Why proprietary software firms like “open source” and not “free software”

In 2016 Microsoft changed its stance from saying “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches” (said by then former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer) to “Microsoft ♥ Linux” (current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella). Ballmer later said that he no longer entirely agrees with his former words. Upon Microsoft’s choice to distribute its proprietary database program for GNU/Linux, Ziff-Davis wrote that “[Ballmer] said going to war with open source “made a ton of money” that still contributes to Microsoft’s revenue. But he said he now considers that the threat from Linux is over.”. In 2018 Microsoft bought GitHub.com, a website for hosting software projects and managing revisions of the software with Git, a free software program.

In 2019 Microsoft removed projects from GitHub which implemented algorithms to simulate removing clothing in pictures of clothed women. There were many such projects on GitHub, some derived from an application called “DeepNude”.

An unnamed GitHub spokesperson told vice.com (archive.fo copy)

We do not proactively monitor user-generated content, but we do actively investigate abuse reports. In this case, we disabled the project because we found it to be in violation of our acceptable use policy. We do not condone using GitHub for posting sexually obscene content and prohibit such conduct in our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines.

GitHub’s “sexually obscene” section of their guidelines reads:

Don’t post content that is pornographic. This does not mean that all nudity, or all code and content related to sexuality, is prohibited. We recognize that sexuality is a part of life and non-pornographic sexual content may be a part of your project, or may be presented for educational or artistic purposes. We do not allow obscene sexual content or content that may involve the exploitation or sexualization of minors.

It’s not clear what Microsoft means but apparently this is how Microsoft shows it loves the open source development methodology. And the open source development methodology does not apparently stand for software freedom (the freedom to run, inspect, share, and modify published computer software) or freedom of speech. GitHub decided that this speech is “sexually obscene” according to GitHub’s representative even though the program itself contains no “sexually obscene” information.

Microsoft associates itself as a distributor of “open source” (hence the existence of opensource.microsoft.com and their so-called “Open Source blog”) not “free software”. Microsoft is not alone in this, Google, for example, also chooses to align itself with supporting “open source”.

Why do proprietary software distributors choose to associate themselves with “open source” and not with “free software”?

Software proprietors tacitly tell us that there is a difference. The difference is that open source development methodology is amenable to the power of a proprietor and the free software social movement objects to that power as unjust.

When Microsoft restricts what kind of software one is allowed to develop using GitHub, they’re not calling anyone’s software freedom to mind. Proprietors prefer open source development methodology because that philosophy favors the programming labor proprietors like—developers ought to write code which is useful to the proprietor and license that code in such a way that the proprietor can make proprietary versions of that code including incorporating that code into proprietary programs. This means treating a software proprietor as though they were a charity and bolstering no additional software freedom for users.

Copyleft is a general method for making a program free and ensuring that derivative programs are also free. When a copyleft free software license’s terms are enforced, the software freedom sticks to the program and ensures that everyone who gets a copy of the program (modified or not) gets the same freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify the program. A free software license that doesn’t ensure software freedom for derivatives is non-copyleft. Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, rightly calls non-copyleft free software licenses “pushover” licenses because they’ll stand up for nothing.

Copyleft free software licenses are readily identified as such in the Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) license list and the FSF advises careful judgment before choosing a non-copyleft free software license precisely because such licenses allow proprietary derivatives. The FSF recommends picking a strongly copyleft free software license (such as the GNU General Public License) by default, and selecting a non-copyleft free software license only under certain circumstances. By contrast, the Open Source Initiative lists licenses they approve of in one large list with no commentary pointing to differences among the licenses. Thus those not incentivized to study the licenses might well pick a short license simply because it is short, which risks leaving out important assurances the user won’t be subject to gaps in license coverage like patent treachery (such is found in understanding the difference between two non-copylefted free software licenses—the 3-clause BSD license and the Apache 2.0 license). The Open Source Initiative is opposed to framing any issue in terms of a user’s software freedom, historically calling such efforts “ideological tub-thumping”. So it is not surprising that they don’t offer distinctions that indicate which approved licenses will respect a user’s software freedom in the program, or explain a general-purpose means for securing software freedom such as copyleft (the closest the Open Source Initiative comes is a FAQ entry which doesn’t bring up software freedom or speak against proprietary software which does not respect a user’s software freedom).