What’s wrong with Free Beer?

Freedom. It’s such a loaded term. It represents so many things: the ability to do stuff unfettered, letting the press say whatever they want, invading foreign nations to pass the time, a glorious ideal. I started thinking about it recently because there’s a furniture chain in Australia called “Freedom” and I always get a kick out of signs in shopping centres with arrows that direct shoppers to the food court, toilets, and freedom... “Free” also means lots of things. Free as in libre... Free as in beer... Interestingly enough, they aren’t as different as you might think! In fact, there is a new kind of beer sweeping Denmark, and it is like free software BUT BEER! How fun!

The concept of freedom is immensely powerful, and it is one of the pillars upon which our nations are supposedly founded—home of the free and whatnot. But it’s far from black and white. Freedom is a concept that western nations are pretty rabid about protecting (the media will tell you that terrorists threaten “our freedom” more than anything else). But, in fact, freedom can make us feel a bit uncomfortable if it encroaches on our ability to capitalise. Sometimes it’s best to leave the ideological stuff out and focus on the cash... if you keep rabbiting on about freedom, someone might notice we aren’t as free as we would like to believe, or get embarrassed by the zeal. And this got me thinking about the great free/libre software versus open source software debate. Why all the fuss? Why is RMS so insistent about “free”? And am I just being a fence sitter when I call it FLOSS?

David Jones, Toilets, and Freedom...

The beer is confusing me...

One of the reasons I decided to tackle this issue now is Lawrence Lessig’s article in September’s issue of Wired—Free as in beer. For those of you who don’t know the story, those zany Danes have released a new beer—Free Beer. Free as in free software, not as in... um... steak knives? Anyway, the idea is that what Lessig describes as “open source business” is coming along great guns. It’s all about collaborative innovation.

The crucial issue here is that there is beer to be had!

The idea that laypeople could actually improve on things can be a bit threatening to “experts”. Experts start to feel a bit antsy when they are being upstaged—particularly by eight year olds. And often the way to deal with this is to forbid lay improvements, take a couple of suggestions covertly, then pass them off as your own next time ’round. Alternatively, an innovator can be less of an expert and more of a facilitator, and say “Hey guys, I’ve had this idea. Why don’t you add to it, help with it, and we’ll make it as good as it can be”. And this is collaborative innovation, which in the case of the Free Beer is called “open source beer”. This is a fact that Lessig reckons has annoyed RMS, who was quoted as saying it should have been called “free software beer”. Is it free? Is it open? Is it both? What’s the difference? Does it matter when obviously the crucial issue here is that there is beer to be had?

Paying for freedom

One of the issues with the word “free” is the no cost implication—dealt with by RMS with the “free beer” analogy which has now been confused by Free Beer. Not that there is a problem with things that cost nothing—aside from the fact that western society places a lower value on things that are free than things that you pay for. “The best things in life are free” might be a quaint expression and a Beatles song, but don’t we really only mean it if we can’t afford something better? Air and sunlight might be free, but wouldn’t they be nicer on, say, your own private island?

When you talk about the concept of free software, even if you specify that you can charge for the product, people tend to look impatient and say “Yeah, but how can you make any money out of it?”. If you decide to say “Actually, it’s the ideology of the thing that I really like”, people will look at you like you are about to start preaching religion or whip out a begging bowl at any moment. Don’t wear your beliefs on your sleeve, lock them in your wall safe so people really have to look for them. And while our politicians would like us to think that sacrificing our rights for freedom is okay, and for all that we are jealously guarding our freedom, we make sure that freedom is just an abstract concept that means “doing stuff I like doing”, not a well thought out way of life that may involve some fiscal sacrifices.

So why open a can of worms?

Well, according to RMS, the basic difference between the concepts of open source and free software is this—open source just means you can see the code. Free software is an ideological and political statement about freedom. And, as RMS says in his definition, freedom makes people a bit edgy. They would be happier if you were to say “Get open source software, it’s more cost effective/runs better/does cooler stuff/has more people working on it” than if you were to say “Get free software, because the concept is ideologically sound and we should all have the right to these freedoms and all the reasons for using open source”.

We’re all on the same side when we’re talking about FLOSS

There is no point, according to RMS, sticking your head in the sand; and saying “This isn’t about freedom, it’s about business” is missing a huge point. Sure, open source is a way of describing the methodology. But it’s also a way of avoiding the wishy washy stuff and heading right to the most valuable bit... money. I’m as fiscally motivated as the next person, but sometimes I like to let my conscience visit. And that’s why I’m quite happy to go with free software. But then there is that thorny issue about free as in steak-knives.

FLOSSing—a cop out or the solution?

According to the Wikipedia entry, FLOSS is a bit of a cop out. It was originally used to make sure the open sourcers and the free software-ers weren’t antagonised. And apparently RMS reckons that it’s okay to use the expression if you won’t commit exclusively to either side of the divide. Now I don’t want to appear commitment-phobic—and I do feel like free software is closer to what I personally would affiliate myself with if I was going to choose sides—but as I asked a couple of weeks ago, how important is the motivation for migration? Should we get righteous about it and only accept the pure at heart? Or can we just take anyone, because we’re all on the same side when we’re talking about FLOSS?

Inclusivity isn’t a dirty word, although it’s often derided as “political correctness gone mad”. It’s an excellent word. The feeling of belonging makes us happy. (I think I got that from Dr Phil... sorry about that.) And, if we all belong to the FLOSS community, and then some of us talk cash and some of us talk ideology, then that’s cool... and we are all part of a united effort. So my references to FLOSS aren’t because I have a pathological fear of settling down or because I’m obsessed with dental hygiene. It’s because I feel like it widens our community, and next thing you know we’ll all be sitting around together at the pub having a quiet Free/Libre/Open-Source Software beer.


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