Free software, free ethics

March 4, 2019 (1643 words) :: Did the free software movement sell out? Or was its vision of a software commons a doomed proposition from the outset?
Tags: open-source, ideology

This post is day 63 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.


I was reading a slashdot thread discussing potential candidates for the Open Source Initative board. It’s a pretty horrible thread. I originally found it through Alice Goldfuss’s tweet on the harassment that the female candidates are getting, but when I first looked at it, the top comments were outright fascist (ASCII swastikas and copy+pasted anti-semitic conspiracy theories - now hidden, thankfully).

Still, buried among the courageous anti-SJW warriors who think codes of conduct are somehow infringing on their rights, there are some interesting posts reflecting on the failure of the Open Source Initative as an organisation. Some of the discussion seemed to follow a similar analysis to what I described in a piece I wrote for Logic Magazine last year on the failures of open source, Freedom Isn’t Free, but there are some crucial differences that lead to radically different conclusions. One poster writes:

The OSI organization is a failure and has ruined the Free Software movement. The entire organization should be abandoned. We had a chance to make Free Software free forever and we blew it. Now Open Source is being used to monitor and sell us out to the mega corporations. And there is nothing we can do about it because we gave it away with “corporate friendly” OSI efforts.

An anonymous poster replied:

problem is, free software has been betrayed by it’s own advocates because of their own inability to grasp they are being played for free work by corporations

And another (potentially the same, who knows) anonymous poster appeared to blame this state of affairs on Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation:

Free Software was tainted right from the beginning. The GNU Compiler Collection quite easily could have had terms such that the resulting binaries had to be under a free software license but in order to gain popularity Stallman abandoned his morals and allowed and it to be used to create all manner of freedom-disrespecting software.

This last comment I found especially intriguing, because I had never come across anyone who considered Richard Stallman a sell-out. Usually, he’s criticised for being the opposite: stubborn, impractically high-minded, and principled to the point of absurdity. (Personal example: I was supposed to do a phone interview with him back in 2012, as part of a group interview organised by someone I knew, but he refused to take any questions from those of us who had called in because we were using Skype, i.e. proprietary software. He was okay with the questions being sent via Gchat and read aloud to him in person.)

I don’t know how common this sort of worldview is, and it’s quite possible that I’m responding to a very niche perspective that few free software advocates actually hold. But I’m going to respond to it nonetheless, because I think it unintentionally reveals an important truth about the mechanics of capitalism, and specifically, the difficulty of challenging power structures when you only have a very limited toolset.


Let’s follow this train of thought whereby RMS is seen as a sell-out. Presumably, there’s a world where RMS would have not sold out, where his behaviour were even more anti-establishment than it was in reality. He could have released software under only the most corporate-unfriendly licenses, and designed GNU so that it was even more anti-corporation than it currently is.

What would have happened, in this alternate reality (like The Man in the High Castle but with the open source / free software war instead of WWII)? Would the big tech companies that currently dominate our economic landscape have been averted, choked off before they could become powerful, forced to play on the terms set by the Free Software Foundation? Would RMS have ushered in a utopian vision of decentralisation and software freedom, devoid of the massive corporations that set the software development agenda?

No. Because what we’re really talking about goes way beyond software development - it gets into the heart of capitalism. If Richard Stallman had managed to create a movement so set on the idea of “free as in freedom” as to completely stump corporations, his movement would have simply been a historical footnote, of little interest except to a few software developers who happened to have discovered it.

This would have happened despite the righteousness of his ideas or the firmness of his morals. It would have happened because that’s just how capitalism works. If corporations discover something that they’re unable to use (due to cleverly-written licensing agreements), they’re not going to respond by saying “You win, I give up; I’m a communist now”. They’re just going to work around it, using the prodigious resources at their disposal.

And sure, it’s possible that specific actions taken by Richard Stallman & co were misguided, in hindsight. If the GPL had been a little more prescient in spotting the rise of web services, alleviating the need for a separate (and mostly ignored) version called the AGPL … things might have been different. On the other hand, preventing corporations from using particular branches of software wouldn’t have prevented tech giants from profiting off software entirely; at most, it might have raised the barriers to entry for newcomers to the field, by forcing them to either pay for alternatives or to develop them in-house.

If free software had been a stronger bulwark - if it had been better able to prevent its unprincipled spinoff by open source’s chief strategist, Tim O’Reilly - our current software arena might look a bit different. But it would still be ruled by huge corporations nonetheless.

As always, it comes down to structural factors. Look at the current popularity of the open source movement, and the massive amount of funding it gets, compared to the funding and popularity of the free software movement. The former far eclipses the latter, and for good reason: the “open source” framing is amenable to corporations in a way that free software isn’t, because the latter is imbued with a particular anti-corporation bent. And in an era when corporations have enormous wealth and power, which perspective is more likely to get funding?

As I write in my Logic piece:

[…] it’s not entirely fair to blame the founders of free software for having their movement hijacked. They were facing difficult odds: the neoliberal consensus of the last few decades has meant that the benefits of technological development have largely flowed to corporations, under the aegis of a strong intellectual property regime. As the free software movement came up against these prevailing economic forces, its more contentious aspects were watered down or discarded. The result was “open source”: a more collaborative method of writing software that bore few traces of its subversive origins.

Richard Stallman wasn’t a sell-out. And as much as I disagree with some of his political analysis (see his interview in the New Left Review from last fall), I respect him for what he’s achieved. Still, it’s hard to deny that the free software movement he pioneered is a highly marginal one, and one that feels increasingly outdated - and, worse, powerless against the forces that enclose it.

Some of the movement’s limitations could be ascribed to specific choices made by organisations like the Free Software Foundation: deliberately eschewing corporate sponsorship, having a website that looks like it was made in 2005, and optimising for developer freedom over user friendliness. But I think the larger problem is that for the free software movement to bring about the world it wants, it can only ever be a tiny part of a much broader movement. You can’t truly challenge the fact that software is now considered “intellectual property” without addressing the necessity of property rights within capitalism. From the last section of my Logic piece:

[…] the struggle to set information free is not just a technical matter—it has to involve a broader political struggle. The challenges faced by the original free software movement are merely the tip of the iceberg. If you take the core tenets of free software to their logical conclusion, you end up with a desire to reverse all kinds of commodification by transforming property rights in their entirety. As a result, today’s open source communities have the potential to serve as gateways to a more radical politics, one that pushes for the decommodification of not just information but also the material resources needed to sustain the production of information.

This is, quite obviously, not a small challenge. Intellectual property laws are enshrined not just by the neoliberal state, but by the WTO, the controversial TPP, and probably other 3-letter initialisms representing global forces whose consequences are difficult to understand and even more difficult to contest. What are you supposed to do when the problem you’re trying to address is enormous in scope and so institutionalised that it seems all-powerful? What sort of foundation is able to tackle that?

My point here isn’t to convince you that it’s a hopeless cause. My point is that a movement like the free software movement can’t exist on its own, because it’s only tackling a tiny piece of a huge systemic problem. For it to have any hope of achieving anything worthwhile, it can only be part of a larger, anti-capitalist vision for emancipation from the value form. It has to be part of a collective struggle against capital, not merely a matter of individual choice of software licenses.

That’s probably hard to imagine right now, and I don’t have anything insightful to say on that tonight, so I’m just going to close with my fave quote from radical science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.


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