Radicalism in Free Software, Open Source

The background:

In light of this debate I've been thinking about the role and manifestations of radicalism in the free software and open source world. I think a lot of people (unfairly, I think in many cases) equate dedication to the "Cause of Free Software," as the refusal to use anything but free software, and the admonishment of those who do use "unpure" software. To my mind this is both unfair to Free Software as well as the radicals who work on free software projects and advocate for Free Software.

First, lets back up and talk about RMS [1]. RMS is often held up as the straw man for "free software radicals." RMS apparently (and I'd believe it) refuses to use software that isn't free software. This is seen as being somewhat "monkish," because doesn't just involve using GNU/Linux on the desktop, but it also involves things like refusing to use the non-free software written for GNU/Linux, including Adobe's Flash player, and various drivers. In short using the "free-only" stack of software is a somewhat archaic experience. The moderates say "who wants to use a computer which has been willfully broken because the software's license is ideologically incompatible," and the moderates come out looking rational and pragmatic.

Except that, as near as I can tell, while the refusal to use non-free software might be a bit traumatic for a new convert from the proprietary operating system world, for someone like RMS, it's not a huge personal sacrifice. I don't think I'm particularly "monkish" about my free software habits, and the only non-free software I use is the adobe flash player, and the non-open-source extensions to Sun's Virtual Box. I'm pretty sure I don't even need the binary blob stuff in the kernel. For me--and likely for RMS, and those of our ilk--sticking to the pure "free software" stuff works better and suits the way I enjoy working. [2]

In short, our ability to use free software exclusively, depends upon our habits and on the ways in which we use and interact with technology.

To my mind, the process by which the pragmatic approach to free software and open source radicalizes people like RMS, is terribly unproductive. While we can see that the moderates come away from this encounter looking more reasonable to the more conventional types in the software world, this is not a productive or useful discussion to entertain.

In any case I think there are a number of dimensions to the free software (and open source world,) that focusing on "how free your software" is distracts us from. Might it not be useful to think of a few other issues. They are, as follows:

1. Free software is about education, and ensuring that the users of technology can and do understand the implications of the technology that they use.

At least theoretically, one of the leading reasons why having "complete and corresponding source code" is so crucial to free software is that with the source code, users will be able to understand how their technology works.

Contemporary software is considerably more complex than the 70s vintage software that spurred the Free Software movement. Where one might have imagined being able to see, use, and helpfully modified an early version of a program like Emacs, today the source code for Emacs is eighty megabytes, to say nothing of the entire Linux Kernel. I think it's absurd to suggest that "just looking at the source code" for a program will be educational in and of itself.

Having said that, I think free software can (and does) teach people a great deal about technology and software. People who use free software know more about technology. And it's not just because people who are given to use free software are more computer literate, but rather using free software teaches people about technology. Arch Linux is a great example of this at a fairly high level, but I think there's a way that Open Office Firefox plays a similar role for a more general audience.

2. There are a number of cases around free software where freedom--despite licensing choices--can be ambiguous. In these cases, particularly, it is important to think about the economics of software, not simply the state of the "ownership" of software.

I'm thinking about situations like the "re-licensing" such as that employed by MySQL AB/Sun/Oracle over the MySQL database. In these cases contributors assign copyright to the commercial owner of the software project on the condition that the code also be licensed under the terms of a license like the GPL. This way the owning copy has the ability to sell licenses to the project under terms that would be incompatible with the GPL. This includes adding proprietary features to the open source code that don't get reincorporated into the mainline.

This "hybrid model" gives the company who owns the copyright a lot of power over the code base, that normal contributors simply don't have. While this isn't a tragedy, I think the current lack of certainty over the MySQL project should give people at least some pause before adopting this sort of business model.

While it might have once been possible to "judge a project by the license," I think the issue of "Software Freedom" is in today's world so much more complex, and I'm pretty sure that having some sort of economic understanding of the industry is crucial to figuring this out.

3. The success of free software may not be directly connected to the size of the userbase of free software

One thing that I think Zonker's argument falls apart around is the idea that free software will only be successful if the entire world is using it. Wrong.

Lets take a project like Awesome. It's a highly niche window manager for X11 that isn't part of a Desktop Environment (e.g. GNOME/KDE/XFCE), and you have to know a thing or two about scripting and programing in order to get it to be usable. If there were much more than a thousand users in the world I'd be surprised. This accounts for a minuscule amount of the desktop window management market. Despite this, I think the Awesome project is wildly successful.

So what marks a successful free software project? A product that creates value in the world, by making people's jobs easier and more efficient. A community that supports the developers and users of the software equally. Size helps for sure, particularly in that it disperses responsibility for the development of a project among a number of capable folks. However, the size of a projects userbase (or developer base) should not be the sole or even the most important quality by which we can judge success.

There are other issues which are important to think about and debate in the free software world. There are also some other instances where the "hard line" is over radicalized by a more moderate element, nevertheless I think this is a good place to stop for today, and I'm interested in getting some feedback from you all before I continue with this idea.

Onward and Upward!

[1]Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, original author of the GNU GPL (perhaps the most prevalent free software license), as well as the ever popular gcc and emacs.
[2]Arguably, it's easier for software developers and hacker types like myself to use "just free software" because hackers tend to make free software to satisfy their needs (the "scratch your own itch" phenomena), and so there's a lot of free software that supports "working like a hacker," but less for more mainstream audiences. Indeed one could argue that "mainstream computer using audiences" as a class is largely the product of the "proprietary software and technology industry."
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