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On the essence of free software – or: How your smartphone could outlast ten years

Your mobile phone could endure longer than one or two years – if its manufacturer were not perfidiously trying to prevent that. This blog article outlines why one of the dustiest areas of digital politics could yield huge progress with regard to sustainability.

On the workhorse telephone

How long have you been using your current smartphone – one year? Two? Then, you belong to those 82 percent of the respondents of a Bitkom survey among German mobile phone users who have acquired their latest device within the last 24 months.

Now imagine that your smartphone – an ever-available communication arsenal, indefatigable manager of emails and passwords, sheer endless supply of incomprehensibly versatile tools, comforting refuge and digital home, reliable guardian of all memories and entire friendships, in short: a loyal companion – would not only serve a short, overstimulated and overstimulating existence of a few pitiable years, but would instead enjoy a whole decade of electrifying use!

Too futuristic to become reality? Without extensive software freedom, this will never change!

But what is free software?

The short answer: Software freedom aims to grant everyone the right to run, study, modify and redistribute computer programmes at will, including their own modifications.

To put it bluntly, it is about the cunning undermining of traditional copyright law in favour of social progress. A core element in the repertoire of idealists such as the pioneers of the Free Software Foundation is the so-called copyleft: this principle not only allows end users unrestricted use, but also enables other developers to publish their own programs based on the source code – under the (compulsory!) condition that the software freedom granted in this way is passed on.

Quotation markHey, my new app is out! You can use it freely for any purpose and in any way you like. Only if you intend to release your own app based on mine it is your duty as a gentleman to grant your users the same software freedom that you enjoy yourself!”
Every developer of copyleft software

The rationale behind considerations like these is remarkably simple: if, as a programmer, you first have to ask the author for permission before using their source code, this hinders the development of new technology in a way that can hardly be put into words.

What software freedom has to do with ancient smartphones

To return to the example referred to at the beginning: The Achilles heel of today’s smartphone market in terms of software is that, with a handful of not particularly profitable exceptions, hardly any manufacturer feels compelled to provide their products with updates for more than two to three years. Every newly released mobile phone model requires additional effort to fulfil its hardware requirements with the latest functions of the in-house operating system and/or UI ecosystem. If the new Android version has to be prepared for twelve old devices, not only the developers roll their eyes, but also the management, suffering from the dollar-eye syndrome, has gone completely off the rails.

The additional expenditure is as costly as it is time-consuming, so much so that many companies simply decide to forcibly refurbish all devices as electronic waste once they reach the dictated retirement age. Asus, for example, has repeatedly been so sloppy at releasing updates that even fundamental functions are riddled with “bugs” and even repeated reboots only succeed by invoking the Milleartifex. The infamous wardens of the golden cage with probably the most inmates in the world – physical proximity may not unite them, but a bitten apple adorns each of their devices – slow down older hardware unscrupulously and even deliberately.

What all mobile phone manufacturers have in common is that they abuse conventional copyright law to actively jeopardise the longevity of their products. If all components of the operating systems were published and freely licensed, it would be possible for volunteers with the appropriate skills to seamlessly develop their own unofficial updates subsequent to the artificial death of the device, so that the average consumer could continue to use their phone, still perfectly functional in terms of hardware, for several more years.

Custom ROMs – real utopia of an enlightened digital society?

The best proof of the feasibility of this by no means purely hypothetical model is provided by the almost sealed-off worlds of the Android “derivatives”. In the virtually infinite expanses beyond the invisible boundary that separates the universe of users from that of programmers, there are numerous smartphone operating systems that extend the free, open-source part of the widespread Android operating system called “AOSP” (Android Open Source Project ) by their own components.

The more prominent representatives include: Lineage , which gets by without a lot of superfluous bells and whistles and serves as the foundation for several other systems; Murena’s /e/OS , which promises to protect the privacy of its users particularly well; GrapheneOS , which advertises its outstanding security; VollaOS , which impresses with its unusual design.

Marketing graphic with screenshot of the app. It says in English: “Your online privacy is protected. Trackers: denied; Location: hidden; IP address: obfuscated. Below is a bar chart showing the number of data leaks.” Marketing graphic with screenshot of the app. It says in English: “Your online privacy is protected. Trackers: denied; Location: hidden; IP address: obfuscated. Below is a bar chart showing the number of data leaks.”
The most prominent in-house development of /e/OS is the app Advanced Privacy , which enables the user to achieve a high degree of anonymity: It not only blocks advertising and snooping trackers throughout the device, but also disguises the device’s IP address via the Tor network and, if necessary, pretends to be in a different location to other apps.

The well-disposed reader may now ask: Why has hardly anyone ever heard of these systems? The answer is multifaceted, but the core of the problem lies in the fact that it is sometimes unnecessarily complicated to install alternative operating systems on phones, or that the manufacturer prevents installation altogether. However, “custom ROM” enthusiasts must also admit that the design and functionality of the systems may occasionally fail to meet the highly exquisite expectations of today’s illustrious users. This is why this leisure activity has so far almost exclusively mesmerised the tech-savvy, but hardly the average Joe.

In keeping with the title of the paragraph, the commonality of all these systems must be emphasised with a particularly thick highlighter in bright neon yellow: They all revitalise even the Methuselahs among digital devices. Thanks to LineageOS, for example, it is possible to install Android 11 on any Galaxy S5 – the smartphone for which the manufacturer Samsung once chose Android 6 as its tombstone and which can now return to the realm of the living in a zombie-like manner.

This does not merely ensure that a larger natural number is specified as the version number in the system settings. If you were to imagine the mobile phone as an elderly former assistant, such an upgrade would be more comparable to a sip from the Holy Grail (i.e. something like a “charge cycle from the blessed power bank”); and any Indiana Jones aficionado will certainly be able to gauge what that entails. The user would no longer have to forego the more modern apps that require an up-to-date Android version, they would also benefit from updated features (particularly in terms of privacy, app permissions and “digital wellbeing”) and, thanks to interim security updates, would be much better protected against attacks by malevolent binary gangsters who occasionally use unintentional backdoors to foist ransomware software on their victims.

The key is this: In many cases, porting Android derivatives to old devices is the achievement of volunteers, who often dedicate large parts of their spare time to their work as so-called maintainers. If the core components of Android were not licensed under free conditions, the efforts of hobby developers would be completely impossible. Since components such as the Google Play, Huawei or Samsung services are not freely licensed, the original Android versions provided by the manufacturers cannot be maintained beyond the digital demise of the respective smartphone models.

Our society, which is unfortunately clearly unenlightened in this respect, owes the fact that the vast majority of mobile phones are barely useable after a few years to the almost exclusively surveillance-capitalist-minded smartphone companies, their harmful intentions and the medieval copyright law which every programmer is exposed to.

What we should be able to expect from business and politics

So how can the problem of the software-related death of phones be solved as straightforwardly as possible? In the long term, there is only one solution: away with traditional copyright!

Well, this demand is deliberately formulated somewhat sharply. Visionary online politics should obviously not aim to hinder musicians and singers, graphic designers and painters, photographers and writers from exploiting their artistic creations – after all, their creativity is obviously their most valuable asset. Instead, the taboo on verbally challenging software copyright must be abolished. So what change should take place?

You don’t have to ask before reading either

Firstly, the madness that the mere downloading, installation and execution of computer programs already constitutes copyright infringement and requires the creator’s consent must be brought to an end as quickly as possible. This is similar to needing the author’s permission to purchase their book at a flea market. Or as if you had to ask a musician before you could put their latest vinyl record on the shelf. Or like the photographer could sue anyone who dared to look at their photographs without authorisation.

Instead, only the redistribution of apps or source code should require consent. The fact that the current regulation is already aimed at pure “reproductions”, i.e. the mere storage of digital media content, is not only anything but up-to-date, but simply not expedient and, moreover, in the vast majority of cases cannot even be proven in the first place.

Not everything that compiles is gold

Secondly, the level of creation above which software is protected by copyright must be drastically increased. Hardly anyone would seriously find it not absurd that any program of not completely trivial scope enjoys the same protection as paintings, novels or music albums, even if it is limited to pure functionality.

Those who now retort furiously that software development requires particularly great effort compared to other disciplines should ask themselves: What good is it that conventional copyright law seeks to protect? If it were really about the effort involved in production, then any sufficiently large white-painted wall should also be eligible for protection; after all, it is anything but trivial to lug around kilograms of paint, to climb the ladder step by step to vertiginous heights, to reach into the most remote corners with outstretched arms and to satisfy objective and subjective quality requirements in all of this.

No, effort and costs in themselves are by no means suitable criteria for quantifying creativity. The Berlin Regional Court once ruled :

Quotation markPure craftsmanship, which anyone with average skills could also achieve, even if it is based on honourable diligence and solid ability, is not eligible for protection.”
Berlin Regional Court
in 16 O 72/86

Rather, it is about actual creative achievement, originality and individuality. Accordingly, the special protection granted to conventional works should only be granted to software that is not only functional, but also offers unique creative characteristics and whose impact constitutes significant value added for its users. It should be noted that this must not be confused with the purely visual appearance of a programme, i.e. its graphical user interface consisting of buttons, links, icons and illustrations; of course, particularly original software libraries intended for use by other programmers may also qualify for copyright protection.

Free firmware for free citizens

Thirdly, it should be the duty of every electronics company to disclose the source code of their firmware to the public to an appropriate extent, so that the manufacturer’s liquidity is not a necessary prerequisite for the proper use of a product. One of many negative examples of this is the bicycle manufacturer VanMoof, whose e-bikes that had already been sold were no longer fully operational after its insolvency. For example, switching the lights on and off required a cryptographic key that had to be downloaded from the manufacturer’s own server via a Bluetooth connection with the associated app. However, without a company there is no server, without a server there is no digital key – and without that there is no light on the bike. This kind of real-life satire must be swiftly quashed! (Incidentally, this would have the effect, which is not to be disregarded, that cryptanalysts and IT experts could cast their trained eye over far more device software than before in order to meticulously and, above all, independently check compliance with security and data protection regulations – in the sense of a “programming MOT”).


Software freedom means, contrary to traditional copyright law, granting users essential rights that enable them to run, study, modify and redistribute computer programmes. This not only significantly promotes the longevity of software, but may – if implemented on a large scale – catapult our digital society into a new era of general technological co-operation instead of today’s miserable rivalry. Finally cast off the intellectual shackles of copyright authoritarianism and join the light side – the side of openness, equity and the common good!

Wing of the peace dove, from the For Good Eyes Only logo