Free And/Or Open, 25 Years OnFree And/Or Open, 25 Years On
This September marks the 25th anniversary of the <a href="http://www.fsf.org/" target="_blank">Free Software Foundation</a>, and no discussion of open source is complete without them. They've given a philosophy to the computing world -- and to the world as a whole, let's face it -- but like any philosophy or movement, it's not a static thing. The minute the words leave your mouth, they're not yours anymore.</p>
September 2, 2008
This September marks the 25th anniversary of the Free Software Foundation, and no discussion of open source is complete without them. They've given a philosophy to the computing world -- and to the world as a whole, let's face it -- but like any philosophy or movement, it's not a static thing. The minute the words leave your mouth, they're not yours anymore.
As important as the FSF is and continues to be, they remain a political organization in a field where, for many people, stances are far less important than tangible results. It's laudable that they stick to their guns and talk about why freedom is important -- pace the Stephen Fry happy-birthday message -- but too much of what the FSF has to say is cast in terms that are as rigid and dogmatic as the things they are opposing.
The FSF Web site sports an essay, "Why 'open source' misses the point":
Most people involved with free software say little about freedom -- usually because they seek to be "more acceptable to business." Software distributors especially show this pattern. Nearly all GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom. Proprietary add-on software and partially non-free GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most of our community does not insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system by "open source" discussion which doesn't say that freedom is a goal.
Statements like this are deeply puzzling -- not because they are wrong, exactly, but because they also seem to be missing the point. For one, it's disingenuous to argue that most people involved with free software don't talk about freedom. The minute people talk about free software, discussions of freedom are virtually impossible to keep out of the room. I have yet to hear a single person who spoke (credibly) about "open source" without also talking in some sense about the freedom to use, adapt, and rework the software. And the FSF is largely to thank for all that in the first place.
The comment about adding proprietary packages to a Linux distro also had me scratching my head. For many people, not just the makers of a given distro, adding proprietary packages to a free base is an advantage -- provided those packages are clearly marked as "nonfree", which just about every distribution I've seen breaks its neck to make clear.
The reason proprietary stuff finds fertile ground is not because the community doesn't "insist on freedom", it's because there are some people who need those closed / proprietary components to get certain kinds of work done with minimal hassle. And I don't think that's ever going to completely vanish, either -- not as long as closed / proprietary development models of any kind continue to have a market.
Honestly, I don't like to speak ill of the very people who've made possible so much of what I write about in this column. The FSF started something incredibly important, revolutionary, remarkable -- you pick the adjective; it would be hard to overstate their importance and impact.
But the FSF also needs to accept that other people have taken their ideas and gone in different directions -- directions that to them are every bit as fruitful -- and that not everyone can spare the energy to be a politician.
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