Open Sources and the Open Society:
An Essay in Politics and Technology
10 June 2000
Kelly A. Parker, Ph.D.
Department of Philosophy
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, Michigan 49401 [USA]
Copyright © 2000 Kelly A. Parker. Verbatim copying and
distribution of this entire document is permitted in any medium,
provided this notice is preserved.
The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in
these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential
importance of human development in its richest diversity.
--J. S. Mill, ``Dedication,'' On
``Open source'' and ``free software'' (OS/FS) licenses use copyright
law to establish key rights for developers and end users. In the
language of the GNU General Public License, the aim of so-called
``copylefting'' is to ensure ``that you have the freedom to distribute
copies of free software..., that you receive source code or can get it
if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it
in new free programs; and that you know you can do these things''
The concerned OS/FS user can understand and control every aspect of
the machine; the concerned ``closed'' or ``proprietary'' program user
can only guess at the inner workings, customize some settings, and
hope everything runs as advertised and does what is needed.
The Orbiten Free Software Survey, published in May 2000, identified
3,149 separate programming projects released under such licenses in
recent years. The survey cataloged over one gigabyte of code written
by 12,706 individuals, all available for unrestricted use,
modification, and distribution-in most cases with no licensing fee
(Ghosh and Prakash, 2000).3
Whatever anyone wants to do with a computer can probably be
done very well with some combination of these programs. If not, just
call a programmer-the main advantage of open source is that
modifications are possible.
C. Scott Ananian observes that we end users ``tend to accept our
computer's workings as immutable, that we are chained to an
irrational, vindictive, uncontrollable machine destined to rule over
our 9-to-5 days'' (2000). This is an ironic situation, since the
singular beauty of a computer is the fact that it can be programmed
and is thus in principle highly mutable and entirely subject to user
control. Users have had to learn to think otherwise; how they
did so is a subject for another discussion. OS/FS is a powerful
antidote to the servile mindset Ananian describes.
The recent explosion in OS/FS has attracted considerable attention
from Wall Street and elsewhere, but it might yet prove to be a
passing trend. In spite of what its advocates sometimes say, there is
nothing inevitable about the movement's success. All cultural
movements are, after all, affected by fate and political will. After
observing the OF/FS movement for several years, I have developed a
hypothesis that I hope will help us to understand and direct the
evolution of information technology: The OS/FS movement is to
software development what open debate and peer review are to
philosophical, scientific, and political discourse.
A brief word about the place of this investigation is in order. Eric
Raymond, President of the Open Source Initiative, has urged open
source advocates to stay clear of philosophy and politics. He
believes the movement will be better served by ``sticking to
relatively narrow, pragmatic arguments'' about the economic and
engineering advantages of open source software: its lower cost,
greater stability, and faster upgrade cycle, for example
(1995, 225-27).4 I
do sympathize with Mr. Raymond. Strong, readily available arguments
are preferable to potentially weak, undeveloped ones. The facts are,
however, that the OS/FS movement arose in a political context, that it
relies upon and promotes a recognizable ideology, and that the
movement will continue to have social and political effects. These
effects, moreover, may prove to be enormous. The same is true of
closed proprietary software development and distribution, of course,
which makes it all the more important to scrutinize the ideologies at
work in both models.
Though some more technically oriented supporters of OS/FS might prefer
not to worry about politics, it is best to enter this territory with
eyes wide open. Others recognize this as well. Richard Stallman of the
Free Software Foundation is well known for his passionate arguments
about the value of free software (Stallman 1999b, Stallman 1999c). A
handful of legal experts have observed and influenced the movement
from early on-a clear necessity, given the centrality of ``copyleft''
of the economics of OS/FS have begun to appear (Kaminsky 1999). And in
spite of himself, even Eric Raymond has recently weighed in with his
thoughts on the role of public policy in promoting (Raymond et
al. 2000). Now is the time to engage an honest discussion about
the political and philosophical nature of OS/FS. We need to ask
questions about the values it promotes, or that it ought to promote.
Such a discussion, it appears to me, is likely to produce political
and ethical arguments that are at least as compelling as the pragmatic
arguments advanced by Raymond and many others. As only one voice
speaking in a relatively new discussion, I have chosen to concentrate
on developing the advocate's case. Others will no doubt present the
strong counterarguments I am neglecting here.
An analysis of the social and political significance of OS/FS requires
that we understand both the philosophical antecedents and the
contemporary social-political implications of the movement.
The roots of this movement can conveniently be traced to 18th and 19th
century Enlightenment political ideals of John Locke and John Stuart
Mill. The classical liberalism exemplified by Locke and Mill shaped
the principles and institutions that make the OS/FS movement possible:
open deliberation in democratic governance, open access to education,
open reasoning in science, and open competition in business. Not
surprisingly, it is in these same areas-governance, education,
science, and commerce-that we can find the movement's most immediately
visible contemporary implications. Based on my understanding of these
connections, I argue that the OS/FS movement promises to increase
public participation in the systems that create, control, and deliver
fundamentally important social goods. My thesis in turn supports the
small but growing movement toward OS/FS use and advocacy in
government, education, research, non-profit, and commercial
Historically, the ``hacker culture'' (or, if you prefer, the
``do-it-yourself-computing'' culture) that created OS/FS arose from
several hundred years' experimentation with the political ideals of
autonomy and equality. The OS/FS movement thus embodies and tends to
promote the same ideals that drive democracy, education, research, and
perhaps less intuitively, free enterprise.
In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke described
individuals' ``natural'' political status as follows:
a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of
their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of
the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of
any other man.
John Stuart Mill further developed these principles of autonomy and
equality in his treatise On Liberty. In Chapter II, ``Of the
Liberty of Thought and Discussion,'' Mill argued for unrestricted
public discussion of any opinions whatsoever and further explored what
is implied by the central liberal ideals. He addressed two key
questions concerning restricting access to information. First, he
considered why we should permit public debate about opinions that are
generally ``known'' to be false or inferior. Such debate sometimes
reveals that they are in fact true, which is the most important reason
to encourage debate. More often, though, it confirms the belief that
they are inferior. Either way, those involved in the debate gain in
terms of basic autonomy, their ability to determine beliefs and
actions for themselves. Where there is not full understanding of the
range of live alternatives, there can be no genuinely free choice
among them. Where there is not full disclosure of the weaknesses of
even the best among the alternative beliefs, there cannot be valid
consent to actions taken on the basis of those beliefs. Thus open
deliberation is essential to autonomy, both at the level of individual
choice and at the level of collective political action.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is
reciprocal, no one having more than another.... (1690, II. 4.)
Mill's second question concerned why we should bother to scrutinize
opinions that are known to be true. Of course such ``known'' truths
do sometimes turn up false or incomplete on close examination. As in
the case of debate about false opinions, this improvement in our
beliefs is again the best reason to encourage debate. In the many
cases where debate simply reinforces our confidence that the opinion
is true, though, Mill still insisted on the importance of open debate.
Those impatient with endless talk about such ``obvious'' matters might
reasonably ask why we should not just accept established truths at
face value. Mill's response is that
this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational
being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one
superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which
enunciate a truth. (1859)
The word ``superstition'' here indicates a kind of servitude, a
situation in which beliefs and actions are determined not by one's own
will, but rather by external factors beyond one's present
understanding-and hence mysterious. Such servitude to unknown or
incomprehensible influences is the very opposite of autonomy.
The principle of equality likewise enters into Mill's defense of
unrestricted discussion. He recognized that in most controversial
matters the question of truth and falsity is far from clear. Usually
neither side possesses the whole truth or the whole error. In
such cases, Mill observed, ``When there are persons to be found who
form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any
subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that
dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and
that truth would lose something by their silence.'' The principle of
considering any opinion whatever implies ``giving merited honour to
every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and
honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are...''
(1859). In brief, Mill presents Locke's principle of equality so as to
involve both equal access to the best available information, and equal
opportunity to influence public opinion and action, in whatever area
an individual feels inclined to participate.
These, then, are the most basic political ideals of classical
- Self-determination of personal belief and action
- Free choice among live alternatives for belief and action
- Informed consent to others' actions affecting oneself
- Access to the means for attaining basic goods
(e.g. life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness)
- Opportunity actually to attain such goods
My claim is that both the OS/FS movement and the culture that
generated it are products of institutions shaped by these
Enlightenment ideals. It is no accident, for example, that the Free
Software Foundation originated at a place like the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology rather than elsewhere. The few thousand key
individuals behind the movement generally embrace these Enlightenment
ideals, and the movement itself tends to advance both these ideals and
the social institutions in question. As for Mill and Locke, they would
be quite baffled by our technology but not by the hacker slogan
``Information wants to be free!''
The institutions I have in mind, and some of their notable features,
Bills or declarations of rights
Open meeting policies & sunshine laws
Freedom of information laws
Due process & trial by jury rather than secret police
Mandatory public education
Subsidized access to higher education
Liberal education rather than vocational training
Publicly funded research and technology
Blind peer review
Falsification & fallibilism
Shared results rather than trade secrets
Equal pay for equal work
Laissez faire regulation rather than central planning
Some of the listed institutional features (publicly funded science and
technology) obviously contributed more to the emergence of the OS/FS
movement than others (trial by jury). And we can certainly point out
myriad ways in which the governments, schools, research centers, and
businesses we know fall short of the classical ideals. My claim,
though, is merely that at their best these institutions embody
Enlightenment ideals, that the OS/FS movement developed out of such
institutions, and that these ideals are manifest in that movement.6 With this overview
of the historical influence of classical liberalism in mind, we are
prepared to consider the social values at stake in closed vs
open models of software development and distribution.
Eric Raymond takes magic as his trope in one essay on OS/FS, quoting a
wonderful line from Arthur C. Clarke: ``Any sufficiently advanced
technology is indistinguishable from magic'' (Raymond 1999, 139).
Herein lies a major political danger of advanced computing: reliance
on magic in any form is antithetical to Enlightenment principles. Karl
R. Popper began and ended volume 1 of The Open Society and Its
Enemies, written in Europe at the outset of World War II, with
references to magic that ought to give us pause. He began the book by
locating the birth of European civilization at the point of
``transition from the tribal or `closed society', with its submission
to magical forces, to the `open society' which sets free the critical
powers of man.'' He concluded it by saying, ``Once we begin to rely
upon our reason, and to use our powers of criticism, once we feel the
call of personal responsibilities, and with it, the responsibility of
helping to advance knowledge, we cannot return to a state of implicit
submission to tribal magic'' (1996, 1, 201).
To illustrate the connection I am getting at among magic, politics and
software, imagine a people who do not understand how and where their
food is grown, their clothes are made, their laws are formed, or their
news is communicated. These things then appear before them ``as if by
magic.'' But of course these important goods actually appear
due to the efforts of some external authorities, perhaps entirely
unknown, who are trusted implicitly. The situation suggests the
following corollary to Clarke's statement: ``Any sufficiently powerful
authority is indistinguishable from magic.'' Whether the authorities
mean well or are worthy of trust is beside the point, as is the
question whether the people feel content in their ignorance and
vulnerability. We are concerned here about their autonomy, and
whether they could restore it through their own efforts. Everything
depends on whether they could, if they chose, acquire a thorough
understanding of the processes that create and deliver their basic
We need hardly be reminded that computing has become more and more
central to the creation of basic goods in ``advanced'' societies.
Most citizens, including most well-educated citizens, though,
presently regard computing as essentially magical. Here too everything
depends on whether they could, if they wanted, acquire complete
understanding of the computing processes that are key to creating
certain of their basic goods. Proprietary software guarantees that
they cannot; only the copyright holders, the ``computing
authorities,'' have access to the sources of this magic. In Popper's
terms this is a clear mark of regression, not advancement. OS/FS, on
the other hand, guarantees that they can; copyleft gives
everyone the equal right of unrestricted access to source. Though it
is many other things besides, the OS/FS movement is thus in fact a
revolution: a few members of the public have created the means to
resist authorities whose actions undermine our autonomy and equality.
Of course not everyone wants to attain complete understanding and
control of their computing, just as not everyone wants to attain
genuine understanding of their beliefs through the rigors of public
discourse. The Enlightenment ideals support those individuals,
however many or few, who will not blindly submit important matters of
personal belief, action, or livelihood to the mysterious forces of
authority. We come here to the hard bottom line of classical
liberalism: certain things are essential to protecting autonomy and
equality. In any society, the opportunity for unrestricted public
discussion of ideas is one such thing; in a computer-reliant society,
the opportunity for unrestricted access to some body of functional
source code is another. OS/FS guarantees that control of computing
``magic'' is available to those who do want or need it.
There is far more to the political and social significance of OS/FS
than this hard bottom line of principle; likewise, there are other
approaches to software development and distribution that could
accomplish the same ends. Rather than develop these additional themes
on an entirely abstract plane, however, let us look for them as we
survey the potential significance of OS/FS within our familiar four
Citizens must interact with government in some situations, for
example in filing tax returns, responding to legal actions, applying
for permits, and learning about new laws and regulations. Other
interactions, such as communicating with public officials, obtaining
information about public meetings, organizing political parties or
actions, or proposing ballot initiatives, are not required of
citizens but may be important rights. A government has the duty in
such cases to provide for roughly equal access to these interactions.
This duty explains why courthouses in the U.S. are usually located
within a day's horseback ride of the furthest county border, why
public notices are printed in the local newspaper, why the justice
system employs so many translators, and why public buildings are being
The most visible attempt to extend this principle to the realm of
electronic communications is a proposed French law mandating that all
public agencies and organizations use ``open standards'' software
(Finley 2000). The law's backers identify five constitutional principles as
its basis: free access to public information, retrievability of public
data, national security, consumer security, and interoperability
(OSSLaw nd). It means little to open an information channel if only a
limited number of people can obtain the tools to use it, or if those
tools become unavailable in a few years due to a manufacturer's
The proposed law also addressed both ``national'' and ``consumer'' (or
citizen) security concerns. Consider the following illustration of
what this means: several years ago I considered filing my state tax
return electronically. At that time, in Michigan, I would have had to
first purchase a proprietary tax-preparation program. I did not like
the idea of paying $49 to a retail store for what was in effect a
license to pay my taxes. Nor did I like the idea that neither the
Governor nor I could confirm what would happen to the data that I was
expected to put into this magician's hat. I bought stamps instead
(not because I am paranoid about man-in-the-middle attacks on my data,
but because it just seemed too expensive). It did occur to me,
though, that the Governor ought to have considered what a slick
man-in-the-middle could do, given an opaque application that solicits
confidential tax information and puts it online. However rare these
kinds of security breaches are, they can and do appear from time to
time. The transparency of open source software all but eliminates
Another advantage of promoting OS/FS in government is that it gives
the public more opportunity to influence the evolution of our public
technological infrastructure. OS/FS invites inspection, critique,
modification, and discussion of alternative software solutions. This
in turn gives the public a hand in shaping technology design and
policy. Reliance on closed solutions puts all the design decisions in
a few hands, and design decisions accumulate to become policy
decisions by default. It is now largely taken for granted, for
example, that the registered licensee's identity will be
automatically, obscurely, and often incorrectly embedded as the
``author'' of many office documents. Whether average users might have
wanted more control over such disclosure of their apparent identity is
simply irrelevant, because the designers of popular proprietary
programs long ago decided it would be this way. The de facto
policy result is that it is now presumed to be very difficult, and
hence unusual or even suspect, to conceal one's identity when creating
an ordinary letter as a computer file.
Citizens who already regard computing as magical may fall easily into
accepting a particularly insidious form of economic and technological
determinism. On this view, whatever technology we have is determined
by fate, or ``progress,'' acting through large corporations. Standard
Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, head of the largest corporate
monopoly in history, maintained that human progress is inevitable and
that it advances in exactly this way. The corporations that produced
the key technologies in Rockefeller's day held awesome powers of
monopoly. Not surprisingly, Rockefeller saw this a very good
thing: such power, he said, is the ```working-out' of a law of nature
and a law of God'' (Hickman 1990, 141). OS/FS pulls back the curtain that
such Oz-like monopolist wizards would draw across the inner workings
of our technological infrastructure.
Schools are beginning to discover the practical advantages of OS/FS.
Chief among these advantages is the potential savings in licensing
costs-a major consideration when equipping hundreds of workstations on
a public education budget. Most of the commentaries on OS/FS in
education focus on these practical factors, which does get
administrators to listen. To persons interested in these arguments, I
recommend the articles by John Hartzog (1999) and Jeff Covey (2000).7 As an educator,
though, I am much more interested in the observation that ``Free
software both encourages learning and experimentation and in turn
benefits from it'' (Yee 1999).
My own curiosity about OS/FS began when, in a review of university
classes intended to teach mathematical and logical reasoning, I
encountered a major software maker's logo on a syllabus. It is
certainly possible to teach the structures of logic using a computer
language such as visual basic. Other features of the syllabus made me
suspect, however, that the course was designed merely to train
students in using a popular commercial product. There is a difference
between university education and vocational training, which has to do
with the intended breadth and depth of understanding the student
acquires. Some mastery of logic and critical thinking is, or ought to
be, one mark of the well-educated person. Language, logic, and habits
of critical thinking-the great egalitarian tools of public
discourse-constitute the original public information technology. They
carry no trademark, copyright or patents and are available to any who
want to learn them. A student who has learned logic has already
learned the hard part of programming. Conversely, a student who learns
the general principles of programming (not just how to do a few
exercises in a specific programming environment) has also learned a
great deal of logic and critical thinking. Students could learn
general principles using open and fee-free programming languages, then
transfer that understanding to proprietary languages when necessary.
David Bollier offers the following explanation of why things are not
done this way:
many major universities allow themselves to serve as marketing and
recruitment vehicles for Microsoft, accepting discount software deals
in return for exclusive access to a future consumer base and
programmers' mindshare. But even these seemingly smart deals can prove
to be more expensive over the long term as licensing regimes are
changed to extract higher prices once the company has a monopoly
stranglehold. (1999, III. B. 2.)
Even if Microsoft does this, we should recall that the strategy was
pioneered by Apple. My question is whether we are trying to develop
our students' intellectual skills, or merely their brand loyalty.
OS/FS is an even more attractive educational tool when we turn from
general education to the computer and information technology
curriculum specifically. Bollier again gets at the key point:
its inner logic - the source code - can be directly manipulated by
students. With its inner parts visible, users can choose to learn how
the software works, and then share and develop that
knowledge. Proprietary software, by contrast, is inherently
"unknowable" because its inner architecture is a trade
secret. (1999, I. E.)
Education ought to equip students to become self-teachers, and this
has as much or more to do with developing attitudes and habits of
thought as with acquiring skills and information. The American
philosopher John Dewey warned about substituting vocational training
for education. Mere training produces servile workers who ``do what
they do, not freely and intelligently, but for the sake of the wage
earned. It is this fact which makes the action illiberal, and which
will make any education designed simply to give skill in such
undertakings illiberal and immoral'' (1944, 260). We can teach
both skills and understanding using open source software. This route
also teaches that knowledge is not a branded commodity, an idea that
ranks high on the list of other things that students need to
learn in order to be free citizens.
The editors of the essay collection Open Sources observe in
their introduction that science ``is ultimately an Open Source
enterprise. The scientific method rests on a process of discovery,
and a process of justification. For scientific results to be
justified, they must be replicable. Replication is not possible
unless the source is shared: the hypothesis, the test conditions, and
the results'' (DiBona et al. 2). It was in the spirit of
sharing rather than hoarding the results of his work that Stallman
developed his concept of Free Software and the GPL
(1999a, 53-56). During the last decade there seems to have been,
in teaching and research, a movement away from ``computer science''
and toward ``information technology.'' This trend may reflect the
proprietary model's influence on computer professionals'
thinking. Science is at bottom a search for understanding, and is
characterized by an ethic of open experimentation and shared
results. Technology development is above all a business enterprise,
typified by non-disclosure and intense competition for external
unlimited flexibility and control offered by OS/FS opens up avenues of
experimentation that are otherwise unavailable. OS/FS has allowed
many computer professionals to conduct at least some of their work in
a collegial and scientific spirit once again.
Open source also invites critical peer review, another essential
feature of science that is foreclosed by proprietary models. Paul
Vixie describes its role in software development:
An additional advantage enjoyed by open-source projects is the ``peer
review'' of dozens or hundreds of other programmers looking for bugs
by reading the source code rather than by just executing packaged
executables. Some of the readers will be looking for security flaws
and some of those found will not be reported (other than among other
crackers), but this danger does not take away from the overall
advantage of having uncounted strangers reading the source code.
These strangers can really keep an Open Source developer on his or her
toes in a way that no manager or mentor ever could. (1999, 98-99)
OS/FS is constantly used, reviewed, debugged and extended by users who
quite often give their patches back to the community for free. An
OS/FS slogan says ``Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow'' (Raymond
1999, 41). This ongoing process of testing and revision has made many
OS/FS applications extraordinarily powerful, stable and reliable. Such
applications as the Apache web server and the Perl scripting language
demonstrate how complex software engineering projects can be
accomplished by using OS/FS to leverage the scientific ideals of
extensive peer review and the spirit of common inquiry.
Cryptography is clearly the pre-computing scientific area where such
peer review of source code has borne the most fruit. Modern
cryptography is almost entirely computer-based. The calculations
involved are so involved that only a machine can reliably carry them
through. Conversely, the wide availability of computing power has
permitted innovations in cryptography that would otherwise have been
impossible. While mathematical symbols are still the central language
of theoretical cryptography, source code is the language of
applied cryptography. The only acceptable test of a modern
cryptographic system is the pragmatic one: make the source code
available, then wait for the world's experts to identify weaknesses in
the algorithm and its software implementation. Many of the ongoing
discussions on the Usenet group sci.crypt could be used as textbook
illustrations of the scientific method in action. Other scientific
disciplines that rely heavily on computing, such as some branches of
mathematics and statistics, are also experiencing a similar
Whenever computer programs cease to be mere tools for doing research
and become the research result itself, source code must be made
In most scientific disciplines, computing is still just a tool. It is
hard to imagine a scientist, though, who would not prefer to have as
much understanding and control as possible when it comes to important
research tools. OS/FS is increasingly favored for research
applications, for the simple reason that it permits unrestricted
customization and troubleshooting. Scientists have always modified
their physical tools.10 Software is different, though.
Consider just two examples. The first is the data system assembled
and installed on a NOAA ``hurricane hunter'' aircraft in 1998. This
complex amalgamation of radar equipment and laptop computers
illustrates the challenge that can be involved in building
``customized research equipment.'' Two of the team members, C. Wayne
Wright and Edward J. Walsh, reported that ``Thanks to the reliability
of Linux and all of the off-the-shelf real-time data processing
programs available in that domain, we were able to put together a
state-of-the-art data system on a very tight schedule with a great
variety of real-time displays'' (1999, 30). The second is the
development of Beowulf clusters, NASA's ``off-the-shelf
supercomputer'' parallel processing project. In an initial progress
report on this project we find the following rationale for using OS/FS
The cost issue is important because to pay for an [operating system]
license for each node of a multihundred-node beowulf cluster could be
prohibitively expensive. Source code availability is important
because it enables custom modifications to facilitate parallel
computation. (Sterling et al. 1998, 2)
Without the source, no amount of desire or will would have permitted
the kinds of fundamental software alterations involved in these two
Modern science is an Enlightenment invention. It has always
flourished best in an environment that places a premium on autonomy
and equality. One last observation from a Beowulf developer will
highlight the importance of these ideals for science. After
describing programmers' years of frustration ``fighting'' with
software vendors and system administrators, he says that the turn to
OS/FS ushered in an entirely new attitude among researchers: ``The
realization is that learning to build and run a Beowulf cluster is an
investment; learning the peculiarities of a specific vendor only
enslaves you to that vendor'' (Merkey 1998).
In a nutshell, an aggressive business seeks to do two things. First,
it wants to develop a competitive edge through product innovation,
superior service, cost efficiency, and other factors. Second, it
wants to keep that edge as long as possible so as to continue
generating profits. It is not hard to understand how the reduced cost,
increased control, functional transparency, stability, and flexibility
of OS/FS may help a business establish and maintain a competitive
advantage. Not surprisingly, a growing number of businesses, across
the whole economy, are embracing OS/FS.
Three potential effects of OS/FS on business are particularly worth
examining, however. The first concerns the issue of security. In any
industry, information is essential to running a successful
business. In certain industries, information is itself the chief
commodity. Where a business manages its key information with
computers, the managers must be concerned about security. Corporate
espionage, computer crackers and vandals, even cyber-terrorism may
present threats to a business. OS/FS can in principle offer greater
security than proprietary software. Mature, widely used OS/FS
applications are typically quite stable, for one thing. For another,
access to source code makes it virtually impossible for hostile
parties to insert trojan horse code or backdoor access that would
compromise a system. Simon Cozens explained the principle very
clearly in a comment posted to Technocrat.net:
If I cannot see how the software on my machine works, I am
surrendering my computer, in trust, to the vendor. Putting binaries
onto my computer is not just opening the door to strangers-it's giving
them the spare room. I don't do it for my house, and I wouldn't do it
for my computer either. (2000)
Open source code offers an unmatched level of security, as long as
businesses actually use the advantages provided by complete
A second major business effect is specific to the software
industry. The emergence of OS/FS has begun to redefine the notion of
what a software company does. Traditionally, most businesses
manufactured and sold things. Software companies naturally
tended to think they should do something similar. Metaphysically
speaking, though, software is an altogether different kind of entity
from a product like shoes. The shoe store knows it is providing
physical objects and some service in return for payment. The software
company, on the other hand, has to consider carefully what it
is selling. It might appear to be floppy disks and CD-ROMs,
existing programs, support services for existing programs, consulting
and development services, or some combination of these. The physical
objects in question, such as disks and CD-ROMs, are nearly worthless
and easily duplicated. An existing program is nothing more than a
very large, unique binary number that can be represented in a variety
of media. As Donald Knuth, the mathematician and author of the free
typesetting program TEX has pointed out, a number
may cost a lot to discover-but once discovered, it isn't usually
considered to be the sort of thing anyone can own (Advogato 2000).
Accordingly, product support, development and consulting are emerging
as the real business of the software industry. Companies like Red Hat
Linux have embraced this business model wholeheartedly (Young 1999).
By devoting itself entirely to OS/FS, such a company is never tempted
to think that it is in the business of selling valueless plastic disks
or priceless eternal numbers. By giving the software away, to as many
people as possible, Red Hat and other OS/FS-oriented businesses create
a large base of potential customers for their support services.
The last implication of OS/FS for business is one that has yet been
scarcely recognized at all. Open source all but eliminates the
concept of the ``trade secret,'' ``proprietary formula,'' or
``patented law of nature'' as the source of a competitive edge. What
is left to create an edge is simple excellence in the goods and
services provided. If I can choose among five different free programs
to create my electronic documents, for example, I will likely choose
the one that works best, has the most useful features, is the most
reliable, allows the easiest information exchange with other users,
and has the best support. If the people who produce and support these
programs want my business, they will work very hard indeed to out-pace
their competitors. This is the kind of competition that benefits the
public and rewards those who are the best at what the industry does,
which is to write software and support users. The proprietary model,
on the other hand, can encourage behavior-such as development of
standard-breaking and inefficient (but attractive looking) software,
deliberately misleading advertising, and underhanded sabotage or
destruction of competitors-that ultimately harms the public and
undermines a company's own strengths. The proprietary model of
development and distribution does usually reward those who excel at
writing and supporting software, but it also tends to reward those who
are the best at these other counterproductive and unfair business
practices. Worst of all, the proprietary mode of competition can make
such business practices appear very attractive, even to people of high
This aspect of the OS/FS movement may already be migrating to
non-software industries. Researchers at the Rocky Mountain
Institute's Hypercar Center have developed technology that they hope
will revolutionize automobile design. This technology might be worth
a very large fortune, but Research Director Amory Lovins has chosen to
initiate a market experiment with it:
Rather than following the traditional route of patenting and
auctioning the intellectual property and hoping the buyer would
succeed with it and not sit on it, the Center chose-by analogy with
the open-software development model-to put most of its intellectual
property in the public domain and get everyone competing to exploit
it. This was expected to increase the number, quality, and motivation
of market actors and to speed their progress. (Lovins nd)
If we hold to the principle of open access to information, we should
advocate similar ``open sourcing'' of other advanced technologies such
as genetic crop modification and medical technology. Extensive peer
review, experimental control, and thorough understanding of the
mechanisms at work in these process are all needed if we are to
determine the wisest use of such technologies.12
The OS/FS movement is still in its early stages. OS/FS offers
numerous benefits, but not all of these benefits are relevant or
desired in all situations. Consider the three following variations on
Free Software as current examples only. Further adaptations of the GPL
will certainly proliferate. 1. It has proved impractical
to allow user modifications of the Distributed.net client software,
since the project requires the clients to process calculations
identically on thousands of computers and report the results back
according to a standard protocol (Anonymous 2000a). At the same time,
the owners of all these machines ought to know exactly what code they
are volunteering to execute. Such applications can be distributed as
``sacred source'' code. The bulk of the source is available for
inspection and testing, but executable binary programs built from it
cannot interact with the central system. Only ``blessed binaries''
obtained from a central distributor are fully functional. The
distributor in turn assumes responsibility for the integrity of the
executables: they are implicitly guaranteed to be safe and legitimate
programs. 2. The major issue in the Free Software
vs Open Source rift has to do with restrictions on
distribution. The GNU Public License guarantees all users the right
of unlimited distribution, while the Open Source Definition allows
certain restrictions of these rights. Social activists, educators and
researchers tend to prefer the GPL, while many businesses are
attracted to the OSD (Free Software Foundation 1991; Perens
1997). 3. In the face of the French ``Open Standards''
proposal, proprietary software companies are reportedly considering a
number of different strategies that would allow them to continue
selling in that country (Anonymous 2000b). Such companies could begin
using more standard, interoperable data formats in their programs. It
may be possible to set up a ``limited-access source'' arrangement that
would allow government officials to inspect and hold the source, but
prohibit them from distributing it or disclosing trade secrets until
the vendor either gives permission or goes out of business.
OS/FS is a hot new paradigm, but paradigms always beget variants. I
have here mentioned only three of many possible variations on the
OS/FS concept. We know from other industries, like transportation,
that the market will support a wide array of similar products. Some
people pride themselves on never paying more than $500 for a car,
while others have the means and desire to drive nothing but a new
Jaguar. Much current Open Source software is the computing equivalent
of the Jaguar,13
but we are already seeing both ``free'' and ``professional'' or
``premium'' releases of some open source software.
Let people decide for themselves what to drive and what software to
run, but let us insist on the kind of variety and genuine
choice that OS/FS currently provides. Just as the hard bottom
line of classical liberalism is satisfied as long as there is
effective public transportation in a mobile society, so is it
satisfied if there is effective public software in an information
society. At the moment there is, and it happens to be excellent
software. Those who consider the classical liberal ideals important
will provide the OS/FS movement the support and protection it needs to
stay that way.
My intent in this paper is to examine the historical and philosophical
heritage of OS/FS, and to present an advocate's view. I hope others
will engage this debate with responses and offer the kind of
counter-arguments to OS/FS that will help us thoroughly understand the
movement's implications. To prepare the way for such debate, consider
the following sketch of several common but manifestly weak
objections to OS/FS, together with an advocate's brief responses.
The concern is sometimes expressed that the OS/FS model is detrimental
to the proprietary model and the businesses that rely on it.
- Objection. It is ethically legitimate to profit
from proprietary software.
- Response. Indeed it is, and OS/FS does not
exclude others who find a market for products developed and
distributed under the proprietary model. OS/FS is an alternative to
proprietary software, not an attack on its existence. Proprietary
software distributors who perceive OS/FS as a threat should recall
that there is no guarantee that any particular kind of business will
always remain profitable, though: ice houses went bankrupt once people
were able to buy their own refrigerators.
- Objection. OS/FS threatens the legal right to
copyright, patent or otherwise protect one's intellectual property.
- Response. An OS/FS license can only be granted by
an author, and only to his or her own works. My intellectual property
rights are not infringed by your decision to release your creation
under such a license.
- Objection. OS/FS threatens the place of the
profit motive as an incentive to innovate and to improve software
- Response. This may be true. It is hard to
imagine that anyone will get rich in the near future by writing a
better web server than what is already available under the GPL. On the
other hand, the profit motive is usually overrated by those who are
unfamiliar with the non-monetary rewards of work and competition. The
OS/FS approach simply appeals to other persons, and other
motives. Eric Raymond argues throughout The Cathedral and the
Bazaar that the OS/FS model does motivate innovation and
Centrally controlled of software development (the ``cathedral'' model)
ensures that commonly used programs employ uniform standards, file
formats, and user interfaces; decentralized development (the
``bazaar'' model) promotes proliferation and wide differences among
programs, resulting in the computing equivalent of the Tower of Babel.
- Objection. Compatibility & Interoperability,
or, ``That guy in the next office says he can't read my email
attachments!'' Proprietary software like Microsoft Office, Adobe
Photoshop and Lotus cc:Mail are the standard means for information
exchange in many organizations. OS/FS users are often unable to
access files their colleagues create with these proprietary
- Response. Compatibility and interoperability
depend on the use of common software standards. OS/FS relies on open
standards, while much commercial software relies entirely or partly on
proprietary standards. Open formats such as ASCII text for email and
system files, hypertext markup language (html) for web documents,
portable document format (pdf) for paper publications, and numerous
open image and audio file formats (including jpg, tiff, wav, and mp3)
promote compatibility across different applications and hardware
platforms. Common software libraries like the GNU ToolKit and the GNU
C libraries promote software interoperability. Open standards are
usually adopted by OS/FS developers after general discussion of their
technical merits. When a consensus emerges on the ``best'' standard,
it becomes the agreed-upon foundation for future software development.
Proprietary standards are sometimes created from scratch to serve
particular purposes, but are often simply adaptations or modifications
of existing open standard formats. In either case, their internal
specifications are usually kept as trade secrets so that few
applications from other developers, if any, can access them
effectively. Users thus often find themselves wedded to a software
brand not because they need the additional features, but because they
do not know how to convert existing files into more accessible
The scenario described in the objection is all too common: users
assume that everyone in the world relies on identical software, and
hence on identical standards. This is not greatly different from
assuming that everyone in the world speaks one's own language, except
that nobody has to buy a license to learn English or Spanish. Like
particular languages, proprietary standards can offer unique
advantages, but they also involve several disadvantages. Where the
proprietary standard offers needed functionality that is otherwise
unavailable, an organization will find that it must provide all
involved parties with the appropriately identical software and
hardware. Moreover, vendors have a financial incentive to introduce
frequent upgrades that add functionality but render previous versions
of their software obsolete. Such changes actually erode
compatibility: If one key person insists on using software based on
the new standards, everyone else must either pay the ``upgrade tax''
of a new program license or else drop out of contact. This regular
upgrade cost appears especially high if the vast majority of users
never take advantage of the ``improved'' functionality. The result is
that many desktop computers are now bloated with the latest available
industrial-grade multimedia technology, which is in many cases used
mainly to read plain ASCII email.
On the other hand, very few users seem to realize that most programs
offer a ``Save as...'' option, which can put files in more accessible
open formats. The guy in the next office actually could read
those beautiful attachments we create in the latest version of Office
or WordPerfect-all that is necessary is to take a few extra seconds to
put them in an appropriate format. Perhaps we should ask whether we
are trying to communicate with one another, or to win a contest to see
who has the most ``advanced'' magic?
Advogato, 2000, 25 January.
Interview: Donald E. Knuth.
Accessed 26 January 2000.
Ananian, C. S., 2000.
html>. Accessed 10 February 2000.
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions on the Microsoft Antitrust
Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism.
Accessed 1 December 1999.
--, 2000a, 24 May.
Accessed 30 May 2000.
--, 2000b, 25 April.
MS: `Not So Fast There, Pierre'.
Accessed 26 April 2000.
Open Source: Software Gets Honest.
Accessed 15 December 1999.
Bollier, D., 1999, March.
The Power of Openness: Why Citizens, Education, Government, and
Business Should Care about the Coming Revolution in Open Source Code
Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Accessed 17 May 2000.
Covey, J., 2000, 18 March.
Linux in Education.
Accessed 19 March 2000.
Cozens, S., 2000, 17 April.
Re: Open Source Critique Criticized.
Accessed 18 April 2000.
Daffara, C. et al., 1999.
Free Software / Open Source: Information Society Opportunities
Working Group on Libre Software, European Commission.
Electronic document. <http://eu.conecta.it/>.
Accessed 15 December 1999.
Dewey, J., 1944.
Democracy and Education.
New York: The Free Press.
DiBona, C., S. Ockham, and M. Stone (Eds.), 1999.
Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution.
Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
Finley, M., 2000, 24 April.
French Pols Say, 'Open It Up'.
Accessed 26 April 2000.
Free Software Foundation, 1991.
GNU General Public License, Version 2.
Accessed 12 May 2000.
Ghosh, R. A. and V. V. Prakash, 2000, May.
The Orbiten Free Software Survey.
Accessed 11 May 2000.
Hartzog, J., 1999, April.
Public Software for Public Education.
The Web Project at California State University,
Accessed 24 April 2000.
Hickman, L. A., 1990.
John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology.
Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Joy, B., 2000, April.
Why the Future Doesn't Need Us.
Kaminsky, D., 1999, 2 March.
Core Competencies: Why Open Source Is The Optimum Economic Paradigm
Accessed 29 May 2000.
Lessig, L., 1999a, 9 February.
Code and the Commons.
Accessed 7 February 2000.
Open Code and Open Societies: Values of Internet Governance.
Chicago-Kent Law Review 74, 101-116.
Available as electronic document.
<http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/works/lessig/final.pdf>. Accessed 15
Lettice, J., 2000, 4 January.
French Proposal Plans State Free Software Agency.
Accessed 12 January 2000.
Levy, E., 2000, 16 April.
Wide Open Source.
Accessed 17 April 2000.
Locke, J., 1690.
Second Treatise of Government (Public domain ed.).
Available as a Wiretap electronic document.
Lovins, A., nd.
A Brief History of the Hypercar Center.
Accessed 20 January 1000.
McHugh, J., 1999, 3 May.
Accessed 8 February 2000.
Merkey, P., 1998, 11 September.
Beowulf: Introduction and Overview.
Center of Excellence in Space Data and Information
Accessed 8 February 2000.
Mill, J. S., 1859.
On Liberty (Public Domain ed.).
Available as a Wiretap electronic document.
Open Standards & Source Code Access.
Accessed 26 April 2000.
Perens, B., 1997.
The Open Source Definition.
Open Source Initiative.
Accessed 12 May 2000.
--, 2000, 17 April.
Open Source Critique Criticized.
Accessed 18 April 2000.
Popper, K. R., 1966.
The Open Society and Its Enemies (5th ed.), Volume 1.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Raymond, E. S., 1999.
The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open
Source by an Accidental Revolutionary.
Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
Raymond, E. S., L. Lessig, et al., 1999-2000.
Controversy: Should Public Policy Support Open-Source Software?
Accessed 17 April 2000.
Rubini, A., 1999, February.
Software Libre and Commercial Viability.
Linux Journal (58), 46-48.
Stallman, R. M., 1999a.
The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement.
See DiBona et al., pp. 53-70.
--, 1999b, 6 November.
Why ``Free Software'' Is Better Than ``Open Source''.
Accessed 12 January 2000.
--, 1999c, 6 November.
Why Software Should Not Have Owners.
Accessed 12 January 2000.
Stephenson, N., 1999.
In the Beginning Was the Command Line.
New York: Avon Books, Inc.
Sterling, T., D. Becker, et al., 1998.
An Assessment of Beowulf-class Computing for NASA Requirements.
Loki - Commodity Parallel Processing.
Accessed 8 February 2000.
Vixie, P., 1999.
See DiBona et al., pp. 91-100.
Wright, C. W. and E. J. Walsh, 1999, February.
Linux Journal (58), 20-30.
Yee, D., 1999, 30 November.
Development, Ethical Trading, and Free Software.
Accessed 12 May 2000.
Young, R., 1999.
Giving It Away: How Red Hat Software Stumbled across a New Economic
Model and Helped Improve an Industry.
See DiBona et al., pp. 113-125.
- ... 1.01
- Version 0.9 of
this paper was presented at a Directions and Implications of Advanced
Computing Symposium on ``Shaping the Network
Society,'' sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility at the University of Washington, Seattle, 20 May 2000.
- A number of other open source
licenses are in use, but the GPL is the earliest and is definitive of
both ``open source'' and ``free software.'' It is the most liberal
licensing strategy available, aside from simply placing a program in
the public domain. See section 2.5, following, for discussion of some
other open source licensing strategies.
- These numbers are certainly low, since this first
Orbiten survey did not attempt to catalog all known free software
- Similar concerns
have led Raymond to promote the boardroom-friendly ``Open Source
Definition'' in place of the less restrictive GNU ``Free Software''
license (Perens 1997).
- Lawrence Lessig is among the most visible legal
experts interested in OS/FS.
- The free market is the most problematic of the four
institutions mentioned in this connection. There is a sometimes
stunning gap between classical liberal ideals and illiberal reality in
modern business. One difficulty is that virtually all modern
views of business trace back to conflicting interpretations of Locke's
view of property. A thorough account would involve retrieving an
older notion of ``the professions'' that predates the modern concept
- I am presently building a free
software server for my own course web sites, to demonstrate the
possibilities of this approach.
- A parallel division has arisen between medical
science on one hand, and the health care, pharmaceutical, and genetic
engineering industries on the other.
- The recently discovered solution to Fermat's Last
Theorem represents one such case, where the source code can be
considered an integral part of the research result.
- ... tools.10
- No chemistry lab is complete without a
good glass-worker, and researchers regularly violate patents and
warranty terms in the quest to improve their research equipment.
- ... transparency.11
- Elias Levy
correctly points out that ``simply being open source is no guarantee
of security'' (Levy 2000). The security advantage is only realized if
qualified experts actually review the source code, and this trusted
source is then used to build the executable programs. OS/FS is thus a
necessary but not a sufficient condition for increased security.
- ... technologies.12
- Open Source
advocate Bill Joy has recently argued that certain emerging
technologies pose an unprecedented danger to society at large, because
the material and financial barriers to their (mis)use are minimal:
``Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.'' In such a situation
it appears that either the knowledge ought to be kept secret, so as
not to fall into dangerous hands, or else the knowledge ought never to
be sought in the first place. Joy endorses the latter course, arguing
that research into robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology
ought to be limited or relinquished altogether (2000). The
principles behind OS/FS entail only that if such knowledge is
acquired, it ought to be made openly available.
- ... Jaguar,13
- Neal Stephenson uses a more extended
transportation analogy to make this same point. If the Microsoft
Windows operating systems are like family station wagons, their
GNU/Linux counterparts are like tanks ``made of space-age materials
and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other.
But they are better than army tanks. They've been modified in such a
way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable
enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a
subcompact car'' (1999)
OPEN SOURCES AND THE
AN ESSAY IN
was generated using the LaTeX2HTML
translator Version 99.2beta6 (1.42)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996,
Computer Based Learning Unit, University of Leeds.
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999,
Mathematics Department, Macquarie University, Sydney.