Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom

Those of us in the free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) community know the routine by now. Despite the fact that "free software" and "open source" refer to the same software and the same communities, supporters of "free software" like the FSF would have us advocate for FLOSS by talking about users’ rights to use, modify, share, and cooperate; open source supporters like the Open Source Initiative would have us advocate for software by talking about how securing these rights produces software with "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility [and] lower cost."

One reason I tend to stay away from "open source" claims in my own advocacy is that I’m worried by the way that these arguments rely on a set of often dubious empirical claims of superiority. Free software, on the other hand, can be seen as statement of principles. Regardless of whether we say "free software" or "open source," I’ve found that a focus on principled statements is both more robust against counter-arguments and does a better job of describing the motivations of most contributors.

Principles can be thought of like opinions. They may or not be compelling but are neither right or wrong outside of a particular ethical framework. Most people won’t demand evidence for someone’s commitment to nonviolence or an adherence to the Golden Rule. What would you need to prove? Principles are based on a type of Utopianism; they are a statement of how we think things should be.

On the other hand, open source’s argument that openness leads to better software or a better software development methodology can be measured, tested, and declared right or wrong. A FLOSS program might be better or more reliable than proprietary software. Or it might be worse. The open source methodology might be lower cost for a consumer or more profitable for a producer. Or it might not. There are plenty of FLOSS success stories. There are many more failures.

The problem for open source advocates is that while FLOSS is often better than proprietary software, this is not always the case. I was using FLOSS in the early 1990s when GNU/Linux was indisputably less featureful and buggier than its proprietary competitors. On the business side, we learned in the Dot Com boom and bust that, despite Eric Raymond’s assurances, building a successful FLOSS project turned out to be harder than a COPYING file and a tarball on a webserver: Netscape is essentially gone; VA — the single largest Dot Com IPO — is a shadow of its former self; LinuxCare became a proprietary software company.

If, as open source advocates would argue, the reason we’re here is to build software more efficiently or at greater profit, we must also advocate for proprietary development methodologies in areas where evidence seems to show that they are more effective. Where are these advocates? Where are the open source advocates applauding LinuxCare for saving themselves by abandoning FLOSS. Don Marti has observed that this doesn’t seem to be what is going on:

Do people really spend their weekends helping annoying new people install free software because it has a more efficient development methodology? Of course not. If it were only about efficiency, hobbyists would volunteer to replace the old ballasts in companies’ fluorescent lights.

Of course, Marti is right. The reason that hundreds of thousands have spent their time assisting FLOSS efforts has less to do with a passion for efficiency and more to do with a set of implicit principles.

Humans are driven to imagine worlds that they would want to live in. For a growing group of people, that’s a world where software can be used, shared, and collaborated without restrictions or discrimination. We may think of this in ethical terms, in terms of an attitude toward innovation, or as a set of political or economic positions. But we should realize that these are, ultimately, principled stands.

And if we are taking principled positions, it is in the long-term interests of both our cause and our credibility to frame our arguments and our advocacy in those terms. We can use empirical evidence to help bolster our arguments but we should be careful to not confuse these empirical claims with the principles themselves. They can, and sometimes will, be proven wrong.

By honestly highlighting our principles and not shying away from explicit Utopianism, we can return to questions of efficiency as means toward achieving our principled ends. Approached from this angle, we need not seek to explain why FLOSS is better than proprietary software — which it may or may not be at any given point in time and for any given project — and can instead ask how we can make it better.

Humans are creative, innovative problem solvers. We set goals and devise social structures and technologies to achieve them. The fact that we have created socio-technical means of creating better software through free ways in so many areas is a reflection of this ingenuity applied toward principles at the heart of FLOSS. We would be well served to remember that this is how FLOSS will win, not why.

Note: This essay has also been posted on Advogato.

25 Replies to “Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom”

  1. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Basically it comes down to freedom, basic human rights. While I might not be able to help someone by being a member of the Washington elite, I can help by ensuring that my software is free.

    Another point, thanks for posting this under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

  2. Overall, I wholeheartedly agree with you. From a marketing point of view, let’s not be shy of pointing out things where FOSS genuinely HAS produced something technically superior though. Firefoxe’s extensions for example is amazing. Gimp’s liquid scale plugin was a sight to behold before it was in any commercial software.

    At the end of the day though I agree that it’s much easier for most people to answer “Do you want software created by communities for the common good, or monopoly created software built to control you.” than “Explain the technical merits and differences of the Linux kernel versus that used in Microsoft(tm) Windows(tm) 7(tm)”

  3. It doesn’t have to be about principles or efficiency.  I don’t really give a rat’s ass about Free Software Principles, but I’ve used and contributed more to it than strict rationality would require because it’s fun and I like doing it.  Helping other people get into it is fun, too.  Hacking software used to be about fun and learning, not politics.

  4. Levi: “It’s fun and I like doing it” is also a principle.  Particularly if you find FOSS more fun to hack on for reasons that don’t solely relate to its quality, and I imagine that probably holds true.

  5. Thanks, Mako — very well said.

    Re: politics, I like this from Rufus Polson. Responding to a Keir Thomas post, he says in part:

    “Similarly the observation that “There are many who believe an individual’s choice of software should be driven by politics, rather than practicality.” Well, yes, very true, and again, one would have thought rather obvious.

    But from there you enter territory where I must fundamentally disagree. First, you state that Richard Stallman introduced politics into computer science. This strikes me as distinctly misleading, based in a sense on a misunderstanding of what politics is. Politics is about the struggle between different interests. It’s happening around people whether they are willing to think about it, recognize it, sully their hands with trying to alter it, or not. When, for instance, a situation of de facto (but as yet not formally defined) open source begins to change into a more closed system because commercial interests begin concluding that they will make more money that way, even if it will negatively impact users, that is politics—the commercial interests are furthering their interests, the users’ interests are being affected. When Richard Stallman noticed that he wasn’t able to look at a printer driver because of this situation and consciously decided to do something about it, that was perhaps the first conscious application of political ideas to computer science, but a political situation was already unfolding, and politics had certainly been entwined in computer science since ENIAC.”


  6. some people share software and answer questions on IRC and mailing lists because they want to show off – or want to be the first to get the correct answer. That is a real thrill. Even better than playing trivia on chataholics.

  7. Very well said. There’s more to FOSS enthusiasm than monetary or material gain, and you have enunciated this fact beautifully.

  8. Howdy,
      Free and Open Source software are not the same and the difference is important to me.  The 4 freedoms of the FSF mean the difference between software I can trust and just open source software which I can’t always trust.  I want more than the ability to see the software.  For example, right now there is a free software licensed library to access twitter-like systems that I am working on a fork of.  The maintainer is not accepting patches, but the license is one that gives me the freedom to fork.  Because my fork will be based on working code, I expect it to get acceptance faster than if I just wrote one myself from scratch.

    BTW, I used a fake email address because I could not find your privacy policy.
    Good day,

  9. If I remember correctly, you are currently a Director of the Free Software Foundation.  I assume this essay is an explanation for your participation in the FSF and related advocacy.

    But I don’t understand the need for “scare quotes” around the term Free Software.  Capitalizing seems to distinguish it adequately.

  10. Ralph: The term “free software” and “open source” refer to the same programs, projects, communities, and licenses. Obviously, there are other differences and reason to use one term over an another. In my fact, that’s what my whole essay is about! The terms refer to different reasons but not different stuff. Let’s not confuse things by pretending that this is not the case.

    Dave: Look carefully at what I have written. I put quotes around those words when I am referring to the terms themselves and not the underlying concepts. When I am talking about free software practice or programs, and not just those two words as a label, I don’t use quotes.

  11. (Thank you for not capitalizing free software — the civil rights movement doesn’t get capitalized and neither should we.)

    In common discussions things usually come down to what people already consider primary goods. Basically that’s where people’s definition of good stops. It may be that the ultimate definition of what’s good or right does have to do with consequences and empirical evidence, but nobody follows that chain alllll the way to the end when they are making a judgment. They have a general idea of primary goods, and they judge individual questions in terms of those goods. Freedom is a big one for a lot of people, and it’s one that doesn’t often change. A program’s relative featurefulness changes all the time in comparison to its competitors. Whether a program is freely modifiable or not does not change so often — so I agree that focusing on freedom is the best long-term strategy.

    But I guess there’s a weird duality going on here. The reason to keep free software hitched  to the freedom wagon is because it is a matter of freedom. Even if to say so were less effective at appealing to people than confusing and contradictory empirical evidence about feature comparisons (and it sometimes is), would that matter? Otherwise, we’re talking about a consequentialist strategy for promoting a nonconsequentialist viewpoint…

    (Your copyright footer says 2007.)

  12. “I put quotes around those words when I am referring to the terms themselves and not the underlying concepts. When I am talking about free software practice or programs, and not just those two words as a label, I don’t use quotes.”

    So if I’m following you correctly, you refer in writing to the Free Software Foundation, and to software issued under a licence that qualifies it as Free Software, but when you discuss the concept of freedom as it applies to computer instructions you favor describing “free software.”

    An interesting choice.  Regarding civil rights, I don’t think that term suffers from the same ambiguity as Free Software (in the English language, at least), so I don’t see a direct comparison.  And I’m aware of the trend toward expressing the open source movement as an orthogonal approach to discussing Free Software, but that seems recent and in many ways different from the original intent.  Although I can’t cite them off the top of my head, I’ve encountered arguments that suggest the term “open source” may be gathering several contradictory interpretations which confuse the issue.

    Yours is certainly a fair choice, but if I seem pedantic it’s because I am under the impression that there is a strong belief behind the Free Software movement that defining one’s terms is crucial before engaging in dialog.

  13. Sorry Dave, I must be doing a poor job of communicating myself. I use quotes when I refer to the term or the words itself.

    Here’s a silly example that might make it more clear: When I talk about free software, I use the term “free software.”

    This is often called the use-mention distinction (or the words-as-words distinction) and I use quotes to distinguish mentioning from using. This is well established grammatical tactic. You can read the Wikipedia article here for more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_mention_distinction

  14. Thanks for clearing that up, and for the information regarding the “Use-Mention” approach to referencing subjects.

    I’m not sure that I understand the need to qualify those terms, but the idea that principles form a solid foundation for advocacy is solid and well stated.

  15. I found your thinking to be intellectually deep and recognising all the possibilities.  I wish everyone had the capacity to think like that and took the effort to think like that.

  16. Sorry for coming into this late.

    Mako, I understand and appreciate your reasoning here, and sympathize, but I’ve been feeling more and more this year as though the “free software movement” is increasingly associated with positions which I can’t support.

    The strident, bitter and divisive “Microsoft hatred” is one thing. However, when we’ve gotten to the point where someone is denounced by the president of the Free Software Foundation as a “traitor to the free software community”, we’re going into something like Stalinist Kool-Aid-Land, in my view.

    Just as bad, at the same event, when the question of Mr. Stallman’s “harmless little joke” at GCDS came up, he responded that “The person who brought that up”–i.e. me, apparently–“seems to be a troll-like enemy of the free software movement.” I’m still waiting for word on whether these statements represent official positions of the FSF.

    The leading voice of the “free software community” neither accords simple respect to people who make decisions that the FSF doesn’t agree with, preferring to go straight for character assassination, nor respects women in the community (and the order-of-magnitude lower level of participation by women in community development versus corporate development underscores that).

    So, what am I signing up for by using the word “free software” to describe what I do? Loyalty oaths, enemy lists and continuing denigration of women, it seems.

    This is a serious issue for me, Mako, and I bring it up here because I know you’re someone who takes the issues seriously at all. I’ve asked the FSF for some response, but haven’t received a word back. Too bad. (I am, by the way, a Fellow of FSF-Europe, but I can’t support the FSF as things stand…)

  17. I want to have this conversation with you Lefty, but I really think that the comments on this almost completely unrelated blog post is the wrong place for a few reasons — it is, I suppose, about free software. Send me an email or let’s find some more appropriate public venue if you feel that’s appropriate.

  18. Your article is a strawman and one that has been repeated enough that it has got to the point of being propaganda.

    The expression “open source” is a useful and precise expression in English where you can use it without getting bogged down on the details of the word “free”. 

    Like Larry Lessig said: we live in a bumper sticker culture which means that when you are explaining you are loosing. 

    Talking about open source shortcuts the discussion because you do not have to even be part of this community to get an idea of what you are talking about, even to newcomers. 

    “free software” does not enjoy that benefit.  It is tainted by its close association with unrelated topics like shareware, freeware, demoware, “free lite edition, upgrade for full”. 

    Using the expression “free software” means that you have to follow it with an explanation of its meaning.

    You postulate that those that use “free software” believe in stressing out the points of the rights to modify, use, distribute and redistribute modified versions.  Guess what: also everyone that uses the expression “open source” cares about those rights, because without those rights, it is not open source.

    And likewise those that push “free software” on their freedom grounds also have in mind examples where the ‘free software’ has been a better technological fit that proprietary software. 

    The problem is that the debate has been framed by idiots to be a simple “left or right”, it has been framed as a two-side debate, when there are not only two sides, there are hundreds, and where there is not only the single dimension that you keep engaging in, but multiple dimensions.

    This is a well understood propaganda system.  Noam Chomsky has written extensively on this particular technique on framing the debate between two options at the expense of curtailing other options or other viewpoints.

    RMS needed a rallying cry after the open source movements escaped from his hands.  What he lacked in new ideas and leadership he made up in imaginary enemies and imaginary issues that do not exist.  This debate from the outside is as profound as the two camps in “The Life of Brian” that want to liberate Judea.  “People’s Judea Liberation Front” and the “People for the Liberation of Judea” factions.

  19. Interesting comments Miguel.  There are a few things I want to reply to.

    The first is about precision of terminology and, in particular, issues of discoverability to those who are unfamiliar with your terms. It’s true that there’s a lot of amibiguity around the term “free.” But “open” isn’t actually bad and the term fails in ways that are often less obvious. Surely, you’re familiar with what is now a list of very public fights between the open source initiative and folks trying to argue that their project was “open source” when it quite clearly did not satisify the open source definition.  But that argument is tired and I don’t think we need to continue it here.

    In any case, your core point seems to be that the term “open source” doesn’t mean the exclusive avoidance of freedom-related reasons.  In support of your argument, I’ve now seen several people define “open source” with the free software definition — word for word.

    But your argument has one big problem. The organizations, institutions, and individuals most closely associated with open source are actively working to define open source as not about freedom. At all. Folks like ESR who, like it or not, still speak for and represent “open source”, are just as dogmatic and one sided as Stallman and they claim, quite literally, ownership over the term.

    The Open Source Initiative website is a good example of this.  It’s representatives will tell you, point blank, (a useful metaphor in ESR’s case) that the term open source is an attempt to distance free software from the word free and from RMS in particular.

    I think you’re right about most people being somewhere on a spectrum or about caring about both freedom and pragmatism. And, believe it or not, I’m not opposed to using a term that is inclusive of both perspective.  But open source is just as associated with one side as free software is. As someone who is doing this because I care about freedom, first and foremost, the current stewardship of the open source term is explicitly designed to not be a big enough tent for me.

    That problem is going to need to be addressed before you’ll find me agreeing with your otherwise intriguing comments.

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