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)

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

Public Domain Is Not Open Source

Open Source and Public Domain are frequently confused. Here’s why it’s a mistake to treat the two terms as synonyms.

Coade Stone lion in London

Plenty of people assume that public domain software must be open source. While it may be free software within your specific context, it is incorrect to treat public domain software as open source or indeed as globally free software. That’s not a legal opinion (I’m not a lawyer so only entitled to layman’s opinions) but rather an observation that an open source user or developer cannot safely include public domain source code in a projectContinue reading

Give Generously! Seven Ways To Help Open Source

Should you donate money to the open source projects you use? Or is there a better way to help?

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Your business most likely depends on open source software. But are you playing your part to make sure it will still be there in the future? For that to happen, the projects where it is both maintained and improved need to flourish. Continue reading

4 Lessons From Watching Governance Games

Even near-perfect governance like Apache’s can get gamed by a determined and well-resourced player. What lessons can we learn from their experience? 

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I’ve previously written about the fact the Apache Software Foundation offers an exemplar of large-scale open source governance. Even with those supreme qualities, things can still go wrong. Apache offers some of the best protections for open source contributors but its mature rules can be manipulated by skilled politicians and/or determined agendas. What can we learn from their experience? Continue reading

Wix and WordPress Explainer

When you breach the terms of the GPL, the best plan is to put things right straight away, not misdirect away from the problem and condescend to the authors.

gpl-sign

Many were surprised when one of the pioneers of the open web accused a competitor of theft1. Matt Mullenweg complained on October 28 that the new mobile app Wix has released uses a big chunk of code from WordPress, namely the WordPress Mobile Editor Component. Matt is the original creator of WordPress and now CEO of the company successfully monetising it, Automattic, Inc.

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How Can Open Source Become User-Centric?

Including design and UX in a true community project is a challenging matter of balance because of the motivational model behind open source projects.

Mexican Hat rock

According to The Cathedral and the Bazaar, the key motivation for participants in open source projects is “scratching their own itch.” One consequence of this is co-ordination of contributions to support user-centric design is inherently an optional extra in a true open source project with multiple independent participants.  We all wish there was a way to get genuine user experience quality as a key dynamic of open source projects. But there are two big reasons that is challenging. Continue reading