The Pros and Cons of the Free Software and Open Source Movements

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People talk of Open Source like a religion. What is opposed to Open Source? How is it bad? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Gil Yehuda, runs the Open Source Program at Yahoo, on Quora:

The Open Source Movement is based on an ideology. To me, it seems like a (non-theistic) religion. We have cannon texts, inspiring but strange thought-leaders, a revolutionary view of what ought to be, occasional condemnations of evil, voluntarily contributions to a shared cause in pursuit of a greater good, and periodic meetings to affirm our faith. Added to this, there’s the major split into two factions: the Free Software Movement vs. the Open Source Movement (you could call it the First Church of the FSF and the Temple of the Apache Way). Ideological schisms are common in religions where two ways to interpret doctrine suddenly divide what was once a shared ideology: c.f. Catholic / Protestant, Shi’a / Sunni, Orthodox / Reform. So I understand why people think of open source as a religion, it can feel like one.

If you’re asking about the downsides of open source; channeling back to my former ideological bias as a non-believer, I can share two approaches to oppose open source based on the two major drivers to open source. Consider the doctrinal divide between the FSF and the OSI.

  • The Free Software Foundation supports the orthodox view that software’s source code ought to be shared and thus we ought to use licenses like the GPL that compel the sharing of source code in the name of freedom (for the consumer of the code).
  • The Open Source Initiative supports the pragmatic (or ‘volyn-participism’) view that encourages optionally sharing software and creating communal projects with mutual benefits to the participants via licenses like Apache, BSD, or MIT that enable code sharing as a choice.

The opposition to the orthodox view is based on the liberal belief that an author has the legal (or moral) right to copyright protection and does not have a societal obligation to share what the author considers a secrets — even to the consumers of the code. This ideology opposed what it considers to be a forceful tactic on the part of GPL-like licenses to compel authors to share code they don’t otherwise want to share. They see licenses like the GPL as overreaching against their right to make money in a manner that preserves “intellectual property” rights. Since orthodox free software advocates do not believe in intellectual property rights, their licenses intentionally threaten to erode the marketplace of proprietary software. Thus, the Free Software movement is bad for those who seek to thrive in the proprietary marketplace.

The opposition to the pragmatic view is based on the believe that financial obligations are stronger than a communal sense of obligation. Whereas communal support may be there for many projects, it’s not there for most. Financial support for closed source should therefor yield better or at least more reliable support than the hopes for communal support. These opposers simply don’t believe or trust that voluntary communal support of shared code projects is a sustainable model. Perhaps they’ve been burned and suffered the consequence, or they simply have the funds and would rather pay into a proprietary system than engage in unbounded volunteerism as a business model. To them, it’s not that open source is bad per se, but that it offers a promise they do not believe in.

To sum it up: Disbelievers of the orthodox view do not believe in the doctrine and see it harmful to their financial interests. Disbelievers of the pragmatic view do not believe in the promise and see it impractical. Like religions, ideologies are a complicated. We should not think that everyone will share our views of what ought to be. Moreover, people learn and change. I used to be a non-believer, now I run one of the larger open source program offices in the tech industry.

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