your friends. Maybe you want really spicy bolognese or skip the bechamel sauce and replace the deadcow with veggies so your vegan buddy can eat, too. But you can’t. The restaurant won’t tell you how to make lasagne. You can go ahead and try to figure it out on your own, but lasagne is quite complicated. You’d never get everything right, and then things just won’t taste the way they should. People trying to eat your lasagne would complain. Also, you might get a visit from the restaurant’s lawyers if they find out you’re trying to make lasagne. After all, the company owns patents in lasagne and they have to make sure you’re not copying their secret mix of spices.
You decide that this is not a cheeryhappy situation. You’d rather cook your own food. Maybe you don’t even *like* lasagne that much, even if by far most of the planet is eating lasagne exclusively. You decide that you’ll look around for recipes, maybe there is other pasta you can make.
What you discover is that there are other people fed up with the policies of the restaurant. “Boo,” they say, “we want Spaghetti Carbonara, Texas Ranch style!” Or they want delicious little Ravioli filled with a puréed scampi, suited for business meetings. They want to *know* how these things are made, so they can make their own variations, so they can adapt the dough. Glutene-free tagliatelle for all!
People have special needs like that. Companies are just collections of people, so companies have special needs, too. People want to feel safe knowing that when mother, sadly but inevitably, passes away, her recipe for Pappardelle del Cacciatore is still here to delight friends and family. People want to cook together, share ideas, share recipes, make little changes here and there and when they’ve changed someone else’s recipe enough, they want to call it their own.
It would be silly to keep recipes a secret, yet if you compare recipes to source code, that’s exactly what many companies are doing today. Entire operating systems are delivered in a binary-only form. If you want to use them, you are forced into accepting a license that prevents you from ever figuring out how they work. The company/restaurant even forbids you from sharing the operating system with other people. It’s as if you could only eat your lasagne ready-cooked and finished, always the same lasagne, the same taste. You’d never even know if everyone at your table can actually eat it.
But perhaps times change and people don’t want to be treated like mental prisoners anymore. Maybe one day everyone’s fed up with lasagne. No one visits the restaurant anymore, and because the restaurant doesn’t want to change its policies, it goes bankrupt. Too bad that the recipe was a secret, because now it’s gone. Forever.
## Hints for deciphering this possibly awkward analogy
– The recipe stands for source code.
– The lasagne stands for proprietary programs of any kind. Proprietary means that only one single company controls the program in question, most of the time only that company has the source code and refuses to cooperate with others or, god forbid, share the code. One example for this kind of software is Microsoft’s Windows.
– The cooks who’d rather cook their own pasta symbolize the free software community. With free software (software libre), anyone can see the source code, anyone can make adaptations, anyone can publish their own changes and versions. **Everyone is a cook!** Amateurs welcome.
– The dying mother who takes her recipe into the grave (I’m sorry about that analogy) symbolizes what happens when a company who made non-free, closed software goes out of business. If you’ve been using that company’s software, you cannot be sure that you can ever again use any of the files you and your colleagues created. You cannot continue working with their software because it was secret and is no longer being updated. Your company will have to face the huge expenses of switching to another solution and recovering all the data in its old, non-free and closed files. With open standards and free software, none of these headaches and financial losses would occur.
So, what benefits are there to proprietary software? Wouldn’t you rather cook your own, or eat what other people you know are cooking, and have a say in what goes into the pot?