Free vs. Open-Source software

Why the acrimony?

The folks at the Free Software Foundation and the folks behind the Open-Source Initiative seem to want about the same thing. They both want software that everyone is free to inspect, modify, improve, and re-distribute. A lot of software that's identified by its authors as being open-source is licensed under the FSF's GNU General Public License. But if their aims are so similar, why would Richard M. Stallman, the founder of the FSF say, "I disagree with the Open Source-movement" and why would Eric S. Raymond, a promoter of open-source software, just about say that Richard Stallman should "shut up"? And those are moderate examples of the acrimony between the two camps.

The reason for the acrimony is that the two groups arrive at the same place from entirely different directions. RMS believes that my ability to give software that you wrote to a third person is a "natural" right, up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I don't see it that way, but there's little point in arguing with someone about what are and aren't natural rights.

By contrast, ESR and the OSI folks, whatever their personal principles, make pragmatic, utilitarian arguments that I should be able to give away software that you wrote. Over here they say, "Open source promotes software reliability and quality by supporting independent peer review and rapid evolution of source code." And, referring to the RMS's position slightly obliquely, "We think the economic self-interest arguments for open source are strong enough that nobody needs to go on any moral crusades about it."

It's easy for me to see things the open-source way. Some time ago, I released some software under the GNU General Public License. It was far from complete, but it was in a state where I thought that it might possibly be of some use to someone else. Pretty late at night, I typed the upload command and went to bed. The next morning, I checked my mail and found a very nice note from someone who had downloaded my program and had found a bug and sent me a patch to fix it. Literally, someone had improved my software while I slept. I had previously liked the idea of open-source rather abstractly, but the patch in my morning's mail was concrete. Since that time, I've gotten plenty of improvements to my software from strangers.

It's much more difficult for me to try to see things RMS's way. I have an ownership interest in the labor of my hands and I don't know why I shouldn't have an ownership interest in the labor of my brain. But RMS thinks that I shouldn't. On the other hand, if I look at a place where I do see a natural right, for example in free speech, RMS's impatience becomes clearer. If someone came to me and made utilitarian arguments in favor of free speech, I'd probably come off as pretty peevish in reply. Even if the utilitarian arguments were correct, I wouldn't want my right to free speech to depend on free speech being useful.

I don't expect to see an end to the arguments any time soon. There's no way to persuade someone who sees a natural right that they should be pragmatic about it, and no way that pragmatists are going to start seeing natural rights in software distribution.

Posted: Sun - December 14, 2003 at 02:09   Main   Category: