Why can’t free software and open source advocates just get along?

They do for making programs and working on various projects, but the Open Source Initiative has quite a history telling people that it is okay to dismiss freedom talk.

I think highly of people, like Eben Moglen, who are able to work so well with OSI advocates. I think it’s important we all work together to achieve some common goals like the abolition of software patents, freeing people from the anti-user circumstances of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), and writing more free software. When I hear Michael Tiemann, current president of the OSI and head of Red Hat, say that he respects freedom (audio) I want to believe him. But there is quite a bit of work for the OSI to do to address what has happened over many years (remember, the OSI which started the open source movement, launched over a decade after the GNU Project which began the free software movement).

There is much work to be done because there is so much history to overcome.

  • The OSI has taken steps in the right direction by removing the name-calling on the OSI’s description of the difference between free software and open source in their FAQ which used to read:

    It’s a pitch for “free software” on solid pragmatic grounds rather than ideological tub-thumping. The winning substance has not changed, the losing attitude and symbolism have.

    This long stood as an embarrassment for the OSI particularly when compared to the FSF’s description of the difference between the two movements. But now the OSI FAQ has changed and this section reads

    It’s a pitch for “free software” because it works, not because it’s the only right thing to do. We’re selling freedom on its merits. We realise that many organisations adopt software for technical or financial reasons rather than for its freedom. Many users learn to appreciate freedom through their own experience, rather than by being told about it.

    While I disagree with this message—valuing freedom has to be taught—I can see it’s an improvement on the insulting language they used to use. Just as advertisers know that valuing everything in terms of price has to be taught (which is why they’re always appealing to people on price and getting people to think “free” only has one meaning—gratis), people won’t learn to value freedom by focusing solely on technical merit (which is what the OSI means by “its merits”). In fact, there are plenty of buggy free software programs, but we should value them too because we have freedoms with those programs we don’t have with the most technically capable proprietary programs. Therefore free software, regardless of its technical proficiency, treats us better than proprietary software does.

  • Some years after this FAQ was written, Red Hat lawyer and open source advocate Mark Webbink wrote a document describing “open source licensing” which classifies licenses according to preservation of the terms of the license. Free software advocates know this division as freedom-preserving and non-freedom-preserving licenses; a division long described by the term “copyleft“. But Webbink’s essay goes out of its way to avoid using the term “copyleft” because that term is centered on the continuation of software freedom—the very thing the OSI is not interested in promoting. I’ll link to this essay when I find another copy online (the copy I read long ago has vanished). This essay was featured on Slashdot some time ago and I commented there on Webbink’s choice of terms. Similarly, a book on licensing written by OSI lawyer Lawrence Rosen dismisses copyleft but never really comes to terms with why it is a bad term. Copyleft is a bad term for him because it promotes the very thing the OSI doesn’t want to discuss. Instead Rosen uses the term “reciprocity” to describe the GPL. In doing so Rosen can pursue another argument—that the GPL is a contract, not merely a license. Long-time GPL defender and now GPLv3 co-author Eben Moglen disagrees saying that the GPL is a license and that is all it needs to be to work.
  • Peruvian Congressman Villanueva endorsed a bill which called for using free software in Peruvian government. The OSI claims on their website that “Peru prefers Open Source” despite that Congressman Villanueva is quite clear—what he seeks is free software (“Software Libre”) because free software promotes freedom for Peruvian citizens by ensuring their ability to get and use government data. The Congressman made this quite clear in his scathing reply to Juan Alberto González, a Microsoft representative who tried to frame every issue the Congressman raised in terms of “open source” and persuade him to use Microsoft’s proprietary software instead. In the OSI’s translation of a document concerning this matter, the term “open source” doesn’t appear anywhere in the document yet the term “free software” does, leading one to ask how the OSI came up with their misleading headline.
  • Open source proponents repeatedly talk about the GNU GPL as being an “open source” license. The GPL does qualify for being OSI-approved but the term suggests authorship and detracts from freedom talk where a lack of freedom talk is simply inappropriate. Both released versions of the GPL predate the OSI (and thus the definition of the term “open source”), so OSI qualification is merely a matter of making the qualification requirements match what the GPL already said. If you read the GPL you can see that freedom talk runs throughout the license. Increasing users software freedom is one of the reasons the GPL exists. Richard Stallman is routinely credited as the author of the GPL and it hardly needs mentioning that he is not interested in a development methodology. The OSI is, in this case, a Johnny-come-lately and the GPL is properly credited as a free software license.
  • At FISL7, Richard Stallman, an unnamed questioner, and Michael Tiemann discussed the OSI and former OSI President Eric Raymond:

    Unnamed Questioner: Last year, Eric Raymond came to FISL and said that [the] Free Software Foundation didn’t like [the] Open Source Initiative though they–

    Richard Stallman: That’s true.

    Unnamed Questioner: [laughs] –though they wanted to be friendly and work together.

    RMS: Well, their idea of working together is that together we should advocate just what we have in common, and what we have in common happens to be their position. The reason is the philosophy of free software, of the free software movement which I founded in 1983, focuses on freedom and community; on human rights for software users. Open source was founded in 1998 as a way to stop talking about those things, to hush them up, bury them, put them out of people’s sight. So they talk about practical advantages that come if you use free software. Well, I also talk about practical advantages in my speeches. So here’s what I say, and here’s the part they say. Except that they’ve gone in more depth on it, and that is useful. You know, making the case to businesses that they’ll get some practical advantage out of releasing, under usually a free software license. That’s useful. But the point is, it’s still a more superficial part of the issue. So what they’re really saying is they want to cooperate and they wish we would cooperate by forgetting about what we consider the most important thing and joining them in saying only the superficial part. This is the way Eric Raymond puts it; he’s very clever at asking us to abandon the most important thing and making it sound like he’s only being reasonable.

    Later, Michael Tiemann says the following in response to RMS’ statement on Raymond:

    Michael Tiemann: Hi Richard, I just wanted to follow up on the question you were asked earlier about Eric Raymond. I wanted to point out a fact: which is that while Eric Raymond was formerly the president of the OSI he no longer is. Eric does speak for himself but less and less for the OSI. I would also like to clarify that as president of the OSI I have always supported the GPL as a model license for developers. It’s the license–it’s the only license I have chosen to work under other than the LGPL for my own programming. And I recognize your position, which is to say that if I am not talking about freedom first and foremost I am burying freedom but I think myself differently–

    RMS: Well, you might be doing something in between. There are things in between. When Eric Raymond was the president of the OSI I could perceive this intention to bury talk of freedom very clearly, and there are others who talk about open source and clearly are trying to bury talk of freedom. That doesn’t apply to everyone who uses the term [“open source”]. What is true of their use of the term is that it generally doesn’t call attention to freedom very much.

    Tiemann: But in this conference I do want to support that what you are doing is incredibly valuable and I respect it tremendously.

    RMS: Well thank you.

  • I hope that the OSI takes up the task of promoting freedom because the free software community (and it is properly known as that because the free software movement defined it and did it first) is growing faster than its members can learn about software freedom. This is an achilles heel of the movement—if users don’t learn to value software freedom for its own sake they’ll have no reason to reject a low-price proprietary alternative that does the same job—and we need help teaching people to value freedom.