When freedom isn't free (software)

As Tim O'Reilly indicates, the debate over free-software licensing largely misses the point, because it focuses on mechanics rather than the end goal: freedom.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

Tim O'Reilly James Duncan Davidson

At the Oscon conference this week, Tim O'Reilly repeated something he has been arguing for years, but that resonated powerfully given some of the rancorous debates currently raging in the free and open-source software community. O'Reilly cut through the misguided logic of free-software advocacy with a simple statement:

I don't care about free software. I care about freedom...Architecture of systems matters more than licenses.

An open-source software license doesn't necessarily make you open. An open-source license doesn't guarantee freedom, either--at least not in the broad sense of the word.

For example, O'Reilly indicated that he uses proprietary Twitter instead of open-source Identi.ca for at least two reasons: 1) O'Reilly's preferred microblogging (Twitter) client, Seesmic, doesn't support Identi.ca (this will soon change) and 2) Twitter actually has a very open platform, as can be seen in the diverse and deep developer community growing up around it, something that is not true of open-source Identi.ca.

Twitter, in other words, with its closed license, may well be more open than Identi.ca, at least in the areas that most people care about (development community plus the ability to use tool of choice).

Sometimes we in the open-source community forget that licensing is a means to an end, and not the end itself. Licensing does not create a community: there are plenty of open-source projects that completely adhere to the Open Source Definition and yet are effectively closed to outside developers, while Microsoft and others have shown for years that they can attract significant outside development around their platforms.

Free-software advocates, despite their calls for freedom, can sometimes achieve the opposite, as Linux kernel founder Linus Torvalds declares:

I may make jokes about Microsoft at times, but at the same time, I think the Microsoft hatred is a disease. I believe in open development, and that very much involves not just making the source open, but also not shutting other people and companies out.

There are 'extremists' in the free-software world, but that's one major reason why I don't call what I do 'free software' any more. I don't want to be associated with the people for whom it's about exclusion and hatred."

Open software...but closed minds? What counts as open, and why do some believe the conversation begins and ends with a license? Which breed of openness do you, as a developer or as an end-user, care most about?

It's similar to the current calls for transparency in government. Transparency is a very good thing, but it is a means to an end. It is not the end itself, and creates significant costs, as Andrea DiMaio notes:

While increasing momentum on transparency consolidates and creates further political capital, it will also cause significant stress to the machinery of government. Processes will have to create and expose more data to comply with additional requirements. Executives, managers, and other government employees will be held accountable against a much larger set of metrics, and their decision-making processes will be potentially under scrutiny at every single step.

Some will say "To hell with the cost or difficulty! Just do it, and do it NOW!!" But these are the same sort of people who demand that all software be completely free forever, and right now, because they've never had to make payroll or, if they do, it's for a small consulting business whose industry impact is constrained by its own ideology.

"I believe in open development, and that very much involves not just making the source open, but also not shutting other people and companies out."
--Linus Torvalds

Microsoft Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez suggests that "taking purely ideological positions does not work in real life. Instead, flexibility and nuanced approaches to complex problems will tend to win the day over dogmatic approaches."

He's right, even if Microsoft doesn't always measure up to this "flexibility" and "nuance" he prefers. But then, none of us really do live up to our own hype.

Which is why, as Glyn Moody writes, we need to be careful in how we engage in discussing various strategies of openness:

Ad hominem/ad feminam attacks are not just irrelevant, they are harmful. They can lead to abiding rancor that poisons discussions and decisions for some time, and that helps no one--neither purists nor pragmatists--and certainly not free software.

As we broaden the conversation in the open-source software world to focus on freedom, and not necessarily free software, we'll find that there are different mechanics to accomplish this goal. Sometimes this will include open-source licensing. Sometimes it won't.

So long as it's the customer that takes center stage in the debate, I'm convinced we won't go wrong.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.