Principled positions and FLOSS

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Notice icon.png The final draft of this article has been posted on Advogato and on my blog. Please leave comments there.

Those of us in the free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) community know the routine by now. Despite the fact that "free software" and "open source" refer to the same software and the same communities, supporters of "free software" like the FSF would have us advocate for FLOSS by talking about users' rights to use, modify, share, and cooperate; open source supporters like the Open Source Initiative would have us advocate for software by talking about how securing these rights produces software with "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility [and] lower cost."

One reason I tend to stay away from "open source" claims in my own advocacy is that I'm worried by the way that these arguments rely on a set of often dubious empirical claims of superiority. Free software, on the other hand, can be seen as statement of principles. Regardless of whether we say "free software" or "open source," I've found that a focus on principled statements is both more robust against counter-arguments and does a better job of describing the motivations of most contributors.

Principles can be thought of like opinions. They may or not be compelling but are neither right or wrong outside of a particular ethical framework. Most people won't demand evidence for someone's commitment to nonviolence or an adherence to the Golden Rule. What would you need to prove? Principles are based on a type of Utopianism; they are a statement of how we think things should be.

On the other hand, open source's argument that openness leads to better software or a better software development methodology can be measured, tested, and declared right or wrong. A FLOSS program might be better or more reliable than proprietary software. Or it might be worse. The open source methodology might be lower cost for a consumer or more profitable for a producer. Or it might not. There are plenty of FLOSS success stories. There are many more failures.

The problem for open source advocates is that while FLOSS is often better than proprietary software, this is not always the case. I was using FLOSS in the early 1990s when GNU/Linux was indisputably less featureful and buggier than its proprietary competitors. On the business side, we learned in the Dot Com boom and bust that, despite Eric Raymond's assurances, building a successful FLOSS project turned out to be harder than a COPYING file and a tarball on a webserver: Netscape is essentially gone; VA --- the single largest Dot Com IPO --- is a shadow of its former self; LinuxCare became a proprietary software company.

If, as open source advocates would argue, the reason we're here is to build software more efficiently or at greater profit, we must also advocate for proprietary development methodologies in areas where evidence seems to show that they are more effective. Where are these advocates? Where are the open source advocates applauding LinuxCare for saving themselves by abandoning FLOSS. Don Marti has observed that this doesn't seem to be what is going on:

Do people really spend their weekends helping annoying new people install free software because it has a more efficient development methodology? Of course not. If it were only about efficiency, hobbyists would volunteer to replace the old ballasts in companies' fluorescent lights.

Of course, Marti is right. The reason that hundreds of thousands have spent their time assisting FLOSS efforts has less to do with a passion for efficiency and more to do with a set of implicit principles.

Humans are driven to imagine worlds that they would want to live in. For a growing group of people, that's a world where software can be used, shared, and collaborated without restrictions or discrimination. We may think of this in ethical terms, in terms of an attitude toward innovation, or as a set of political or economic positions. But we should realize that these are, ultimately, principled stands.

And if we are taking principled positions, it is in the long-term interests of both our cause and our credibility to frame our arguments and our advocacy in those terms. We can use empirical evidence to help bolster our arguments but we should be careful to not confuse these empirical claims with the principles themselves. They can, and sometimes will, be proven wrong.

By honestly highlighting our principles and not shying away from explicit Utopianism, we can return to questions of efficiency as means toward achieving our principled ends. Approached from this angle, we need not seek to explain why FLOSS is better than proprietary software --- which it may or may not be at any given point in time and for any given project --- and can instead ask how we can make it better.

Humans are creative, innovative problem solvers. We set goals and devise social structures and technologies to achieve them. The fact that we have created socio-technical means of creating better software through free ways in so many areas is a reflection of this ingenuity applied toward principles at the heart of FLOSS. We would be well served to remember that this is how FLOSS will win, not why.