Does free software taste great, or is open source less filling?

Which do you like best: the satisfying, rich taste of principle in free software? Or do you prefer the less morally filling and pragmatic goodness of open source? Do you wish people would stop endlessly rehashing the whole question of "free" versus "open source?" Or do you enjoy the chance to talk about goals and philosophy? As you might suspect, since I'm bringing it up...

...I like to talk about it. Is it too soon, though, following the lengthy debate stirred up by the recent "What should we call it?" FSM poll? Too dividing? Pointless? Do I ask a lot of questions?

Let's turn to our lodestar, Richard Stallman, for some answers. What's that, you say? "That RMS guy is the cause of all the trouble! He's a divider, not a uniter!" I disagree. Emphatically. In reading Richard's essays and listening to his speeches, I see and hear a very consistent and reasonable message: That freedom should come first.

Here's the canonical essay on the subject from the GNU philosophy rack: Why 'Free Software' is better than 'Open Source'. To me, it lays things out very clearly. Among other things, RMS writes:

We disagree on the basic principles, but agree more or less on the practical recommendations. So we can and do work together on many specific projects. We don't think of the Open Source movement as an enemy. The enemy is proprietary software.

That doesn't sound like someone who wants to drive a big wedge between the camps. Although first you might ask if we should say that there are separate camps. Isn't that part of the problem with that kind of language? Aren't we all talking about the same thing, and by constantly harping on the subject, isn't he creating a division where none should exist? I don't think so. Some people may use the terms interchangeably and they may understand the essential freedom that is at stake, but not all.

And I think there is a definite philosophical difference that is demonstrated by current events. There is danger that we might lose ground if people don't value freedom. And! It doesn't seem like harping to me when it is in support of principles. What are we trying to achieve? For those interested in freedom first, it makes sense to highlight the philosophy as much as possible.

I think it's absolutely necessary to be clear on the philosophy, as shown in the GPLv3 discussion. First, let's take a look at a question from a interview with RMS published earlier this year: Members of the open source camp tend to describe themselves using words like "pragmatic" and "realistic," while describing the free software camp as being driven by "ideology." Do you think that's a fair description?. Stallman: We in the free software movement are generally as pragmatic and realistic as anyone, in pursuit of our goals. Our methods have been rather effective, as [evidenced by] what we have achieved. Where we differ from the proponents of open source is in what those goals are. The open source viewpoint cites only practical-convenience goals, such as making software powerful and reliable. Our primary goals are freedom and community. We appreciate convenience too, of course, but we do not put that above freedom.. To win freedom for the long term, it is crucial for people to value freedom. If we could hand everyone free software for all jobs today, they would have freedom tomorrow (at least in the use of their computers). But would they still have freedom in five years? If they do not learn to value freedom, they will probably let it slip away. Thus, while the open source camp's strategy of getting corporations interested in releasing free software has contributed important free programs to our community, that approach alone cannot assure our freedom in the long term. Only talking about freedom can do that..

It's similar to what is covered in the GNU essay, but it highlights even more clearly the issue for me, and reinforces the desire to keep talking about this. If people don't value freedom, they won't stand up for it. And look what we have going on today with the GPLv3 debate: some people are upset about the anti-DRM clause and what effect it might have. (Disclaimer: I'm not following the debate closely. Instead I trust the Free Software Foundation to promote our interests in freedom.)

With the anti-DRM clause, we're seeing some heated discussions about how corporations will be affected and how they might respond. There are some who talk about the millions and billions of dollars that companies have riding on "open source" software and that there is too much at stake to be letting the "radical" FSF make all these "anti-commercial" decisions.

Some of these people are philosophically against all free software, but seeing that they're losing ground in the battle, have chosen to stake themselves to the old license and try to cause dissension by crying foul at the new provisions.

Other people may believe in free software, more or less, but they've taken the more practical view of the open source philosophy. They may appreciate the contributions of the GNU project, but are afraid its leader, RMS, will be too unpalatable to their new corporate masters. They may even agree that DRM is a bad thing, but they are more worried about losing business credibility and the support of corporations. Their desire for open source to prosper is stronger than their belief in freedom, and they may be more likely to want to try an appeasement strategy.

No way. Let's not do this. Let's not get off the freedom train so soon. The Free Software Foundation has been nurturing this vision along for so many years, and a little commercial success doesn't change the ultimate goal. I'm unable to articulate very well what I see as the problem here: that this vision of free software and a free society has grown steadily for so many years, but because we've gone through a spurt of rapid growth thanks to corporations realizing one aspect of the value of free software (its low cost and power), suddenly people want to say the FSF's approach is no longer relevant. That they're clinging to some outmoded and unrealistic ideal. Bah. Let's keep talking about it, and try to help people understand what the true goal is. One more time, where Mr. Stallman says it better than me:

Spreading the idea of freedom is a big job--it needs your help. That's why we stick to the term "free software'' in the GNU Project, so we can help do that job. If you feel that freedom and community are important for their own sake--not just for the convenience they bring--please join us in using the term "free software''.

And that's why I use and promote the term, Free Software.

Afterword I: On Corporations

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying corporations are evil. Most of us earn our paychecks doing honest work for them. They are us. Doing business through corporations is largely how we've chosen to organize our economic activity. But by necessity, they often look at the present and the future very narrowly; unable to see the benefit of disruption. Free software is very disruptive and therefore threatening to established businesses. That's why I think the Free Software Foundation is right to discount business considerations in furthering the cause of freedom. And of course, despite the shrill cry of critics, the FSF can't force anyone to do anything, except to comply with the terms of the licenses they've already agreed to.

Afterword II: The Troublesome Mr. Hancock

Some final words about Terry and the troubles he has caused me with this post. First, I swear that I already was planning on using the "tastes great / less filling" title before I saw this comment. Now he'll probably sue me for some kind of idea infringement. Second, his thoughtful comments in the "naming names" poll caused me to miss last week's entry as I had to back up and think some more about it. (In the end, I just went with my gut anyway. But I valued his opinions.) Third, he just wrote this nice article about world peace and now here I am bringing up this potentially divisive subject again. Thanks for nothing, Terry! :-)

Back at the ranch

Several new articles can be had over at the Moving to Freedom web site ( There is a review of Linus's book, Just for Fun, that goes in to some of the same territory as the article you just read, and a post about intellectual property where I (briefly) connect the emerging networked age with man (and woman!) coming out of the caves.


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