The Great Software Freedom Debate, Part 368

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 12, 2009

It seems that we can never quite get away from our industry's version of "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin." Namely, how open source are you? Or, as it is usually expressed: I'm more open source than you. I'm 'the real' open source, whereas you're just badgeware/runtware/freeware/fauxpen source. Sun's Simon Phipps has re-opened this debate by proposing a software freedom scorecard that the OSI can use to gauge the openness of open source participants.

If you read my previous blog entry about open core, you may notice a slight contradiction there. That's because I'm conflicted on this issue. On one hand,I was the guy who pointed out that the major impetus towards open source was economic, and that the trends which made an open source ecosystem possible would only intensify - the pragmatic case, you might say. On the other hand, I also recognize that taking these trends and turning it into a regulated market - which is essentially what the OSI has done - does not happen by accident. It happens because a few stakeholders with a vision of how they wanted the industry to behave formulated a plan and executed it. Their primary question was "how can we make free software palatable to mainstream IT?" That question is not merely an expression of pragmatic concern. There's an idealist quality to it, too, because many of us wanted a more transparent IT ecosystem that didn't actively screw over customers, with far-reaching ramifications that transcended the immediate benefits. 

I think the OSI has had some success with that, along with a few failures. I, for one, felt that not emphasizing the "free software" aspect was a mistake. I've also advocated in the past for a better taxonomy to describe the various levels and types of "free" and "open" - because everybody likes to describe themselves as such. It seems that Phipps agrees with this. For the most part, I agree with his proposal, with some reservations, and I'll explain why.

Matt Asay doesn't think it's a great idea because, in his opinion, companies don't care about freedom, they just want stuff that works. Well, yes and no. If you ask companies whether they think software freedom is important, they're going to say no. However, something I've learned over the years is that, well, customers are actually kind of... stupid. In my years of involvement with LinuxWorld, most of the things that sponsors demanded actually crippled the show and sucked the life force out of it. These esteemed industry heavyweights would say things like "get rid of the .org pavilion!" "we don't need developers, we want customers!" - basically, get rid of the stuff that actually attracts attendees. Of course, they didn't actually want to kill the show; they just had no inkling of the bigger picture and acted only in their immediate self interest. When speaking with an IT customer, they naturally aren't thinking of the big picture with respect to the free software ecosystem. Their only question is - understandably - will this solution work for me? It's not really the customer's job to think about the overall health of the ecosystem, but it would be silly to claim that a healthy free software ecosystem has no benefit to customers - it's just not an immediate, tangible benefit that comes up in a sales call. 

I disagree with Jason Perlow who writes that "Open source, however, is not about ethics or who or what should determine what is ethical." Frankly, I don't see how anyone can read the open source definition and conclude that it's not about ethics. If it weren't about ethics, why bother with the OSD at all? What's the point? Of course it's about ethics - it's about a more fair system, a better way of doing business, with freedom and goodness for all. And pie. Mmmmm... pie.... That the OSI has chosen to ignore or softpedal this aspect of their charter has led to some market confusion. The OSI has long seemed afraid of pushing the ethics or morals viewpoint, presumably because some vendors told them not to. You see where I'm going there... How many times have businesses fought reforms over the years that sought to more clearly define employees' or customers' rights? How about nearly 100%? Businesses simply cannot reliably provide an honest answer to such questions. 

Back to Phipps' actual proposal - I like the idea, in theory. As usual, the devil is in the details, and I think we have to move beyond the discussion of just code. I want SaaS and cloud providers to answer the question about how easy it is to migrate data and whether they are "distributing" software when you load their app in your browser - I say they are and should be subjected to the terms of reciprocal software licenses, but I accept that others beg to differ. Mostly, I would like that info on a handy report card. 

As Matt Aslett observed in his analysis, this could quickly and destructively degenerate into a game of approving and disapproving of business models, which I cannot see as beneficial for anyone. At a minimum, I just want to see where companies fall on the openness spectrum.

Maybe we're asking the wrong questions with the wrong terminology. Perhaps instead of asking whether businesses care about software freedom, ask them instead, should customers have the right to modify vendor code? Should customers have the right to fork and redistribute their modified code? Should customers have the right to migrate their data to another platform on their terms? Should vendors have the right to integrate open source software into their products? But the question we should ultimately ask has to take the form of, what has the best chance of creating a healthier ecosystem that benefits users, developers, vendors, and customers - even if they don't know it yet?

I lean to the side that says more information is better in this case and can only help. After all, if there's one thing we've learned from the past couple of years, it's that markets don't regulate themselves and require some amount of oversight.