Free Culture

Open Source Befuddlement

Talking about “Open Source” rather than Free Software can lead people to concentrate on availability of source code rather than protecting freedom. And to concentrate on the developers who write that source code rather than all the users of the software that it represents.

There were two particularly clear examples of this today.

Columnist Matt Assay argues –

“Because Web developers don’t necessarily need to protect their
software, we’re seeing more adopt licenses like BSD, Apache, and other
permissive licenses in order to foster community, rather than
protection, around their software.”

Developers protecting their software source code isn’t the point of free software. The freedom of the users of that software is. And using “permissive” licenses for web applications doesn’t protect that freedom when you encounter the software online as a user.

Developer Steve Streeting argues at length that copyleft doesn’t get more code back for his project than community spirit does –

“So, after much thought I concluded that the most useful pay-backs to
an open source project, and thus its community, from a user (in my
opinion) were:

  1. Code & documentation contributions – which based on my experience come from voluntary sources
  2. Community participation – forum support, bug reports etc
  3. Publicity.

The ‘restrictive’ elements of the LGPL (and GPL), to which so much
confusing license text is dedicated, didn’t seem to contribute to any
of those except number 3, and then really just as a side-effect.”

Projects getting back source code from the developers of derivative works isn’t the point of Free Software. The freedom of the users of that software is. And, again, using “permissive” licences for libraries doesn’t protect that freedom when you encounter the compiled software as a user.

These are just two examples of how thinking about “Open Source” can lead people to concentrate on the wrong issues and pursue the wrong objectives. It is a marketing term that was explicitly created to obfuscate the ethical issues that Free Software makes clear. It is doing its job far too well. 

2 replies on “Open Source Befuddlement”

Nice post, Rob. The one point I’d add is that your “users” encompass everyone from the most passive end-users to hardcore nerd hackers and forking developers.
The free software ethic gained currency both because the open source methodology seemed to work better, and because a lot of people were fed up with being handed a black box. It’s not wrong to concentrate on the open source methodology, but it is wrong to confuse that methodology with a political and philosophical statement about information, or our rights, or however you want to frame your free software argument.

But, it seems there is also an ethical confusion.
Some people think ‘freedom’ means that if you use a webservice you should be given the source code to it (if it was licensed AGPL) on request.
Whereas others think that freedom means that if you’re given the source code to a web service your natural freedom to do what they heck you want with it should not be constrained by any (unnatural) privilege – nor should you be able to (unnaturally) restrict what anyone else (to whom you give your copy/derivative) does with it.
NB a natural restriction is the brick wall to your house.
Freedom is not the unnatural ability to wall through walls, but to walk unhindered by supernaturally erected barriers.

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