The Culture War in Open Source may just be irrelevant
Choosing where and what to fight can be the hardest part of a war.
Nathan Schneider recently wrote about recent developments in the “culture war at the heart of open source”. That war is about “the legal technology at the heart of the movement known [as Free/Open Source Software, or FOSS from now on]: software licenses, particularly ones that turn proprietary code into a common good.”
Nathan observes that the problem with those licenses “might be best summarized as neutrality”.
The canonical FOSS position on this is that, quoting Nathan again, “As long as the code remains free and open, users - whether individual or corporate - should not be constrained by a license in what they do or how they make money. Any such constraint… is a slippery slope”.
Ending the neutrality
A big part of the culture war, and the only one I am going to discuss here, is about ending this neutrality, for ethical and economical reasons. Some developers would like to forbid usage of their work for unethical purposes (e.g. making weapons, running porn-related businesses…). Others understandably dislike billionaires getting even richer off their hard work, without even pretending to fund it.
Proposals to solve the ethical issues are based on new licenses that allow developers to restrict certain uses of their software.
The second challenge is economic. Even here, the solution would be new licenses that keep software code “source available” - anyone can read it, and use it under certain terms - but [with] restrictions to prevent some company from taking it and profiting from others’ work”.
Hack the process?
Later on in his article, Nathan observes that “it is only natural that open source contributors should want to hack the process, not just the software they write.”
He also points out that “For all that open source has achieved, there is so much more that it hasn’t. “The year of the Linux desktop” has turned from an expectation to a joke [and] The open Web has closed shut. Surveillance-powered corporate platforms have accumulated power because of, not despite, open source.”
OK, WHICH process?
I have been following this topic for more than 15 years now (see last two paragraphs below), and it saddens me to see so little progress made. Namely, it is sad to see proposals to solve problems that software licenses could not solve for thirty years now… with more software licenses.
Nathan himself notes that more licenses would make combining and reusing software theoretically “free” and “open” immensely more difficult than already is.
But let’s ignore such practical issues: the real problem here is simply that user licenses are the wrong tools, and levels, to solve certain problems. Only people blinded by the love of coding for the sake of coding can still ignore this. One easy way to see this is ask yourself:
“If this makes sense, why limit it to software”?
Why not sell, or license, even computers, or hammers, or pens, or batteries… only to people, or businesses, who formally commit to use those tools only for “ethical” purposes, or to share any profit they make with them? Oh, and what about reselling those tools when one doesn’t need them anymore? Should the second-hand users/purchasers respect the same license? Or should reselling/“owner shifting” be forbidden, like the media majors that all Free Software love to hate want?
What if a Chinese public university licensed software only to users who respect the definition of humans rights of the PRC? What if a Russian, or Hungarian university wrote wonderful software, and licensed it only to people rejecting marriage equality, or refugees? What if an islamic university etc etc…
Please note that I am not questioning the right of everybody, inclusing Chinese, Russians etc.. to license their own work as they please. I am just pointing out that license proliferation does not seem a smart strategy if you care about collaboration, efficiency reuse and, why not, fairness. But my real, final point is…
Fight on the RIGHT battlefield
If “the year of Linux Desktop” has become a joke is because FOSS advocates have been pushing for decades free code before, or instead of, laws to impose free FORMATS (also here and here. It is not because of software licenses.
If “The open Web has closed shut” is because lack of pressure to keep it based on few, simple, open STANDARDS. It is because of the obsession with Diaspora, FreedomBox, Scuttlebutt, and other wonders equally unusable by the masses, instead of lobbying for humbler stuff that could be already working:
Above all, it is because corporations are granted the same rights as human beings, plus immortality, plus the right to escape taxes. It is not because of software licenses.
If things are as they are, is because too many Free/Open Source developers and advocates missed out something more important than licenses. Software is eating the world to the exclusive advantage of the bad guys because certain laws, not software licenses, enable it to do it. Just accept this, already, and redeploy on the right battlefields.
(This post was drafted in April 2020, but only put online in August, because… my coronavirus reports, of course