Without Free Software, Open Source Would Lose its Meaning

I'm a big fan of Matt Asay's writings about free software. He combines a keen analytical intelligence with that rare thing: long-term hands-on experience in the world of open source business. But even though I generally look forward to reading his posts, I have been rather dreading the appearance of one that I knew, one day, he would write...because it would be wrong. And now he has written it, with the self-explanatory headline: “Free software is dead. Long live open source.”

Matt states in his first paragraph what the key issue is:

One of the most inspiring things I've witnessed in my 10-plus years in open source is its gradual embrace of pragmatism. By "pragmatism" I don't mean "capitulation," whereby open source comes to look more like the proprietary world it has sought to displace. Rather, I would suggest that the more open source has gone mainstream the more it has learned to make compromises, compromises that make it stronger, not weaker.

When I interviewed Richard Stallman in 1999 this is what he had to say on this subject:

The only reason we have a wholly free operating system is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that's wholly free, not 90 percent free.

Open source exists because of a refusal to compromise by the creators of free software programs. The “pragmatism” that Matt lauds is only an option for open source because the people who did all the hard work in creating free software refused to compromise initially.

Ten years ago, Stallman pointed out the dangers of compromise:

If you don't have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times for one reason or another there's some practical convenience in making an exception.

Compromise is a slippery slope: once you start down it, there are no obvious places to stop. This plays right into Microsoft's hands: its current strategy is to dilute the meaning of “open source” - classic “embrace, extend, extinguish” - until it becomes just another marketing buzzword, applied routinely, and ultimately with no real value.

So what? You may ask. If, as Matt writes, the whole point is “to go mainstream”, then such blurring of the line separating free software from non-free software is surely a small price to pay to achieve that wider use of open source. It might seem so in the short term, but I don't believe it's a wise strategy in the long term, even from a purely pragmatic viewpoint.

For example, current compromises that include working with Microsoft-developed technologies for which it may hold software patents in some jurisdictions mean that ultimately open source developers are giving hostages to fortune and undermining their power of self-determination in the future.

Moreover, if the term “open source” becomes devalued, coders and users will become disillusioned, and start to desert it. The former will find the sharing increasingly asymmetric, as their contributions are taken with little given in return (something that may well happen even to open source companies using the GNU GPL if they demand that contributors cede their copyright, as most currently do). Users will similarly discover that some of these new-style “blurred” open source applications fail to deliver the promised benefits of control, customisation and cost-savings.

But, of course, the point is not “to go mainstream”: as Stallman said, it's about having “freedom as a principle.” Spreading free software is about spreading *free* software, not free *software*: software is simply the means, not the end. This is what Stallman said a decade ago:

there are more important issues of freedom – the issues of freedom that everybody's heard of are much more important than this: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free assembly.

So why does Stallman even bother with free software?

I don't see how I could do something more important in some other area.

Stallman doggedly continues his crusade for freedom through free software because he recognises that that is where he can make the greatest contribution.

And because this is how he fights for freedom, without compromise, he is prepared to do and say things that people in the pragmatic world of open source find regrettable – shocking, even. That's partly because it inconveniently makes their job of “going mainstream” harder, and partly because of a genuine distaste for some of Stallman's actions. But what they overlook is that freedom fighters – for that is how Stallman regards himself – have always been so focussed on their larger goals that mundane matters like convenience and good manners tend to fall by the wayside.

Ultimately, the reason that free software cannot compromise is because we compromise over any freedom at our peril: there is no such thing as 50% free. As history teaches us, freedom is not won by “going mainstream”, but by small numbers of stubborn and often annoying monomaniacs that refuse to compromise until they get what they want. The wonderful thing is that we can all share the freedoms they win, whether or not we helped win them, and whether or not we can live up to their high standards of rigour.

But equally, without their obduracy, their constant striving and their eventual victories we would all lose those freedoms, because they are only temporary, and must be constantly reconquered. Specifically, without the fixed point of uncompromising free software, open source would soon mainstream itself into meaninglessness.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


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About time

John Cooper's picture

Open Source software is the current and future not Free Software. Stallman is an 80's dinosaur yet too many still hang off his every word like some messiah, and like a religion, are blind to what the current state and the damaging effect his beliefs manifest. He did produce the GNU GPL and this is a true achievement that we can all use and do but we have to move on and adapt. This is what Linus Torvalds has done and why Linux is thriving and is future proof. Linus really changed the world of open source development not Stallman. The irony is the success of Linux has given GNU software huge success and I believe they would not have had this without Linux. The origins of Unix were from freely sharing the source (open source) until propriety Unix stopped that, so open source software pre-dates FSF and Unix. The article is correct, FSF allows only one way when the reality is we need several and be able to adapt to ensure success and survival.

Matt Asay has forgotten his roots

MartinC's picture

Hi Glyn,
I am so glad you wrote this article. I was so frustrated by what Matt said in that article that I actually wanted to create a blog just to discuss it but I didn't mainly on the basis of "who would read it"?

I believe that Matt has forgotten the roots of open source and that he has made some very wrong assumptions about free software.

Wrong Assumption Number 1: Open source is actually something that exists.
Lets face it open source is a label. There can be as much discussion of "business model" or "distribution system" as you like, there actually is no such thing as open source. Open source was invented as an alternative label for Free Software, that's all it is. It is a name so that when someone tries to sell software the CIO can walk in to the executive committee and say: "We're buying open source" and thereby avoid the resulting panic that would be created if he had walked in and said: "We're buying free software." That's it, that's the reason that open source exists. You want a licensing discussion? Who created the GPL? Who formalised the concept of having access to the code and destroying vendor lock in? etc. etc. I could have written a rebuttal headlined: "Open Source is a Myth, Free Software is Real." For all Matt's enthusiasm for open source and also very educated opinions regarding the technology industry Matt has forgotten history, if Free Software did not exist Matt would still be in law. There would have been a few large technology companies, and that would be that. The barrier to entry into the tech industry would be as high as the barrier to entry for the oil industry. It would be impossible to do anything without the blessing of the big vendors and innovation would now be at a stand still. Who should we thank for this? I know who I would be thanking and it wouldn't be the open source movement. (Although I do think they have made a positive impact on the industry, I am talking about the fact that free software is the foundation on which they have built their entire edifice.)

Wrong Assumption Number 2: Free software was or should have been written for tech entrepeneurs. In this regard I really think Matt has been drinking his own kool aid. It's all so exciting that for some reason it seems that all this "open source" stuff was created to become a new type of technology, it wasn't. The concept of Free Software was created for the individual. For an individual to have the freedoms and benefits of the freedoms that resulted from free software. The fact that it has been adopted in the enterprise is wonderful, there are many benefits within the enterprise and for private individuals as a result of this. BUT this is NOT why free software was created. It was created for individuals. Trying to pretend now that its all about open source and that free software is just some old fashioned out of date idea is really dishonest in my opinion. Also it is starting to come across as if free software is starting to become a barrier to making some serious cash. This is sad as free software was not invented to make Matt, or anyone else for that matter, rich.

It's ironic that when I download a piece of software that is labeled "Open Source" I get the benefits of free software...

I also think Matt has some kind of axe to grind with RMS. I have seen in previous articles that he has said some negative things about RMS. Nothing major, but at best they could be called "controversial". I, to be honest, find that unacceptable. I personally don't like RMS's appearance. I don't like the hippy look, but frankly I don't care about his looks. I have an immense amount of respect for the man. And when someone like Matt Asay says something disrespectful of him it makes me angry as 100 years from now who's name is going to be remembered? Matt Asay or RMS? I think we know the answer to that one. So while I enjoy Matt's articles and respect his opinions, when he says negative things about someone that has achieved far more than him I lose a little respect for the man.

That's my 2 cents worth. Thanks for a thoughtful article.

Regards, Martin.

Interesting news this morning, just as

Abigail Chilton's picture

With the 10th anniversary edition of Cluetrain coming out, I thought Id try to keep up with postings that mention Cluetrain through four five Live Web* search engines: BlogPulse, Google BlogSearch, Technorati, FreindFeed Search and Twitter Search. Ive got all four feeding into an aggregator.As of 3:33pm EDST, BlogPulse finds 20 posts so far

Change is coming

Forced Microsoftie...'s picture

Mono scares the hell out of me - if you can't see Microsoft's goal in getting people to adopt .NET/Silverlight/Mono then you are not paying attention.

I am forced to use and sell Microsoft products because I deal with small business in the 10-30 PC + 1 or 2 Servers market - where I live (NM) this is on the large side for business. (Really)

Small Business uses commercial software because they are too poor to invest in retraining of their personnel, and because they have very little technical skill, so they adopt what they think is the path of least resistance - My CPA's don't want to be technology adopters - they just want to process returns and work with Quickbooks!

Microsoft wants to put as much proprietary and tied software out there as possible - it's no coincidence that Apache and Flash were making IIS irrelavent - and then Microsoft comes back with .NET and now Silverlight - Mono is the apple being handed to Eve by the Serpent - that sounds a little overly dramatic, but seriously, if the FOSS people went nuts for Mono, what do you think would be the eventual result?

"...with the new IIS 9.0 that will run your .NET/Silverlight/Mono sites 50% faster than the equivalent Apache/Mono combo" - if they run at all anymore once Microsoft starts "Extending" the framework.

I think the saving grace for FOSS will actually not come from America - we tend to get myopic and think that everythig is about us and what happens here, but the genie is out of the bottle - Linux/Apache/SQL/Asterisk(My Favorite)/OpenOffice/Firefox - they are out there, and so is there source - We have already won the general purpose Server battle, FOSS Telephony is YEARS ahead of it's proprietary counterparts, and the Ubuntu desktop is as good or better than any Microsoft/Apple desktop.

Even with my small business clients, things like virtualization are getting their attention, and we all know how well that works with Linux - change is coming (very fast for some - not fast enough for others) but FOSS will never go away - once anyone tries to enforce a Patent on Free Software in a broad sense, you will see the FOSS community do what they have always done - route/write around it.

Compromise will cause some bumps along the way, but the eventual destination is very clear - FOSS will win in the end because that is what is always has done.

A big point in favor of

Anonymous's picture

A big point in favor of pragmatism is that it is usually the best approach long term to achieving idealistic goals. We can see this in the US health care debate. The idealists want a public option. Obama is willing to consider giving that up, in order to get something passed. An idealist would stand their ground, and the net result would be we get nothing. Pragmatic Obama realizes that making progress now is better than getting nothing--once we have the first round of reform, and people are no longer freaking out, he can work on getting the public option added.

If RMS had been a pragmatist, he could have spent 20 years or so working in proprietary startups in markets with a lot of potential money (e.g., he could have worked at Microsoft early), and with his programming skill, he could have become a billionaire. Then he could have retired, set up his foundation, with a big enough endowment that it could afford to give free software grants sufficient to support thousands of full-time free software programmers. With those kind of resources to throw around, it would be able to get free software written to match or exceed pretty much any proprietary software. 20 years after that, the world would be pretty much entirely free software. That would bring us up to about today--but the free software movement would be far far ahead of where it is now. That's the difference being pragmatic could have made.

The wrong assumption you

David L. Craig's picture

The wrong assumption you make is RMS and the wonderful enabling world about him were guaranteed to endure long enough and agreeably enough to get to that point of influence. Like John Lennon observed, "Life is what happens while you're busy making plans."

But then who would take him

Anonymous's picture

But then who would take him seriously? Quote from *your* RMS, "I made lots of money with closed source companies. But you shouldn't because it was wrong of me to do so." Do you think Ghandi would have been able to lead without getting beaten? Quote from *your* Ghandi, "You guys don't fight back, but I'm gonna."

Awesome post!

Bert Rapp's picture

Awesome post, Glyn Moody. You are absolutely correct. And you too, Sum Yung Gai. Freedom is temporary and must constantly be reconquered. Too few people understand this. And, no, there is no compromise to freedom. On one side, there is freedom, and on the other, restriction.

He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself. ~Thomas Paine

History does not teach fatalism. There are moments when the will of a handful of free men breaks through determinism and opens up new roads. ~Charles de Gaulle

Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed - else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. ~Benjamin Franklin

nice quotations

Glyn Moody's picture


The problem with "pragmatism"

Bernard Swiss's picture

The problem with "pragmatism" is that it's a banner waved most assiduously by many who for whatever reason are really advocating "expediency".

These same people are also generally prone to frame "principled pragmatism" -- that is to say, taking a longer-term view, informed by a wider perspective and by an appreciation of the underlying realities shaping the apparent surface -- as "unrealistic idealism". Meanwhile, the real and present costs are unobtrusively swept under the carpet as minor considerations (to which everyone is already inured), while the predictable, longer-term consequences are dismissed as somewhat unreal "the sky is falling" fantasies.

RMS is about the most truly pragmatic FOSS warrior out here

Sum Yung Gai's picture

Yep, he is. Indeed, his uncompromising belief in freedom, as expressed by Free Software, really is the most pragmatic stance that we can take. This is what I figured out several years ago. If I don't stand up and say, "I value my freedom, and I will act to protect it," then it will be taken away from me. History has proved this time and again! For my fellow US citizens, re-read the Declaration of Independence, and then re-read the Bill of Rights immediately afterwards. Then you'll see what I mean.

RMS not pragmatic, you say? Then how did GCC get written? Oh, how about the rest of the GNU software? How about GNOME, originally born of a pragmatic fear of the (then non-free) Qt license, which scared Troll Tech to eventually change to the GPL? Linus himself is on record as saying that RMS's Free Software discussions inspired him to license Linux under the GPL. Red Hat is following RMS's initial "sell Emacs tapes" pattern in how they sell RHEL...and they're making millions from it. Gee, RMS's mindset is lookin' pretty doggone pragmatic so far....

I expect any hardware that I buy to work with my GNU/Linux and/or OpenBSD OS's. To that end, I purchase only hardware that I know will work with them (this has been very easy to do for many years now). If it doesn't work with one or both of these, *WITH FREE SOFTWARE DRIVERS*, then I vote with my wallet and choose different hardware. Yes, Intel graphics is slow compared to nVidious, but it does what I need with bone-stock CentOS. Therefore, it's good enough. All my printers are HP or Epson for this reason as well.

Freedom is not free, people. The only truly *pragmatic* way to protect that freedom is to act to protect it. And that's what I do.


I think Mr. Gerard was about spot on

NPMurphy's picture

I don't think Mr. Gerard meant that at all. He beat me to comparing FOSS with politics and Politics.

He is correct that if a radical group wants to be seen as 'reasonable', it need only to create a more visible, more radical, more socially rejectable group with similar goals to make itself look like a ladies' tea and luncheon and be accepted, even though the group may be as vile and mean as there ever was. This is as true of free software, of open source software as it is of groups of political dissidents, or any group of people with goals that are nigh on impossible to achieve.

Mr. Gerard also correctly identifies Mr. Stallman as someone who refuses to compromise and does not need to seem 'reasonable' in his position. Yes, his positions are, or seem to be, unreasonable at times. However, if one considers him the anchor to the FOSS ship, you'll see that he is pert near unmoving, while FOSS swings around on the surface with the wind and tide. They rarely align, but they also never separate too much.

Way to miss tthe point

Anonymous's picture

The Mono issue is nothing new. So whatever RMS says around it is not surprising. He has already said what he needed to say about it, from a position standpoint.

No, the problem, which you cleverly manage to miss, is the blatant, uncalled-for insult he directed at de Icaza.

But that's OK, right? Because after all, he's sticking to his principles. Right?

It means that I am free to attack the concept of "Free Software", as I am an avowed follower of "Open Source", a distinct philosophy. I'm really into that. So if by any chance I happen to say that Stallman is an aging, obnoxious, cheese-toe-eating hippie that damages the reputation of the movement he claims to want to protect every time he speaks in public about it, I should get no flak whatsoever. From anyone. Because after all, I'm just sticking to my principles. Correct?

And following that train of thought, the people who dressed up Stallman for his inconsiderate sexist remarks made during a speech are also in the clear - as long as they were avowed feminists, or supporters of feminism. IOW, sticking to their principles. Correct?

Funny, I don't recall that being the response to them. Nope, they were crucified for daring to suggest Stallman should be a little more careful with what he says. No, I don't remember anyone asking those folks if they were sticking to their principles, as opposed to the actual "oh they hate RMS so they smear him" tripe that followed.

Even at a basic human level, this was uncalled for. There are better ways to get your point across than to insult people for shock value.

But double standards are fantastic, aren't they?

the blatant, uncalled-for

Rob Myers's picture

the blatant, uncalled-for insult he directed at de Icaza

Which part of the answer to the question do you feel was untrue?

So your point is, that

Vasilito's picture

So your point is, that although you accept that Stallman is uncomprimising free software advacate, at the same time he can not defend his point of view? That is rather strange and illogical. You are doing exactly the same in your post - bashing someone because you disagree with him.

RMS proved many things right by his uncompromising actions. And if he says Icaza is a betrayer than he must be right even if some do not agree.

I watch Icaza closely. I used to like what he had to say before.. Before he started advocating for something to enter in our communtity which resembles corrosion.

I totally agree with Richard. If you ever happen to read Confucius... He wrote that the objects and people must have real names which describe their inner state as best as they can. So RMS is doing exactly what Confucius has taught his followers - naming people real names.

However you and other 'pragmatists' feel about mono and similar stuff, I am grateful that we have Richard who never stops to give us insight and lead GNU as a _true_ leader and not someone, who is clearly on some big company payroll like the corrupt Icaza.

I've seen this "argument" a

Rufus Polson's picture

I've seen this "argument" a lot of times. No, your freedom to speak does not imply freedom from criticism any more than Stallman's freedom to speak implies freedom from criticism. If you start from "It's OK for Stallman to say what he said" because of free speech, and get from that "It's OK for you to say something unreasonable" because of free speech, then duh, it's equally OK for people to criticize you for it, because of free speech. There isn't a point where it stops and suddenly freedom means never being insulted or challenged.

Of course there's another point you avoid. Basically, the thing is that what Stallman said wasn't really a blatant, uncalled for insult. It was a blatant, called for insult. It's not that it's OK for Stallman to say anything whatsoever because he's a free speech warrior. It's that what Stallman said is probably true, and because he's a free speech warrior rather than, say, someone interested in not offending advertisers or paying clients because their objective is to make money, he can speak the truth even if it will offend people like you. He does not have the same things to lose that most prominent people in the IT world do. Independent and with no obvious handles to grasp, he can make a career of pointing out the emperor's lack of clothes. Stallman pointing out inconvenient truths is not actually equivalent to your proposal to act like a dork. Although you're certainly free to do so.


David Gerard's picture

Indeed. Matt's post struck me as asinine at first read. I hope he'll do a followup explaining what he meant, because he's got to be smarter than he looked there. I'm also glad that other commenters on his post pointed out the problems with his post.

Free Software and Open Source are two names for the same thing.

Not the same.

lefty.crupps's picture

> Free Software and Open Source are two names for the same thing.

Not at all, even though the software that is one or the other may be both. One, however, is a licensing model (Free) and the other (Open) is a development model. Microsoft has some Open Source projects, and not for a moment would I consider them Free Software.

Well done

jennamcwilliams's picture

Great post. The trend you note here seems apparent in most social movements--in my field, education, it's the radicals who make 'pragmatism' possible. Proponents of Free Education make the Open Education movement possible. Proponents of total overthrow of the institution of education make progress within the institution possible.

The problem is that the radicals in any field must develop and maintain a strength that's nearly impossible to keep through an entire career. Radicals get tired of losing every fight. They get tired of seeing people make (in their view) stupid decisions. They have to fight, moment to moment, the desire to give up. As a radical educator friend once said to me, "the more I learn about education, the more I realize how f***ed we are."

Excellent point

Glyn Moody's picture

It's interesting that you perceive it so clearly in the field of education. I think you're right that there is a more general trend in terms of needing to reject compromise initially in order to achieve anything, which then often becomes diluted with success. And as you say, the strength required to maintain that refusal to compromise takes its toll, which is why I think RMS is regarded as so prickly.

Standard in politics

David Gerard's picture

This sort of thing is standard in politics - the "ginger" group who make others look like a reasonable compromise. It's a useful method of reframing. Many are the cases where a group should probably start a radical offshoot to make themselves look more reasonable.

RMS gets points for defining and holding a point, with no compromise. Helped by his track record of, well, being right about pretty much everything for the past twenty-five years. He can be as prickly and weirdly asocial as he likes, he's got the runs on the board.

So what you're saying...

Glyn Moody's picture

...is that RMS needs to start a splinter free software group with an even more uncompromising attitude to make him look reasonable?


someone else's picture

Just maybe RMS should step down and let someone that isn't going to alienate 51% of the planet for a stupid joke lead GNU and the FSF into the 21st century. Free Software does not need him or his attitude towards others to expand.

Day with RMS

lightweight's picture

I recently had the pleasure of spending a full day with RMS. It's clear to me that as Glyn says, his contrary position has forced him to fend off lots of abuse, generally from people who don't understand him or what he stands for. Over 25 years, he's developed means for dealing with that. Some of these can be interpreted as anti-social. I think it's a very pragmatic part of his character, which comes along with being totally rational and totally uncompromising and living up to his (lofty) ideals, something few of us can claim.

I was apprehensive at the start of the day, but when I spoke with RMS on his terms, and demonstrated my familiarity with his principles (and had him tweak my understanding in quite a few places), I found him utterly genuine, effusive, and, frankly, a very sound person.

I viewed RMS as a hero of our times before I met him, and my impression of him has only increased since. I believe that those who deride RMS don't know him. They also tend to be threatened by *their understanding* of his ideas, but their understanding is usually inaccurate and incomplete and their disdain is usually a reactionary response to their discomfort. Like other ultra-bright people (Richard Dawkins comes to mind), RMS has thought long and hard about how to express his ideas in ways that make them graspable by many of the masses... he has, however, developed an allergy to irrational and/or dogmatic and/or simple-minded people. And I don't blame him.


Oh how wrong you are! How

Vasilito's picture

Oh how wrong you are! How come free software still stands on it's own if 51% (by your judgement) of people do not like RMS? You want him to step down and put whom in his place? Miguel de Icaza?

I personally am not a big fan of Mr. Torvalds for some of his fast not well thought of remarks but to go that far as to suggest he must step down? Why, because I dislike him? He is still a leader and must do what he has to do because what he is doing is giving benefits to all of us.

Grow up - start judging people by their accomplishments not by their looks. And better yet - do yourself something good for the world society.

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