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.