posted on Tue, Jul 26 '22 under tag: freedom

If you really care about humanity, then you cannot waste all your time arguing about free software

If you have been following this blog for a while, you have noticed my transition from being a pure ideological free software advocate who hated open source, to someone rethinking free software, to someone who started thinking of free software as a religion, to someone pragmatically thinking about capitalism and software.

This blog post is probably going to lay the debate to rest.

It all comes down to one point.

The free software vs open source debate is meaningless.

Read on to find out.

The difference between free software and open source

What is the difference between free software and open source software?

There is no difference as per the licenses.

Then, what is it?

The only difference is that brought up by a person named Richard Stallman in an essay titled “Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software”.

The terms “free software” and “open source” stand for almost the same range of programs. However, they say deeply different things about those programs, based on different values. The free software movement campaigns for freedom for the users of computing; it is a movement for freedom and justice. By contrast, the open source idea values mainly practical advantage and does not campaign for principles. This is why we do not agree with open source, and do not use that term.

If we look closely though, we will notice that it is not the software that RMS is talking about, but the movement. It is not the software, but the campaign and advocacy of the people that RMS is talking about.

Free software is a political movement. Open source is only talking about software. RMS intentionally mixes up politics into the definition of software.

People who are really interested in both the political idea of freedom and justice and the utilitarian idea of software freedom will quickly get behind this mix-up. Because we think, “Oh, if I can have two birds with one movement, why not?”

What’s the problem?

The problem is that this is very very confusing.

Even RMS doesn’t stand by this mix-up when cornered with very specific examples.

For example, in a proposal to expand the mission statement of FSF India to explicitly include protection of human rights, RMS sent a dissenting note that includes this quoted section:

India could develop a program for massive surveillance, which you and I agree is evil. If it releases that code under a free license, we could get it and modify it to track workpieces moving through a factory, which is not evil.

Free software is not about the specifics of what a program does or what its text says. It is about the freedom of each user to change those specifics. Free software is more profound than the specifics.

We should keep them separate.

Even RMS doesn’t believe in free software’s politics.

(Aside: I created a definition called Feminist Software because RMS asked to keep my politics separate from free software.)

(Aside 2: I must acknowledge Pirate Praveen for having realized and warned me that I’m projecting my politics on to free software definition and reading into the definition things that nobody else finds in free software)

The problem, basically is that we’re comparing apples and oranges. Free software is software+politics. Open-source is software alone. In the software realm, free software and open-source are the same thing. In the politics realm, free software and open source are, again, the same thing.

What? How?

Yes, I said the politics of free software and open-source are the same.

Well, free software says it is about freedom and justice. But it doesn’t define what that means (beyond defining the four freedoms related to software).

So in practical terms, free software’s politics is as malleable as open-source’s. Free software folks can be casteist, they can be sexist, they can be racist. So can open-source folks be. Free software folks can write software that is harmful to humanity, so can open-source folks. There’s no way to differentiate the politics between the two camps. They are the same.

It can even be argued that explicitly setting politics to undefined (as open-source is doing) is more legible and honest than what free software is doing (by setting its politics to undefined, but in an obfuscated way).

Consequently, the free software vs open-source debate is meaningless.


I must profusely thank Kailash Nadh for spending a patient 80 minutes last night talking to me over phone hammering (pun intended, reserved for Kailash) this point into my mind.

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