Does open source matter?

Matt Asay’s article “The Open Source Licensing War is Over” has been making the rounds this week, as text and subtext. While his position is certainly spicy, I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. “It’s not that open source doesn’t matter, but rather it has never mattered in the way some hoped or believed,” Asay writes. I think that’s true, and it’s our fault.

To the average person, and even to many developers, the freeness or openness of the software doesn’t matter. They want to be able to solve their problem in the easiest (and cheapest) way. Often that’s open source software. Sometimes it isn’t. But they’re not sitting there thinking about the societal impact of their software choices. They’re trying to get a job done.

Free and open source software (FOSS) advocates often tout the ethical benefits of FOSS. We talk about the “four essential freedoms“. And while those should matter to people, they often don’t. I’ve said before — and I still believe it — FOSS is not the end goal. Any time we end with “and thus: FOSS!”, we’re doing it wrong.

FOSS advocacy — and I suspect this is true of other advocacy efforts as well — tends to try to meet people where we want them to be. The problem, of course, is that people are not where we want them to be. They’re where they are. We have to meet them there, with language that resonates with them, addressing the problems they currently face instead of hypothetical future problems. This is all easier said than done, of course.

Open source licenses don’t matter — they’ve never mattered — except as an implementation detail for the goal we’re trying to achieve.

3 thoughts on “Does open source matter?

  1. I have all kinds of problems with RMS, but why do people keep writing think pieces that seem to be intentional prequels to “Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software.”

    Assay writes “The goal of open source, of cloud, of open APIs, of great documentation, etc., is to enable developers to build with less friction and more opportunity.” To quote The Dude: That’s just like, your opinion, man. I don’t recall a moment when I woke up as a teenager exploring Linux and thought to myself “This is great, just think of all of the friction I can reduce and opportunity I can create for developers some day!”

  2. That’s the problem with umbrella terms: they don’t apply to everyone under the umbrella. The goal of open source matches Assay’s statement for many participants, but not all. But I think even the FSF’s four freedoms are an post hoc justification of the fundamental problem of “I want to reduce my friction.” I would suspect that very few people are into free software got into it for the altruistic reasons. I need to expand those thoughts into a longer post, probably.

  3. Oh totally. I mean, I’m sure my first use of open source software was along the lines of “I’m a kid with seventy-five cents to my name, and I need to edit a jpeg, but I got told I’d go to prison if I pirate Photoshop so let me try to this GIMP thing.” Actually it was probably bulletin board software for my WarCraft II gaming group, but the principle was the same.

    Is “people shouldn’t go to prison for using software” or “everybody should get to do the things they want and need to with a computer regardless of how much money they have” an ideology? I don’t know. I got into FOSS because it gave me something I needed, and then found that I agreed that philosophically everybody should have those same rights. But yes, I definitely “backed into” the philosophy. A smart person could almost certainly wrap a different set of ideas together about what the fundamental rights of a technology user are and find me to be equally supportive.

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