The philosophy and spirit of FOSS

The philosophy and spirit of FOSS


My last two blogs dealt with issues that illustrate to me that some people have a functional disconnect with the philosophy, and spirit, of what I feel is really what the Free Software movement should be about. For many "freedom" seems merely to be mostly a slogan, not a guiding principle to consistently adhere to, and a reality to produce. Here's what I think many people are missing.

My blog 2 weeks ago, Faking the FOSS, and last week's Why Does KDE UseSlaves? (already a classic) both dealt with issues that I see as inconsistent and/or contradictory to the ideals of the free software movement. Thus, I'm talking philosophy here, what should (and shouldn't) to be done based on conformity to principles, and not what could be done just because you can do it.

Of course Richard M. Stallman (RMS) and the Free Sofware Foundation (FSF) are the lead advocates and philosophers of what "free software" is and isn't, and I'm not going to go over ground they cover. However, there are two points of distinction that I want to address and bring attention to, which formulated much of the essence of what I was raising in my last two blogs.

Free vs No Cost

I believe that when most people hear or see the term "free software" they reflexively think of not having to pay money to acquire or use it. They aren't thinking of "free" in the sense of beng unencumbered (per the GPL) for personal use and development. To these people it's mostly about the money. So, to avoid confusion with, and dilution of, the other philophical aspects of "free" software, I contend a better term to use when strictly speaking to the monetary nature of FOSS is "no cost" software.

There, of course, is "no cost" software which isn't FOSS, such as the shareware/freeware that has been around since the beginning of the PC era. The difference between it and FOSS is that it typically was proprietary software (usually neutered versions of commercial packages) which you can't get the source to, nor modify.

But for most users (versus developers and philosophical FOSS advocates) of "free software" what is most attractive about it is the no cost nature of it. And this now has become the driving attraction of some vertical system integrators out to make money by repackaging and selling of "free software." While they certainly have the right to do this, many don't adhere to the broader principles of what FOSS is all about.

Freedom vs Free From

The comments from last week's blog on KDE's use of "slave" highlighted to me that many people believe "I can do what I want, say what I want", disconnected from the affect their actions have on other people or the world. That's not the philosophy of "freedom" that's the ideology of "free from." Here's what I mean.

The philosophy/ideology of "freedom" promotes liberty, not just for yourself, but out of necessity others too (you can't be free by yourself). Thus, inherent in the concept of freedom are the characteristics and qualities of responsibility, accountability, sensitivity, rationality, and empathy.

A "free from" philosophy is focused on selfishness and unaccountability to others. You are "free from" caring about how what you say and do affects others, and "free from" being responsible for your actions consequences. You can be as irrational as you want, especially when you're sensibilities are pricked, and show little empathy to people who need help or are "different" than you. These qualities permeated the majority of last week's comments.

What is also clear is that tangible "things" like software will always be easier for people to use and understand than esoteric things, such as philosophy. Philosophy is hard and takes time to understand and work through, while anyone can use Firefox or OpenOffice.org without any knowledge or understanding of the working ideology and spirit underlying their creation. But for those of us who do believe in the spirit of "free software" as a movement, it is incumbent upon us to speak up when we see the contradictions and inconsistencies within it. As Martin Luther King said: "If you are right you cannot be too militant; if you are wrong you cannot be too conservative." (Translation: If you are right, speak up, if you are wrong, be quiet.)

The Free software movement is philosophically a social movement, not a technical one. Like other 'Rights' social movements (Civil, Women, Gay, etc) it employs various mechanisms and tactics, and ventures into various fields of social interaction (art, education, law, politics, etc) to achieve its goals, but its focus is not just to create "no cost" software, but a social order based on "free(dom) software."

No, the Free Software movement's purpose is to improve the conditions of human existence. Free software is just the major tool it employs to do this. This is what people should not lose sight of, and must be willing to adapt their thinking and behavior to be consistent with. It may not be easy, and at times it will get ugly, but we must not be afraid to push for it, for in the end we will all benefit.

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Comments

Crosbie Fitch's picture

What happened to "Free as in free speech, not as in free beer"?

Have you decided that free software is about free beer too?

Perhaps you'd have the slogan: "Free as in free speech AND as in free beer!"

You are of course free to give copies of your software away, and you may not prohibit others from giving copies of your or their software away.

But then again, you are free to charge for copies of your software, and you may not prohibit others from charging for copies of your or their software.

Freedom here really is a lack of restriction. NOT a lack of charge.

Kevin Dean's picture
Submitted by Kevin Dean on

Once again I find myself pulled into one of Jabari Zakiya's articles. :D

First off, the KDE Slaves article annoyed me. :D

That said, I think you raise a lot of very good points here. Interestingly enough, I've begun re-evaluating today exactly what Freedom is to me, after posing the question to several people on several Free Software related lists.

Frankly, I was quite surprised. I've long held that patent encumbered formats are not Free Software, but there are people who insist that formats can't be non-Free.

I think this highlights EXACTLY what Jabari is saying. Some people view Free Software as a means of being unrestricted by certain things, the "Free From" he referred to. However, when true freedom is the objective, it reaches beyond software into culture itself. Just because an application has some condition (say, GPL License) doesn't means it's Free, though it MAY be Free Software, even in the "Free Speech" sense.

Though I don't agree entirely with the statement, I now understand what Jabarai was saying earlier about the use of slaves. I think too many people, including myself, got caught up in the racial undertone, or the social mores around discussing it. What he says, quite simply, is that "In a group of people, motivated by the ideals of Freedom, the use of a 'slave' analogy is inconsistant." We'll refuse certain technology outright because of the lack of freedom and the implied societal impact of that, but we casually and unthinkingly describe processes in terms of subjugation, restriction and control.

Tyler's picture
Submitted by Tyler on

However, when true freedom is the objective, it reaches beyond software into culture itself. Just because an application has some condition (say, GPL License) doesn't means it's Free, though it MAY be Free Software, even in the "Free Speech" sense.

I don't know what that means. If an application is licensed under the GPL then it is by definition Free Software. What other definition of Free do you want to apply to software? Must it also be 'Free' of offensive metaphors? Who is going to decide which metaphors are offensive?

The current definition of Free Software is narrow and objective enough to allow a broad spectrum of support. If you want to expand the definition to encompass broader and less clearly defined ideas you risk watering down the core concept of the movement.

Which is not to say there aren't other things that we need to address as a society. Just that the Free Software movement does a good job of addressing Freedom as it relates to software. Lets not cripple it by forcing it to address Freedom in all it's possible definitions.

RMS sets a good example here. His political activities cover the spectrum of progressive causes, but he knows better than to fight for all of them simultaneously in the same forum.

Kevin Dean's picture
Submitted by Kevin Dean on

If you want to expand the definition to encompass broader and less clearly defined ideas you risk watering down the core concept of the movement.

I agree.

However, I ask you "Is there such thing as half-Free"?

I'd say the answer to that is "No." If you do not have TOTAL Freedom, you have none. You may distribute software to everyone except people named Balthazaar. 99.99% of the world is free to accept and distribute that, but it still isn't totally free, and hence, isn't Free.

The Free Software movement always pushes the ethics of freedom and software, otherwise, it's merely Open Source. Why then, is it acceptable to use something that has somewhat shady Freedom status, even though it TECHNICALLY is Free Software? That's the point; people are too often focused with the technicalities, and seldom forget the core idea, Freedom.

What's the point of working for Free Software if not to work towards freedom in general? If we agree that working towards freedom is a good thing, we should evaluate the way we use terms that conjure subjugation.

Must it also be 'Free' of offensive metaphors? Who is going to decide which metaphors are offensive?

Yes and no. To me, the questionable aspect of the use of "slave" in Free Software is that "Slave" doesn't fit with "Free". I'm not offended by the use of the term "slave", but some people might be. I don't think the reason to remove it is because it's "offensive" but becuase it's not in line with the idea of Freedom. And again, that's still kinda nit-picky. For me, it's more an exercise in self-evaluation.

Richard Stallman objects to the use of the term "patent protection", even though TECHNICALLY the law provides certain "protections" in regard to patents. We use Digital Rights Mutilation (or Digital Restriction management) to very clearly express the ideas behind what we stand for. Shouldn't then, we eliminate other terms that aren't Freedom oriented?

Tyler's picture
Submitted by Tyler on

You may distribute software to everyone except people named Balthazaar. 99.99% of the world is free to accept and distribute that, but it still isn't totally free, and hence, isn't Free.

What is your point? Such an arrangement would not be considered Free Software by any current definition.

Why then, is it acceptable to use something that has somewhat shady Freedom status, even though it TECHNICALLY is Free Software? That's the point; people are too often focused with the technicalities, and seldom forget the core idea, Freedom.

What are you talking about? What is technically Free Software, but with 'shady Freedom status'? If you don't provide some concrete examples I have no idea what you're trying to say.

If you're arguing for a stronger role for the philosophical underpinnings of Free Software, and against the unexamined pragmatism of 'Open Source', then I can agree with you. But your earlier comments about the GPL not being truly 'Free' suggest that you're arguing something else.

Kevin Dean's picture
Submitted by Kevin Dean on

What is your point? Such an arrangement would not be considered Free Software by any current definition.

My point with that was that there's no "partial freedom". A restriction, even affecting few people, makes it non-Free.

What are you talking about? What is technically Free Software, but with 'shady Freedom status'?

Patent restricted formats. MP3 for instance. It is possible to create, edit and listen to an MP3 file using ONLY Free Software. However, because of the patent issues looming, I'd argue that that format has shady Freedom status.

"Free Software" is a matter of licenses. "Freedom in Software" is a matter of practical application. The GPL actually stipulates to geographic restrictions. It provides for limits to where someone can distribute Free Software. I expressed my opinion on the GPL v3 draft that this is actually a LIMITATION on Freedom.

My arguement comes down to "Software licenses are merely a single portion of Freedom." People who identify with "Free Software" do so often claiming that Freedom is important. However, the same people seldom look behind the license to determine if the software they're using ACTUALLY protects their freedoms.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

>> Patent restricted formats. MP3 for instance
>> ... because of the patent issues looming, I'd argue that that format has shady Freedom status.

Patents are not available in all parts of the world.
Applying restrictions that the USA has on the rest of the world is freedom ?

>> The GPL actually stipulates to geographic restrictions.
>> It provides for limits to where someone can distribute Free Software.

Having the freedom to take someone else's freedom away is not a freedom worth fighting for.

And actually people like you are the ones that are hurting the Free Software community.
If you don't like the freedoms given to you by the GPL ... you can always invent your own movement, your own license and your own ethic rules ;)

Kevin Dean's picture
Submitted by Kevin Dean on

Applying restrictions that the USA has on the rest of the world is freedom ?

Freedom is universal. If one person is limited from utilizing software, it's not truly Free.

Having the freedom to take someone else's freedom away is not a freedom worth fighting for.

I totally agree with this one. My point was that some people use the GPL to define "Freedom" but those who use ONLY the GPL as a guide are idiots. The GPL v2 is being revised because the v2 didn't cover all of the threats to Free Software. And in twenty years, when new threats present themselves, the v3 won't be able to deal with them.

The members of the Free Software community need to evaluate what Freedom is. There are threats to Freedom not addressed in software licenses, the Free Software movement should still feel affronted by these things.

If you don't like the freedoms given to you by the GPL ... you can always invent your own movement, your own license and your own ethic rules.

First, this was addressed to me personally; you're mistaken about the Freedoms I value. The GNU GPL is my prefered license in development and in use on my own systems. I find some of the other "Free Software" licenses unacceptable because they DON'T address important issues. When GPLv3 is released, I'll adopt THAT as my primary license, because I feel it is MORE protective than GPLv2. They're both Free Software licenses, but v3 does more to protect Freedom. In time, I will come to find GPLv2 inadequate. But the point is, I do very much value the Freedoms in the GPL.

Secondly, I already do have my own set of ethical rules, you say that as if it's a bad thing. If the Free Software Foundation did something that was against my code of ethics, I'd quickly reject it. The thing about the FSF and the Free Software community is that it fits PERFECTLY with my ideas on ethics.

Tyler's picture
Submitted by Tyler on

Fair enough.

However, I'm not convinced rejecting all software on the basis of its being restricted by patents anywhere in the world is really that helpful. If a single country decides to allow patents on something basic to a GNU/Linux system, should we all give up GNU/Linux in protest? The GPL allows for this, by letting everyone else in the world continue to use the Free Software, and putting the citizens of the countries that allow for this abuse of patents at a disadvantage. That's a strong incentive against patent abuse, as it presents a real competitive problem for citizens of that country. In addition, I think it would be really difficult for Free Software writers to distribute their code if they had to ensure that it wasn't covered by any patents anywhere in the world before they did so. I think they made a good decision on this one.

Tyler

Kevin Dean's picture
Submitted by Kevin Dean on

First off, thanks for keeping it sane and civil.

However, I'm not convinced rejecting all software on the basis of its being restricted by patents anywhere in the world is really that helpful.

Nor do I. I think there are some cases where there is no Free alternative to do some things without violating patents. In that case, I don't advocate rejecting it. But I also think that a "Freedom First" stance should be something used by anyone who cares about Freedom. The MP3 format might be Free Software, but there are other audio formatting options that are "more free". Sure, listen to you MP3's if you'v got them. But when you post audio clips on your website, use a format that was designed for Freedom. Is it anymore unreasonable for a Windows user to install the Ogg codecs than it is for a GNU user to install a Flash plugin? So why not take that extra time to show "Freedom comes first" ?

If a single country decides to allow patents on something basic to a GNU/Linux system, should we all give up GNU/Linux in protest? The GPL allows for this, by letting everyone else in the world continue to use the Free Software, and putting the citizens of the countries that allow for this abuse of patents at a disadvantage.

I wouldn't urge people to abandon anything, but I do urge people to think. Say, for instance, the US passed a law making kernels started by people named "Linus" unlawful. I would protest that law as much as possible, writing government officials weekly. But I might switch to BSD, or OpenSolaris. There are other Free operating systems. Should, however, it ban ALL Free operating systems, I'd then break the law. If there's a Free option, take it.

As to the second part, about "putting the citizens of that counrty" at a disadvantage... I understand the IDEA, but am botherd by the carry through. That idea is based on the ideal of a democracy. It makes the assumption "If a nation has software patents, the people wanted them." The problem with that is that the people DON'T allow it. In the US, the people have little to no say on the laws that are actually passed. So it is quite possible for a law to pass that the entire non-government populace disagrees with, and to STAY a law. I think penalizing people because of the actions of their government is contrary to Freedom, and contrary to Free Software ideals.

think it would be really difficult for Free Software writers to distribute their code if they had to ensure that it wasn't covered by any patents anywhere in the world

I agree, and that is a very real issue. That's why I think it's really up to the end user to decide if they consider the patent threat to be infringement upon their freedom. This concept means that a license can't possibly address ALL facets of Freedom in Software.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"The Free software movement is philosophically a social movement, not a technical one."

Wrong. When you're examining what GNU considers to be "free software" it states four basic freedoms:
* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
* The freedom to redistribute copies (freedom 2).
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public (freedom 3).

What you are constantly trying is to subvert FOSS to accommodate and facilitate your own political agenda. IHMO FOSS is simply a practical, pragmatic philosophy of peer programmers. For your information (because I doubt very much that you have ANY philosophical background) "pragmatic" means:
* don't try to answer questions that cannot be answered;
* don't pursue any research on matters that have no significant application.

I find more and more that you have what Nietzsche calls "a slave morality", since slave morality begins in those people who are weak, uncertain of themselves, oppressed and abused. Your definition of freedom is the freedom of slaves. Well, I don't consider all those talented people who work on FOSS software to be slaves. On the contrary, it is a group of talented, strong willed men who took destiny into their own hands and consequently changed the world. It is not by accident they reference "world domination" more than once! Master morality begins in the 'noble man' with a spontaneous idea of the 'good', then the idea of 'bad' develops in opposition to it. In that view "freedom" takes a very different meaning from the one that you have: "freedom" does not equal "liberation", on the contrary. Because man's actions and choices are his and his alone, he is condemned to be responsible for his free choices (Satre).

Your petty view on "freedom" is utterly dangerous to FOSS as a whole. If programmers are condemned to view their every single move in the view of how it could be useful to others, we are bound to become just like the paycheck slaves that follow the same principles - how can it be sold. "Freedom" allows us to learn, share and exchange knowledge and experiment - without being bound by the idea of how it can be utile to other, less privileged and talented people. It's not that I'm against it - it is just a side effect, not a primary or even secundary goal. It is there that I value FOSS, there lies my freedom. Anything else is for politicians - not programmers.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

You are wrong on the statement "you can't be free by yourself", a person alone has ultimate freedom, can do anything he/she is capable of without being interfered with.

You cannot be "free from" by yourself, because there is nobody to be free from.

What you would call "no cost" software most people called open source, no need to try and create another name for it.

I think you fail to understand a basic concept of software libre, it is about the software having maximum freedom, freedom for users and developers is a flow on effect from the software's freedom.

You argument against "free from" is an argument against the GPL, which compromises its freedom to be "free from" abuse, your arguing for BSD style freedom that doesnt try and defend itself from exploitation.

I think you need to research the Freedom vs Power articles that RMS and Tim O'Rielly had a few years ago.

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Jabari Zakiya's picture