FOSS Philosophy

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The following essay describes this site's founder's view of the need for the specific term FOSS, and how FOSS is the unstoppable technological manifestation of a rising tide of global cooperation.

Free Open Source Software - Past and Future

By User:Wstewart

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interests him in the fortunes of others.”
- Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.
“Because open source software features open code, more programmers are able to view the code, create new functionality, and fix bugs. This follows the same natural way that science has developed over time.”
Taoism of open source, Chen Nan Yang, September 29, 2007.

Since at least the founding of the Linux support company Red Hat in 1993, people in the open source community have been asking whether or not their beloved revolution could survive contact with the profit motive. Is there cause for concern? What can we do to help? Is the term “open source” part of the problem? What can Rousseau, Voltaire, and Capuchin monkeys contribute to the conversation?

Starting in the early years of the 21'st century, significant amounts of investment capital have gone into open source companies like SpikeSource and SourceLabs. Red Hat bought JBOSS for hundreds of millions of dollars. Oracle bought InnoDB, the core of the open source database MySQL. XenSource made it clear they intend to profit from proprietary add-ons to their virtual operating system software. And in 2007, the president of the Open Source Initiative essentially acknowledged that the term “open source” by itself has been co-opted and is no longer meaningful.

Several business models have evolved around open source in just a few years, in what seems like a commercial mirror of the innovation that is a characteristic of the technology itself. The variety of these models significantly complicates the easy drawing of ethical dividing lines. As a baseline, there aren’t many open source purists who would deny others the right to make a living providing value-added open source support services.

For the most part, open source advocates have tolerated business oriented efforts believing that the larger pie made it an acceptable price to pay, especially if you believed that the long-term rightness of the cause would eventually prevail in any case, a view that encourages a laissez-faire attitude to this momentous clash of ideas in the marketplace. However, today in 2008, the angst is deeper and more widespread as large swaths of open source mind-share are taken up by commercial initiatives, and the joy of seeing the threat from lawsuits by SCO against Unix evaporate is tempered by apprehension about new partnerships between Microsoft and some Linux companies. If there is a valuable principle at stake here, if open source is a precious gift to the world and future generations, what can or should be done about these developments?

First on the bright side, it is true that the tide is lifting all boats, and the strength, number, and membership of open source organizations has never been greater. Fortunately, many of the movement's visionaries remain with us to continue to guide the way, none more uncompromisingly than the progenitor Richard Stallman. And since belief in open source is essentially a libertarian philosophy, there is little appetite in the general community for legal barriers to curtail the rights of those that wish to see if they can offer value-add to open source and make a business. At the end of the day, open source continues to be one of the most wildly successful growth movements in human history.

The development of the Internet provides a helpful illustration of the benefit of commercial participation. While the network was primarily a resource for researchers through the 1980s, many of the network’s original pioneers, such as TCP/IP co-inventor Vinton Cerf, realized early the benefits and necessity of commercial involvement in order to sustain and grow the success (3). And although many of us bemoan the hype, advertisements, gambling sites, and related flotsam and jetsam left in the wake of business embrace of the Web, there is little doubt that the progress towards universal access at affordable prices resulting from business building the Internet to global scale is a profound good.

While business involvement with open source can be productive, many remain seriously concerned about a development that has blurred the lines around core principles -- the increasing proliferation of companies that call themselves “open source” because they provide open code and a free version of their software, but require a commercial license and fees for advanced versions. The increasing popularity of this kind of software, sometimes inaccurately called "dual licensed" open source, sometimes called "crippleware", and increasing called "commercial open source software", is becoming a popular open source business model, and increasingly of popular concern.

This development is serious, and needs the serous reaction of the community. The most important action we can all take is to strive for use of the correct terminology. Any of "free open source software" (FOSS), "free / libre open source software" (FLOSS), or simply “free software” are commonly used, and they are understood as being compliant with the OSI definition. The term “commercial open source” (COSS) or some clear equivalent should be used to describe software that might include FOSS components but requires fees for some code. The excessively vague term “open source” by itself should be avoided except when talking about both FOSS and COSS as an entire field. The terms FOSS/FLOSS/free software are the community's way of healing the rift between Stallman's and Raymond's views, defining a clear difference so everyone in and outside the community will continue to be able to differentiate between truly free software and versions of open source that are a path to the same old vendor lock-in.

So then, can FOSS survive the popularity of COSS? To arrive at the answer we must recast the question as its fundamental: "will increasingly successful human cooperation be able to survive increasingly well-organized human self-interest?" In other words, the open source game being played out today is just the same old Enlightenment battle between Rousseau and Voltaire played out on a virtual field: is Rousseau right that humanity is basically good but corrupted by a difficult world, or is Voltaire right that humanity is basically selfish but kept in control by the artificial order of civilized life?

There has been a general ascendance of liberal philosophy in much of the world over the last several hundred years, from developments in protection of workers rights to the rise of a planetary environmental consciousness. Nevertheless, the momentum of debate about essential human nature lurched in a decidedly cynical direction in many quarters for much of the twentieth century. From the books of Ayn Rand, friend and inspiration to the long serving Alan chairman of the US Federal Reserve Greenspan, to the convincing victory of free enterprise economics over sclerotic centralized planning with the end of the Cold War, a lesson seemed to have been drawn that became widely accepted in both intellectual and popular circles: self-interested activity was believed to have been shown to be the best practical route to achievement of the larger common betterment. However, it is now seven years into a new century, and accepted verities continue to change. The picture looks more complex, neither extreme seems entirely correct, and thesis and anti-thesis must be synthesized to find a balanced perspective.

The first opportunity to provide a strong scientific rejoinder to the selfishness brigade was provided by the publication on 18 September 2003 in the prestigious journal Nature of a fascinating paper titled "Monkeys Strike for Justice". Through ingenious experiments the authors showed that Capuchin monkeys have a built-in understanding of fair play, to the point that they will refuse to participate in research if they realize other monkeys are receiving better food rewards than they are for the same work. Here was the first convincing evidence that the concept of fairness was hard wired deeply into the primate brain. Over the next few years more studies were published reinforcing the evidence, such as a paper published in 2007 showing that infants as young as six months recognize and prefer those that demonstrate cooperative behaviour. Long held common sense became scientifically founded, showing that the grandest experiment of all - billions of years of evolution - had shown that cooperative behaviour was a deeply embedded invaluable survival trait for beings that live in social groups. Voltaire might have been partly right, but Rousseau was partly right too.

Nothing has provided as dramatic a confirmation of the cooperative potential of humanity than the increasing opportunity to demonstrate it online. Widespread access to the Internet has provided a powerful outlet to unleash humanity’s innate propensity to cooperate. From the early exchanges of lengthy helpful advice in USENET newsgroups between people that had never met, to Project Gutenberg assembling more than 20,000 free books, to the development of the globally produced encyclopedia Wikipedia, the building of collective value beyond the reach of any one person is the defining characteristic of the connected world.

It this full context, it is clear that the future of FOSS is secure, independent of the future of COSS. While influenced by many factors, FOSS is fundamentally driven by the same deep instincts that led to the development of the newsgroups, Project Gutenberg, and Wikipedia. And these cooperative instincts are more and more capable of demonstration through sophisticated online environments and support systems. The development of FOSS is part of a larger whole, the technical manifestation of a global march towards a cooperative tipping point, based on instincts shaped by millions of years of experience in a wide range of environmental conditions. And anything that basic, so fundamental to our collective nature, perhaps to the collective nature of any successful intelligent group anywhere in the universe, is simply too powerful to be stopped.

So while we should remain observant, and use the correct terminology, in the long run we should not be concerned about the activities of COSS. The great majority of open source remains true FOSS, from OpenOffice to... RedHat Linux - even their enterprise edition is free if you want to build and maintain and support it yourself. The cause of FOSS is just, has never had greater momentum, and is motivated by behaviour wired into our very DNA shaped by billions of years of evolution. The future for increasing human cooperation has never looked brighter. The developers of FOSS have a critically important role to play. And the game has just begun.

Let us end with the following wise perspective:

“One of the advantages of the open source development model is that it’s a meritocracy… So by virtue of the quality of your software and the effectiveness of your open source strategy the ones that do things right will be successful… To that end companies that cloud the open source issue up front with a pseudo open source strategy will fall by the wayside, and those that are true innovators will flourish…. The first open source project I was involved with significantly was NetDirector, which is released under the MPL with an attribution clause, and the second is Zenoss, which is licensed under the GPL. The one that has been more successful in terms of adoption is GPL-licensed Zenoss: that's shaped my thinking and my recommendation to others."
- Mark R. Hinkle, VP of Community and Business Development, Zenoss Inc., and Editor-in-Chief, Enterprise Open Source Magazine (link).