Free vs Open

It’s been almost 20 years, but people are still arguing over “open source” and “free software”. Here’s why it’s the wrong argument.

Open hand, free bird

The term “Open Source” in the context of software was coined in 1998 by a group of experienced software freedom advocates frustrated by the challenges of helping corporations adopt Free Software. As the movement has energetically grown over the ensuing decades, it has been repeatedly necessary to remind people that framing it as a methodology is a construct chosen nearly 20 years ago to help cultivate executive acceptance and business promotion of software freedom. The frame is necessarily not the entire story, no matter how often newly-woke geeks may assert it should be and how evil it is not to say “Free Software”. Open Source is inescapably a part of the culture, philosophy and ethical construct that is software freedom, not an alternative to it.

Here’s why. Corporations are not people, and so can’t “behave ethically” — doing so requires consciousness as a minimum. The people they employ can be expected to behave ethically, but a corporation will follow its programming to optimise the objectives stated in its bylaws. The people tending the machine can steer it towards different ways of achieving those objectives and can express their ethical selves through their choices, but they are not free to justify preferences purely on the basis of ethics. As a consequence, most advocacy of Open Source has focussed on helping those corporate employees demonstrate the value arising from it rather than the values motivating the people involved with it.

This pragmatism has been ceasely criticised by people adhering to the supposed “purity” of the term “Free Software”, who attempt to claim that Open Source and Free Software are different things and the advocates of Open Source are at best amoral. They are not; effective adoption of Open Source involves the principled application of Free Software. More than that, there’s a strong causal relationship between software freedom and the value business deployers gain from Open Source software.

To seek the benefits without embracing the values is possible but inadvisable. Prices can be cut artificially as an incentive; documentation, architectures, APIs and even code snapshots can be delivered on demand by proprietary vendors. But if you are not the one enjoying software freedom, all those benefits are contingent on your relationship with the one who is. Those values also have wider applicability. They protect against covert abuses and also lead one to shun the infringement of liberties.

None of this is peculiar to “Open Source”. It is equally possible for “Free Software” to be used for its benefits without embracing its values, and it’s actually easier for the newcomer to interpret the term at face value and assume price is the primary motivation. Indeed, that accidental invocation of the “price frame” continues to lead people astray even today.

So renewed moves to define “Open Source” and “Free Software” as somehow different are mistaken. What’s needed is to reconnect users of Open Source Free Software with the origin of the benefits they enjoy from it. That origin is software freedom, the certainty of being explicitly entitled to use, improve and share the software upon which you depend.

 

(A derivative of this article appeared in the Linux Voice section of issue 198 of Linux Magazine, May 2017)

Growing The Community

How can you grow an open source community? Two blog posts from The Document Foundation (TDF) illustrate a proven double-ended strategy to sustain an existing community.                                                                                                            Spanish

Fern Fiddlehead

Since it was established in 2010, the LibreOffice project has steadily grown under the guidance of The Document Foundation (TDF) where I’ve been a volunteer — most lately as a member of its Board. Starting from a complex political situation with a legacy codebase suffering extensive technical debt, TDF has been able to cultivate both individual contributors and company-sponsored contributors and move beyond the issues to stability and effectiveness. Continue reading

Keyloggers: An Interview With HP

Simon spent time on Friday with Mike Nash, HP’s vice president of consumer PCs, to discuss the keylogger that was found in one of their device drivers. Nash was open, honest, accepted responsibility and demonstrated that HP already had the problem addressed despite the researchers who found the issue being less than effective.

The whole incident shows how vulnerable our Windows-dominated approach to IT is however. Stateful desktops delivered in a cut-throat-competitive market are beyond the oversight of any individual and as the Wanacry worm shows malware can spread rapidly using a defect just like this one.

Simon ends by suggesting “Maybe we need to break that problem apart — stateless desktops, open source code, cloud-hosted statefulness — if we’re to avoid disaster.”

Read more over on InfoWorld.

Is The GPL Really Declining?

Is the GNU GPL “dying” or is that just the prejudice of those whose open source exploitation would be hampered by its use?                                                       Italian version 

gpl-phobia_6243461518_o

At the huge FOSDEM developer meetup in Brussels in early February, I attended a panel where speakers discussed whether the use of “permissive” open source licenses like the Apache License is now outstripping use of “viral” licenses, such as the GPL. The discussion was spirited, with advocates associated with the Free Software Foundation pushing back on the assertion the GPL is “dying”.

Continue reading

Permissive and Copyleft Are Not Antonyms

Using the term “permissive” as an antonym to “copyleft” – or “restrictive” as its synonym – are unhelpful framing. Describe license reciprocity instead.

Assorted Empty Frames On A Wall

Some open source licenses implement a clever hack invented by Richard Stallman where, as a condition of the copyright license, anyone creating derived versions has to agree they will license the new version the same way as the original. In a play on words, this concept is called “copyleft” and many open source licenses implement this hack. Continue reading