Free software isn't a single school of thought

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 20, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!"

- Monty Python, "The Life of Brian"

"Would it be immoral for me to write a program and then to sell it without providing the source code?" Someone asked in response to my last blog entry. The question might have a troll, but I replied, "I'm not the keeper of your conscience. You have to decide that for yourself." Belatedly, though, it occurred to me that I should have said more about the stereotypes of free software advocates, and just where I stand as a free software supporter.

If you've been around free and open source software any length of time, you know the stereotype: Just as feminists are supposed to be humorless, and all developers have Asperger's syndrome, free software supporters are supposed to be True Believers. They are "zealots," "extremists" who are "intolerant" and "trying to cram their ideas down everybody's throats." (to put all the key words into a single sentence). Their ideas may have been useful once, the argument usually goes, but now they are out of touch with current trends and embarrassing.

As with any successful stereotype, there are just enough people who seem to fit it that all free software advocates can be dismissed by evoking it. It frames discussions and reactions so that any comment by free software advocates can be discounted without the bother of analysis.

The most obvious example of how this stereotype works is its application to Richard M. Stallman. The truth is that, from any impartial perspective, Stallman -- like any of us -- is capable of both profundity and nonsense. He can make creative suggestions as well as appalling mistakes, especially social ones. Yet, because of the stereotype, anything he says or does is immediately attacked, instead of accepted or dismissed on its own merits.

Such, of course, is the price of fame or notoriety. But a similar process often occurs whenever anyone expresses free software sentiments. Through repetition of this framing, all free software beliefs are characterized as identical.

The schools of free software

However, even a brief investigation shows that the term "free software" covers a wide variety of positions. To start with, there are degrees of support for the general beliefs. Some free software supporters never use proprietary software. Others will use proprietary software, but only if no practical free software alternative exists. A few will even use proprietary software if it is the best-quality alternative.

Then there are the points of emphasis. While most free software advocates focus -- naturally enough -- on software, there are those like Peter Brown, the former executive director of the Free Software Foundation, who consider free software something that should be part of the general progressive philosophy, like recycling or environmentalism. You can also find people still who use the term "open source" as it was originally intended as a less intimidating term and who champion free software values. Increasingly, too, I'm encountering people who view free and open source software alike as part of a general movement towards free culture and technology that includes other interests such as the Open Access and Maker movements.

Even more basically, while Stallman and the Free Software Foundation are the center of the copyleft school of free software that advocates free distribution and modification under the same license as the original work, there are also the non-copyleft licenses, like the Apache License and the various forms of BSD licenses. The Free Software Foundation's license page makes very clear without actually stating outright that it prefers copyleft licenses, but the very fact that the non-copyleft licenses are mentioned at all acknowledges that more than one school of free software thought exists.

Where I stand

My own position on free software is based partly on my personality, and partly on the accident of how I stumbled into free software.

First, anyone trying to parse my position should know that I a first-rate marketer -- at least so long as I believe in what I am promoting -- but one of the worst sellers or customers you have ever seen.

I will happily craft an argument for a position, spending hours to develop the points that might persuade someone, and anticipating and answering possible positions to my stance. I'll even present that position once it's done. However, if I meet any opposition, I am temperamentally unsuited to argue -- much less browbeat -- listeners into agreement with me. Call it arrogance or an over-developed concern for other people's autonomy, but I'm really not that interested in converting people to my beliefs. I've worked out what seems right to me, and while disagreement might sometimes disturb me, I am generally content to leave others in their views. One or two exchanges at the most, and I'm gone.

In the same way, hard sell pitches don't work with me. I consider them an intrusion, all the more so because I try not to intrude on others. If I can't walk away, I'll nod politely and go non-committal and vague. If you're selling something using a hard pitch, peversely I'll refuse to buy it, even if I previously intended to get it. Like John Mortimer's Horace Rumpole, I'm a bit of an anarchist, although you probably wouldn't guess that by looking at me.

As to how I stumbled into free software, my serious introduction was via companies that were attempting to develop their own products using Debian. And Debian, as you may or may not know, has always been a maverick in the free software ranks.

On the one hand, Debian is a strong enough supporter of free software that its proper name includes GNU/Linux. On the other hand, Debian is the only member of the copyleft school that I am aware of that has published its own Free Software Guidelines rather than relying on the Free Software Foundation's Free Software Definition.

Add a radical committment to democracy, and the Debian collective has often been an independent voice in the copyleft school. It did not, for example, automatically accept the GNU Free Documentation License as a free license, but decided after long debate that the project would consider the license free only when applied to documents that contained no unchangeable invariant sections.

Similarly, when the third version of the GNU General Public License was being developed, Debian was actively consulted by the Free Software Foundation, and many of its members served on the advisory committee. While the relationship between Debian and the Free Software Foundation has sometimes been acrimonious, the tacit consensus was that, without Debian backing, the reviewed license had no chance of gaining acceptance.

But what was especially relevant to me was Debian's treatment of non-free software:

"We acknowledge that some of our users require the use of works that do not conform to the Debian Free Software Guidelines. We have created 'contrib' and 'non-free' areas in our archive for these works. The packages in these areas are not part of the Debian system, although they have been configured for use with Debian. We encourage CD manufacturers to read the licenses of the packages in these areas and determine if they can distribute the packages on their CDs. Thus, although non-free works are not a part of Debian, we support their use and provide infrastructure for non-free packages (such as our bug tracking system and mailing lists)"

In other words, Debian steers users towards free software, but doesn't force the issue. By default, the latest version installs a free kernel, but one that uses proprietary firmware is also available. And while its package manager installs with only the free software in its main repository, adding "contrib non-free" to the end of each repository address then running the command apt-get update quickly allows you to install packages with more questionable licenses.

My own preference is to accept the defaults and install a free system. But, at the same time, I'm glad that Debian leaves the choice up to me. Purely by coincidence, my introduction to free software was through a distribution whose approach was the perfect mirror of my own, and I've never had cause to regret that circumstance. Twelve years later, my main computer still runs Debian, and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

When I moved into journalism, I took that same perspective with me. That is why, although I've worked with several Free Software Foundation employees and respect their work, I have also criticized where I saw fit -- up to and including Richard Stallman.

In the end, I know where I stand, and won't hesitate to identify myself as a free software advocate. But I'll also criticize anyone as I think necessary.

Just don't expect me to browbeat anyone into my way of thinking. Really, I'm not that interested.

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