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)

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