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24 March 2011, 17:03

The pragmatism of free software idealism

and the idealism of open source pragmatism

by RIchard Hillesley

"Propriety and single interest divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere" – Gerrard Winstanley, 1649

"If you want to accomplish something in the world, idealism isn't enough – you need to choose a method that works to achieve the goal. In other words, you need to be pragmatic" – Richard Stallman

Free software is and was an idealistic proposition. Its aim was to change the world and the way we live, work and play, albeit with particular reference to computer programs and the way they are put together.

In the beginning, the idea that software should be free was deemed unrealistic and laughable, and then unworkable. Now, for the most part, it is deemed acceptable and desirable – not just as a workable approach to writing software, but as a means of writing better software.

Free and open source software is no longer a fringe movement. But, as Dan Cohen points out, "if the movement toward shared digital openness," (he is also writing about the wider issues of open access and digital freedom), "seems like a single groundswell, it masks an underlying tension between pragmatism and idealism."

The tension Cohen identifies is between Richard Stallman, who he pictures as "the seer and the intellectual justifier of 'free software'", and Linus Torvalds and his "focus on the practical as well as a less radical name – 'open source' – that convinced tech giant IBM to commit billions of dollars to Linux starting in the late 1990s."

Principle versus pragmatism

Separation between idealism and pragmatism has become a convenient way of painting the apparent differences between open source and free software, where idealism is free software and probably a bit extreme, and pragmatism is open source and probably a bit divisive, or vice-versa.

After all 'open source' was conceived as a means of making free software more acceptable to the enterprise by changing terms, tearing away misconceptions and offering concessions to a more liberal licensing regime.

But Simon Phipps, a member of the board of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), tells a different story. "My view has been that principles drive action," he says, "and the point of OSI when it was started in 1998 was that there was a group of people who realised that the principles of free software were not penetrating into business, and decided to do something pragmatic about it. If you ask any of the people involved, such as Bruce Perens", the Debian leader who drew up the Debian Free Software Guidelines, "they will tell you that the guiding principle was free software, and it was the Debian Free Software Guidelines that became the Open Source Definition. So it's very hard to create a conflict between the two unless you take an absolutist position that says if you do any free software you must do all free software."

"The problem is not one of principle versus pragmatism. The problem is that you can very rarely find a situation in any activity where behaviour is homogeneous, and this tends to be what some voices in the free software world react against. Corporations are not people, and only people have ethics. Corporations don't. Corporations are the aggregate of the actions of all the people who act on their behalf, so it's not reasonable to expect corporations to act on the basis of ethics. The individuals might have ethics, but the corporations do not. The OSI was formed out of the recognition that corporations don't have ethics, and if you want an organisation to engage in free software what you have to do is give it a set of objective benefits, and some people didn't understand that."

"They thought that the act of giving businesses objective targets and objective benefits was somehow a betrayal of the principles of free software. But it's not. You expect the people within the business to accept the principles of free software and you expect the corporations to head towards the benefits of 'open source', and the separation between the two is more apparent than real".

Next: The outer limits

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