A critique of one confused view of free software.

From its first paragraph, the article fails to describe reality:

“The OSS vision is of a world in which there are no greedy corporations run by megalomaniac billionaires intent on screwing users out of their hard-earned cash in return for bloated, unstable, insecure software which only operates properly with other products from the same manufacturer and has laughable customer support. Instead, there are communities of gentle, altruistic individuals working together voluntarily for the good of mankind. Unsullied by the sordid world of commerce, the code that they produce is somehow purer and more ethical than proprietary software.”

Actually, the thinly veiled reference to Microsoft is wrong. Microsoft has long distributed software which is licensed by OSI-approved licenses. Microsoft’s Services for Unix package has long included GCC, the GNU Compiler Collection which is licensed under the GNU GPL, a free software license which is also approved of by the OSI.

Commerce is very much a part of this software, many FLOSS programs are developed for business and/or distributed for a fee. In fact, the “open source” term was coined in part because the OSI founders wanted a term that would not convey the idea that the software must only be distributed gratis (despite that the GNU Project was using the word “free” to convey freedoms users have with the software, not a price one must pay to get a copy of the software). The ethics of the situation are not considered by the open source movement; that movement does not say that some licenses respect your freedom to share and modify and other licenses trample those freedoms and are wrong. The open source movement’s philosophy centers on a practical developmental methodology and is chiefly aimed at a business audience. That anyone would conflate ethics as a part of the open source movement’s message is a tip that Stephen J Marshall doesn’t clearly understand the differences between the philosophies he’s talking about. We see this more clearly when Marshall argues that:

This utopian vision of technology is championed by high-profile pressure groups such as the Free Software Foundation [...]

The FSF does not argue anything in terms of “OSS” or “Open Source Software”. They explicitly disclaim such points in their essay “Why Free Software is better than Open Source“:

We are not against the Open Source movement, but we don’t want to be lumped in with them. We acknowledge that they have contributed to our community, but we created this community, and we want people to know this. We want people to associate our achievements with our values and our philosophy, not with theirs. We want to be heard, not obscured behind a group with different views. To prevent people from thinking we are part of them, we take pains to avoid using the word “open” to describe free software, or its contrary, “closed”, in talking about non-free software.

To put a fine point on this, consider a hypothetical situation Richard Stallman laid out in a recent interview with the newly renamed GNU/Linux Show where the user is faced with a proprietary program that works well and a free software program that is unreliable (about 44 minutes and 54 seconds into the program). The open source philosophy advocates for high-quality technical achievement, and thus is likely to endorse the former program despite its license having no chance of being OSI-approved. Free software advocates, on the other hand, would endorse the latter program pointing out that the technical quality of a program can be improved, while the proprietary program’s license is probably very hard to change. No free software advocate will complain about having a reliable program. But they will complain and work to reimplement non-free software. Free software advocates won’t push aside their freedom to share and modify software for immediate practical gains.

Marshall writes:

“Despite the overt counterculture and anti-globalization agendas displayed by certain sections of the open source movement, many governments are now also turning towards OSS in their quest for an information society for every citizen.”

Don’t confuse the philosophy of the movement with some of its participants. Stallman holds political views which don’t express the opinion of the GNU Project or the FSF. Neither the GNU Project nor the FSF have opinions on corporate globalization except where this intersects with computer software, as Stallman pointed out in a 2003 interview where he explains that: (starting at 3 minutes 17 seconds)

Free software shows how globalization can be a good thing. The free software movement has been global since the Eighties when we had developers and users on four continents, and now it’s six continents I believe. Free software doesn’t tend to concentrate wealth, it provides ways for some people to make a living, so we can see the contrast between globalization of power versus globalization of voluntary cooperation.

Both the free and open source software movements are pro-business; neither has a problem with the software they endorse being used for business purposes. The FSF tells people to distribute free software for a fee and get as much money as one can doing so, and to alter free software for a fee. Some people take this message to heart: Brad Kuhn, the FSF’s former executive director (now Chief Technology Officer of the Software Freedom Law Center) has gone on record talking about the high hourly fees commercial GCC hackers charge and the long waiting lists these firms have.

On the categorized complaints Marshall raises, his complaint about so-called “IP” (intellectual property) is that many employees of various organizations are under contract such that “[a]ny software that they write, irrespective of whether it is during or outside normal working hours, legally belongs to their employer” and therefore much of the software they wrote and distributed is not actually theirs to license, but instead their employers’. No specific examples are presented to support this claim and Marshall does not approach this topic from the perspective of recommending to workers that they closely examine their employment contracts so that they will not fall into the trap of giving everything they do to their employer, even if what they’re working on is completely unconnected to their job. Thus this claim comes off as unhelpful as well as unsupported. Marshall’s conclusion that “[a]nyone else contributing to OSS projects may be unwittingly engaged in illegal activity by stealing their employer’s IP.” takes the term “intellectual property” at face value without ever critiquing it (which is, ironically, something that members of both the free and open source software movements are likely to do). One of the reasons the term “intellectual property” is so problematic is because it is prejudicial. We are left to believe that copyright, trademark, patent, and other disparate laws ought to be thought of as property; not that framing these issues as property is unnatural and merely one choice of many. Spirited debate of this issue is so much a part of the free and open source movements, it is appalling that any examination of how the free software community works would leave out this debate.

“Conceptual integrity” is Marshall’s call for adhering to “good design and tight specifications to minimize bugs” and that community development doesn’t achieve this. This is a developmental methodology and does not address the more important issue of software freedom and how people ought to treat one another, but one can see significant counterexamples. The GNU Project, started in 1984, is one such community-based project that has come up with a lot of useful software that many individuals and organizations rely on (directly by running the programs or indirectly by hiring the services of an Internet service provider which directly runs the programs). The Mozilla programs offer another set of counterexamples, as more people discover how well Firefox and Thunderbird work. It seems like a number of developers choose the Bugzilla bug-tracking software to use in their own projects. I think Marshall reveals the most in his call for “professionalism” where he essentially chastises “bedroom programmers” for being insufficiently professional. I wonder how the judgement is being made without actually hiring someone to do work under contract, as a professional would.

Innovation is the last of Marshall’s bulletted points and here he claims that “[t]he open source community has so far tended to create facsimiles of proprietary packages rather than the next killer application.”. Marshall’s example here, the GNU/Linux operating system, inaccurately referred to as “Linux“, fails to acknowledge certain other factors involved here:

  • “Killer apps” are hard to come up with which explains why non-free software developers don’t often come up with them either.
  • Some “killer apps” were free software first but go unacknowledged as such. Internet email that we use today (as opposed to email systems used chiefly on BBSes and email systems that require use of a certain client program) and the World Wide Web were free software and are still two big reasons that people want to get on the Internet. Beagle predates Apple’s Spotlight desktop search program, but since most reviewers are biased in favor of reviewing non-free software, they have no idea Beagle exists. Beagle is, for all its faults, more trustworthy than Spotlight or the Google desktop search software for Microsoft Windows because Beagle can be free software and the others are not. Thus, if you are concerned about what Beagle does—perhaps you suspect that your index data or your search queries are being distributed without your approval—you can inspect Beagle and change it to meet your needs, or you can hire someone to do this work for you. These are simply not options for non-free programs because the only people who have the source code and the legal permission to share and modify the improved software are the organizations you shouldn’t trust by default in the first place.
  • Innovation is commonly overvalued, even to the point of giving up freedom in exchange for innovation. I don’t believe that most people need programs that are radically new. I believe that most people use a computer for just a few things and they need those programs to work well. I don’t need an innovative email client, I need one that is easy to set up and use for my most frequently used functions. I use a web browser to see content published by someone else. Most of what I would like to see are ways of doing the right thing by default, not giving me a lot of options to do things I’ll rarely want to do: automatically configuring a reasonable setup so that I don’t have to spend time configuring things myself, updates that never leave my computer in an unusable state, an easy way to do recommended things like making periodic backups, encrypting email, storing only encrypted data on my media, and seeing what services are available to me on my network. And I want to do all of this without giving up my software freedom. I believe that these are non-trivial requests which require a great deal of coordination, but I doubt users will widely refer to them as something akin to “killer applications”.

The natural questions from reading “In theory, an OSS license doesn’t actually prevent anyone from selling the software but in practice no one will buy it if the source code is freely available, unless the seller is also providing some kind of added value.” goes unasked: why is it our job to support bad business models? Why are business concerns so prominent? Why can’t they switch to a consulting model and try to get work? Also, one notices how many failed businesses distribute proprietary software at no fee, allowing people to use the program, but disallowing users from understanding or changing what the program does. But it’s clear in Marshall’s essay that tending to user’s individual needs is not considered “innovative” and probably won’t be until it becomes the mainstay of large multinational corporations that get a lot of press attention (like Microsoft). IBM, Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and others doing this apparently aren’t interesting. Exclusivity is not needed when the business is based on talented and attentive consulting, in fact one should be glad that this is not exclusive to anyone or any organization in case one consultant doesn’t work out.

But what’s more important is the effect on society, not framing every question in terms of how it will affect business. As RMS explains in the aforementioned GNU/Linux Show interview: (about 1 hour and 2 minutes into the show)

Businesses should have free software just as every computer user should have free software. But we [at the FSF] don’t focus our concerns on business. And that’s a matter of a basic philosophical decision: we don’t want to make business the measure of all things. The world is plagued today by a philosophy which is called businessism. Just as humanism meant measuring things in human terms, businessism measures everything in business terms. I’m not a businessist. When I think about how to promote free software, I don’t think “above all: business”, I think “above all: schools”. Schools must switch to free software because they should not be teaching their students to be addicts to proprietary software; to develop a dependency that will be hard for them to get out of.