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When Free Software Isn't (Practically) Superior

by Benjamin Mako Hill

The Open Source Initiative's mission statement reads, “Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.”

For more than a decade now, the Free Software Foundation has argued against this “open source” characterization of the free software movement. Free software advocates have primarily argued against this framing because “open source” is an explicit effort to deemphasize our core message of freedom and obscure our movement's role in the success of the software we have built. We have argued that “open source” is bad, fundamentally, because it attempts to keep people from talking about software freedom. But there is another reason we should be wary of the open source framing. The fundamental open source argument, as quoted in the mission statement above, is often incorrect.

Although the Open Source Initiative suggests “the promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility,” this promise is not always realized. Although we do not often advertise the fact, any user of an early-stage free software project can explain that free software is not always as convenient, in purely practical terms, as its proprietary competitors. Free software is sometimes low quality. It is sometimes unreliable. It is sometimes inflexible. If people take the arguments in favor of open source seriously, they must explain why open source has not lived up to its “promise” and conclude that proprietary tools would be a better choice. There is no reason we should have to do either.

Richard Stallman speaks to this in his article on Why Open Source Misses the Point when he explains, “The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program that is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users' freedom.”

For open source, poor-quality software is a problem to be explained away or a reason to eschew the software altogether. For free software, it is a problem to be worked through. For free software advocates, glitches and missing features are never a source of shame. Any piece of free software that respects users' freedom has a strong inherent advantage over a proprietary competitor that does not. Even if it has other issues, free software always has freedom.

Of course, every piece of free software must start somewhere. A brand-new piece of software, for example, is unlikely to be more featureful than an established proprietary tool. Projects begin with many bugs and improve over time. While open source advocates might argue that a project will grow into usefulness over time and with luck, free software projects represent important contributions on day one to a free software advocate. Every piece of software that gives users control over their technology is a step forward. Improved quality as a project matures is the icing on the cake.

A second, perhaps even more damning, fact is that the collaborative, distributed, peer-review development process at the heart of the definition of open source bears little resemblance to the practice of software development in the vast majority of projects under free (or “open source”) licenses.

Several academic studies of free software hosting sites SourceForge and Savannah have shown what many free software developers who have put a codebase online already know first-hand. The vast majority of free software projects are not particularly collaborative. The median number of contributors to a free software project on SourceForge? One. A lone developer. SourceForge projects at the ninety-fifth percentile by participant size have only five contributors. More than half of these free software projects—and even most projects that have made several successful releases and been downloaded frequently, are the work of a single developer with little outside help.

By emphasizing the power of collaborative development and “distributed peer review,” open source approaches seem to have very little to say about why one should use, or contribute to, the vast majority of free software projects. Because the purported benefits of collaboration cannot be realized when there is no collaboration, the vast majority of free development projects are at no technical advantage with respect to a proprietary competitor.

For free software advocates, these same projects are each seen as important successes. Because every piece of free software respects its users' freedom, advocates of software freedom argue that each piece of free software begins with an inherent ethical advantage over proprietary competitors—even a more featureful one. By emphasizing freedom over practical advantages, free software's advocacy is rooted in a technical reality in a way that open source is often not. When free software is better, we can celebrate this fact. When it is not, we need not treat it as a damning critique of free software advocacy or even as a compelling argument against the use of the software in question.

Open source advocates must defend their thesis that freely developed software should, or will with time, be better than proprietary software. Free software supporters can instead ask, “How can we make free software better?” In a free software framing, high quality software exists as a means to an end rather than an end itself. Free software developers should strive to create functional, flexible software that serves its users well. But doing so is not the only way to make steps toward solving what is both an easier and a much more profoundly important goal: respecting and protecting their freedom.

Of course, we do not need to reject arguments that collaboration can play an important role in creating high-quality software. In many of the most successful free software projects, it clearly has done exactly that. The benefits of collaboration become something to understand, support, and work towards, rather than something to take for granted in the face of evidence that refuses to conform to ideology.


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