privacy and licensing

Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software

Open source supporters try to deal with this by pointing to their official definition, but that corrective approach is less effective for them than it is for us. The term “free software” has two natural meanings, one of which is the intended meaning, so a person who has grasped the idea of “free speech, not free beer” will not get it wrong again. But “open source” has only one natural meaning, which is different from the meaning its supporters intend. So there is no succinct way to explain and justify the official definition of “open source.” That makes for worse confusion.

Another misunderstanding of “open source” is the idea that it means “not using the GNU GPL”. It tends to accompany a misundertanding of “free software”, equating it to “GPL-covered software”. These are equally mistaken, since the GNU GPL is considered an open source license, and most of the open source licenses are considered free software licenses.

Different values can lead to similar conclusions…but not always

Radical groups in the 1960s had a reputation for factionalism: some organizations split because of disagreements on details of strategy, and the two daughter groups treated each other as enemies despite having similar basic goals and values. The right-wing made much of this, and used it to criticize the entire left.

Some try to disparage the free software movement by comparing our disagreement with open source to the disagreements of those radical groups. They have it backwards. We disagree with the open source camp on the basic goals and values, but their views and ours lead in many cases to the same practical behavior—such as developing free software.

As a result, people from the free software movement and the open source camp often work together on practical projects such as software development. It is remarkable that such different philosophical views can so often motivate different people to participate in the same projects. Nonetheless, these views are very different, and there are situations where they lead to very different actions.

The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program which is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users’ freedom. How will free software activists and open source enthusiasts react to that?

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is very attractive, but not at the price of my freedom. So I have to do without it. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.

Powerful, reliable software can be bad

The idea that we want software to be powerful and reliable comes from the supposition that the software is designed to serve its users. If it is powerful and reliable, that means it serves them better.

But software can only be said to serve its users if it respects their freedom. What if the software is designed to put chains on its users? Then powerfulness only means the chains are more constricting, and reliability that they are harder to remove. Malicious features, such as spying on the users, restricting the users, back doors, and imposed upgrades are common in proprietary software, and some open source supporters want to do likewise.

Under the pressure of the movie and record companies, software for individuals to use is increasingly designed specifically to restrict them. This malicious feature is known as DRM, or Digital Restrictions Management (see, and it is the antithesis in spirit of the freedom that free software aims to provide. And not just in spirit: since the goal of DRM is to trample your freedom, DRM developers try to make it hard, impossible, or even illegal for you to change the software that implements the DRM.

Yet some open source supporters have proposed “open source DRM” software. Their idea is that by publishing the source code of programs designed to restrict your access to encrypted media, and allowing others to change it, they will produce more powerful and reliable software for restricting users like you. Then it will be delivered to you in devices that do not allow you to change it.

This software might be “open source,” and use the open source development model; but it won’t be free software, since it won’t respect the freedom of the users that actually run it. If the open source development model succeeds in making this software more powerful and reliable for restricting you, that will make it even worse.

Fear of freedom

The main initial motivation for the term “open source software” is that the ethical ideas of “free software” make some people uneasy. That’s true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might prefer to ignore, such as whether their conduct is ethical. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may simply close their minds to it. It does not follow that we ought to stop talking about these things.

However, that is what the leaders of “open source” decided to do. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics and freedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to “sell” the software more effectively to certain users, especially business.

This approach has proved effective, in its own terms. The rhetoric of open source has convinced many businesses and individuals to use, and even develop, free software, which has extended our community—but only at the superficial, practical level. The philosophy of open source, with its purely practical values, impedes understanding of the deeper ideas of free software; it brings many people into our community, but does not teach them to defend it. That is good, as far as it goes, but it is not enough to make freedom secure. Attracting users to free software takes them just part of the way to becoming defenders of their own freedom.

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