It’s hard to retrofit freedom on to a non-freedom movement

Luis Villa writes that one should not “be afraid to embrace freedom”.

don’t be afraid to embrace freedom: open source businesses tend to be allergic to the word ”˜free’. That is a mistake. Say ”˜freedom’ a lot. Love freedom. Embrace freedom. Your community likes freedom. It differentiates you from the proprietary competition, and if you embrace it wholeheartedly (not just this weak ”˜openness’ stuff) it will differentiate you from most of your open source competition too.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with calling attention to software freedom—the freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify one’s software at any time for any reason—but there are reasons why the open source movement proponents don’t do this. Instead they champion a development methodology which claims that inexpensive software development results in fewer bugs. Theirs is not a persuasive claim because it’s so often not true and it speaks to so few; open source software has its share of bugs and most people aren’t software developers. That movement offers non-programmers no reason to care about unpowerful buggy software. The persuasive argument comes from the older free software movement, the movement where software freedom is front and center.


Richard Stallman was a programmer in MIT’s AI lab. He shared source code freely with his coworkers (in both senses, without restriction and without cost). The AI lab had an unreliable printer which the AI lab made somewhat less troublesome by customizing the printer software to give end-to-end feedback; if a printout took too long, the user was notified that they had better check the printer for jams. Later, the AI lab had been given a new printer but this printer also jammed. The AI lab didn’t have source code to the new printer control software, so none of their improvements could be applied. Stallman heard that someone at Stanford had the source code, so on his next visit there he tried to get a copy. The person at Stanford with the source code had chosen to sign a non-disclosure agreement thereby promising not to share that source code with anyone. Stallman was very angry that he had been refused a copy of the source code; upon reflection he figured out that what he needed was the freedom to make his computer operate as he wished. This experience gave rise to figuring out that these freedoms are the only ethical way to operate a computer and that these freedoms must be extended to all computer users. In November 1983 he set out to make an entirely free operating system called GNU (pronounced “guh-NEW”) where all users would have the freedom to inspect, run, share, and modify the system as they wished.

The open source movement began in 1998 with the formation of the Open Source Initiative. The Netscape Communications Corporation had just published the source code to Netscape Navigator (the start of what would eventually lead to Firefox, Thunderbird, and other such programs). OSI founders wondered if other businesses would act similarly. Their claim is that the open source software development methodology which promotes efficient inexpensive development will produce better software than the secretive ways in which proprietary programs were developed. OSI’s founders knew about software freedom but chose to push freedom aside because they felt that freedom talk got in the way of reaching business. All the while OSI (and “open source”) claims to promote free software in a different way. The “open source” name and that movement’s views were spread in popular press.

Conundrum for promoting free software

By pushing freedom aside and adopting a line that argued for producing powerful and reliable software, open source proponents adopted a different set of values. Values that give no reason to object to proprietary software. As Stallman explains in his essay “Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software” this points to how open source proponents aren’t actually always promoting free software:

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.

The open source movement is more compatible with proprietary software; that movement’s values were so compatible with business interests it’s hardly surprising that proprietary software businesses want to use the term to convey some sense of acceptance. I believe it is this compatibility with proprietary software that explains why the “open source” name and message were so widely repeated in the press. Corporate media (and their sympathizers) aren’t eager to question what so many corporate software distributors do.

Vila isn’t the first to ask open source proponents to think about software freedom; OSI co-founder Bruce Perens asked for something quite similar years ago. Will these messages capture the imagination of the open source enthusiasts? Calling for freedom to be retrofitted onto the open source movement has been tough for open source proponents to swallow because they’ve built up a history of eschewing freedom in pursuit of a business audience. It will take a lot of effort to overcome that history.

One thought on “It’s hard to retrofit freedom on to a non-freedom movement

  1. I think perhaps I should have made more clear that I’m not calling for open source businesses to wholeheartedly embrace RMS-ian Freedom; that just isn’t going to happen. I just want them to ditch the irrational fear of using the word at all- it cripples them when communicating with their customers, and increases the often unnecessary and artificial tension between the ‘open’ and ‘free’ camps. There is plenty enough real difference between the two already- no need for further artificial and irrational distinctions based on fear of a word.

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