Is Open Source Alive and Well?

Is Free and Open Source software dead?

What is this?

Someone shared a blog post titled “Post-Open Source” from Melody Horn, which for context, is written following the Mozilla layoffs. While reading through it I started writing a train of though response that grew long enough I felt I should try putting it up as a blog post (so please forgive the poor organization and grammar). I think hir perspective is valuable. Open Source does have issues.

I am going to quote a lot from hir article, so please check that out. This is a new style of post for me (much more like a reply than actual content) so lets see how it goes!

My thoughts

i am incredibly unqualified to answer any of this - i didn’t show up until right around the peak of SourceForge, i wasn’t there for most of this - but i’m not gonna let that stop me.

I appreciate the self-awareness lol. This is where I add that I fall into the same camp as not being incredibly qualified either.

To start off, let me define somethings. When I use the term Open Source, I mean the process at which software is devolved and released. When I use the term Free Software, I’m referring to the spirit/ideals behind controlling the software that runs on your devices.

Open Source has existed long before Free Software (though it was not called that). Different universities and labs used to share software all the time when mainframes were making their way into organizations. It was all niche, no one used computers for personal things, but they saw the benefit to share and build on tools for this new era.

The Free Software movement helped to codify this sharing in the 80s as (very few) people started to use these tools in their personal lives. That helped to shape the conversation as things developed and bring people towards the Open Source ideas. As tech continues to dominate our society, I see more people caring about these ideas for sure (privacy being a big reason), but it is by no means a plurality. However, most people don’t and won’t ever care. Whether that’s because they don’t understand the impact or they worry about other issues. The movement has never been about being practical or even really cared about bringing people/organizations to it.

So that is to say, Free Software is alive, it’s just not thriving the same way Open Source is and has been.

what’s good for corporations is, of course, bad for people

This is the main thing I disagree with. Yes, corporations do bad things. But just because the goal of a company is to make money, does not mean it can’t do good at the same time. Linux is the power house it is, because dozens of companies throw money and people at it. VSCode is free and enables millions of people to build new things (including those built off of VSCode). Yes the point is for you to get you to use Microsoft tools and services, but in the process they have created what is in my opinion, the best text editor available and let everyone use it and learn from it. That can help students, researchers, hobbyist, professional, etc.

Open Source used to be almost entirely community based. There is something lovely about that. That’s not gone away. Though yes, I would agree that the biggest Open Source projects all are run by a company. That’s likely, because they can afford to hire people full time and spend money marketing it. We even see projects that are collaboratively run like Fedora, which is largely community managed, but has backing from Red Hat.

Software corps made money by selling you licenses to there software. That meant if you didn’t have enough cash, you not only couldn’t use their tool, there was absolutely know way for you to understand how it works and learn from it or fix problems with it. Eventually they figured out business models that used centered on Open Source. Is the point so they don’t have to spend money on software or so they don’t need to pay internal devs for it? To an extent, yeah of course. But, I hear far more cases where the internal devs now just contribute back to the original project to solve problems they encounter. I also see plenty of people who get jobs, because of Open Source projects (Side Note: there should be a discussion about why it seems like programmers need to do work in their free time in order to get a job, but that’s for another time). The Open Source model did prove to be more effective for lots of cases than the prior models. Even if they are being ruthless and evil, we at least get to see their code now and use it.

open source won, and nothing got better

Sigh. Look. Open Source is not a magic pill that makes everything better. I have argued a little already that we are in a better spot. But the fact is, there a tons of different ways of approaching Open Source and software creation in general. Some are just not going to work, especially if you want to be able to feed yourself with that work. Is that a problem? Sure. I would love to have a society where people are rightfully rewarded for the value they create. But that’s not what we have and neither Open Source or Free Software have made that a core part of their platform, so in a way it’s not surprising that hasn’t happened.

one, trying to bake the complexity of an ethical system into your license is a fool’s errand that will not go well. two, if you’re writing a license to coerce companies into behaving differently, don’t scare them off right out of the gate with a poorly considered enforcement system.

I agree with this assessment of Ethical Source licenses. It sounds nice in practice (I don’t want someone to use my software to kill people), but it’s so hard and complex to prove in a legal way that I wouldn’t be able to enforce it. And if being able to use it without issues just comes down to having the most lawyers, most organization just won’t want to touch it either.

license zero, run by actual lawyer Kyle E. Mitchell, which offers two different public licenses, one standard private license template, and infrastructure for automatically selling exceptions.

If I understand License Zero (which I am just learning about), it is basically an attempt require commercial users of code pay for it, while still allowing other users to use it like a regular Open Source project. Though I think that defeats some of the purpose of Open Source and Free Software, there is certainly a problem where a lot of people and organizations aren’t able to substantially work on community code, because they wouldn’t be able to feed themselves that way. That is a big problem for people like MongoDB, where Amazon (or whoever) can come in, clone it, and offer it as a service without necessarily submitting patches or financial support upstream. We do need to solve this or the amount of open service-like projects will certainly drop.

rejecting licenses altogether is fun but feels kinda halfhearted

I agree. A lot of the license mentioned here (WTFPL) feel more like performance art than an actual solution. If we don’t license things, it’s just copyrighted. If we do that and publish it openly, normal people are just going to assume it’s open and corporations won’t touch it. If that’s the goal, sure. But it has a poor legal standing as all the people who use that code are now vulnerable to a suit, unless you explicitly grant them all exceptions, at which point, isn’t that what a regular license is supposed to do?

the zero-clause BSD license is the most open of open source licenses

I guess as a side note. There is this weird contradiction in the Free Software world where licenses that enforce openness are inherently more restrictive (well, at least to the devs who use them). Don’t get me wrong, I use both permissive and copyleft licenses when appropriate. It’s just an observation I find amusing.

optimizing for profit at the expense of any other consideration. chasing short-term gains and ignoring long-term sustainability or justice.

I agree that this is a problem, though not for Open Source. Mozilla probably ran into something like this, but Open Source is inherently less short-term than other models, because the code is available. The community or even another company can always fork it. So there is always pressure to keep most people happy and not do stupid things. Even if something is poorly manged, it can live on. Mozilla can be wiped off the planet tomorrow, but we can still continue on Firefox (though it is a large and complex project, it would certainly require a lot of people to keep going). Is that perfect? No. But it’s way better than relying on a tool that needs one company to stay alive forever.

In conclusion. I don’t think Open Source is dead, just different now. Free Software will always be niche, but important. We need to change to adapt to the changing world around us. Fortunately, we can do that more easily since we are both our software and communities are open. Some things will crash and burn. Others won’t take off at all. That’s part of any change. We can learn from those around us and bring together our resources to create a more sustainable model. I have faith that we can and will keep Open Source healthy and successful.

Till next time,
- Matthew Booe