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What Is Free, Open Source Software?

Despite the growing popularity of free, open source software in the last 15 years as viable alternatives to proprietary programs, the concept of open source is unfamiliar to most. What I mean by “free, open source software” is software that reveals its source code to the user. Software source code is computer programming language that any experienced user can read and understand and therefore also manipulate and change. Much of the computer software on the market today, including widely used productivity software such as the Microsoft Office suite and operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS X are closed or proprietary software; they do not allow end users to modify the programs to improve them or personalize their uses. (Indeed, this is also strictly forbidden in the software’s “End User License Agreement,” or EULA.) The notion of free software originated with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer programmer Richard Stallman (or RMS, the initials of his name that formed his login password to the MIT computer systems). Stallman had been working at MIT during the formative 1970s, when other computer programmers or “hackers” were experimenting heavily with Unix-based systems and developing software tools that were passed around among users, who admired the skill in writing the code and suggested further improvements.14 Although the term “hacker” has become something of a pejorative, referring to dangerous individuals who break into secure computer systems in order to steal valuable data, its “old” meaning from the 1970s and 1980s was quite a positive one, referring to a technologically savvy, intelligent individual who worked against a centralized authority and the rigid enforcement of property bound- aries.15 As Helen Nissenbaum explains about the early hacker movement, “If there is something political that ties together these descendents of early hackers, it is protest—protest against encroaching systems of total order where control is complete, and dissent is dangerous. These hackers defy the tendencies of established powers to overreach and exploit without accountability. With their specialized skills, they resist private enclosure and work to preserve open and popular access to online resources, which they consider a boon to humanity. Ornery and irreverent, they represent a degree of freedom, an escape hatch from a system that threatens to become overbearing.”16

Stallman and other programmers at MIT embodied these antiauthoritarian and communitarian ideals in the work that they performed on the university’s computer systems. Each time one programmer came up with a useful program (or “hack”), it was quickly distributed to others who would read and admire the code, and then promptly alter it to create new software programs that fulfilled some other utilitarian need.

The camaraderie and communitarian ethos at the MIT lab began to unravel, however, when the US Department of Defense became interested in utilizing these projects to develop its own applications, insisting that these software projects become closed to outsiders to protect national security. Additionally, private companies became less interested in sharing their source code with university programmers and computer science students since new business models for software were emerging, and many of the best minds at these universities were being hired by these firms (one of which was Bill Gates’s fledgling start-up company called Microsoft).

Stallman worked to preserve the “hacker ethic” he had once experienced at MIT by resigning his position there in 1984 and devoting himself to the advocacy of what he called “free software.” Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as a nonprofit organization that would be able to support the development of free software projects. Free software, according to Stallman’s vision and the tenets of the Free Software Foundation, comprises four essential freedoms:

  • 1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • 2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • 3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • 4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.17

In essence, then, free software allows users to run, copy, distribute, and change or improve existing software without being prevented from doing so by the originator of the software. This does not mean, however, that financial transactions are anathema to the free software movement: in Stallman’s words, “free” simply meant free as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” In fact, some of the earliest businesses created around open source software offered technical support for these tools—something that Stallman himself strongly supported. While software companies sometimes charge users money to download and install open source software, most free software projects today are distributed on the Internet without cost to users, which makes them particularly attractive to computer users in developing countries with few financial resources to spend on computer software.

The primary distinction between proprietary software development and that of volunteer, networked hackers has been beautifully explained by hacker activist Eric S. Raymond as the distinction between “cathedrals” and “bazaars.”18 Raymond argued that proprietary software is designed from the top down to meet a specific set of goals identified by a few senior managers or organizational figureheads, with the only involvement from the public or market emerging when the information product has been fully completed. This is the cathedral model. In contrast, open source hacker communities offer an organizational model more akin to a bazaar, where individual programmers work simultaneously on different and sometimes interrelated projects with little or no supervision or input from any centralized authority. Often, programmers are motivated to write pieces of software code to satisfy a particular need of the moment, such as allowing a specific peripheral device such as a printer or scanner to work with another type of operating software. The quality of the finished product is then judged collectively by the hackers who download and use the software, who then may in turn offer suggestions, file bug reports, or even improve on the code themselves and upload the results of their efforts for other hackers to see. Raymond’s notion of the bazaar suggests that the more programmers choose to work on software code and improve it, the better the ultimate quality of the code will be (and the quicker it will be debugged).

Participation in open source software projects, therefore, is voluntary. In his overview of the sociology of the open source movement, Steven Weber notes that “the key element of the open source process, as an ideal type, is voluntary participation and voluntary selection of tasks. Anyone can join an open source project, and anyone can leave at any time . . . There is no consciously organized or enforced division of labor.”19 Voluntary participation, however, does not mean that open source projects are anarchic and aimless. Instead, many open source projects work continuously and often swiftly toward a common set of goals and purposes that are mutually agreed upon by the project participants.20

Stallman’s orientation to free software was about more than preserving the collaborative atmosphere among computer scientists at MIT. Instead, his definition of free software outlined the philosophical underpinnings of a larger social movement to transform the tools that were to become vital conduits of commerce, information, and artistic expression. As Weber describes, “Software for [Stallman] was not just a tool to run computers. It ultimately was a manifestation of human creativity and expression . . . Traditional, exclusionary property rights do not incentivize people to write good software, as mainstream intellectual property rights law would have it. Rather, imposing traditional property rights on software makes ‘pirates’ out of neighbors who want to help each other.”21 Stallman’s notion here is that digitized information and computer software is not simply utilitarian but is instead an outgrowth of the creative capacities of human beings. Additionally, as social creatures, it is part of our inherent nature to form collectives and to cooperate. These fundamental aspects of the human experience, however, have been artificially curtailed by the restrictive code that is inserted into proprietary software, making “pirates” out of “neighbors.”

Stallman’s emphasis on reinvigorating a sense of common good via artistic and other cultural expression has become the philosophical foundation for the larger “free culture” movement. Indeed, Lawrence Lessig, one of the most visible proponents of the free culture movement, credits Stallman as the primary inspiration for his concept of free culture.22 In a passage that directly channels Stallman’s thinking, he writes, “The opposite of a free culture is a permission culture—a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past.”23 Likewise, some scholars have associated Stallman’s exhortation to retain access to computer source code as a fundamental push to protect freedom of speech from government and corporate control. As anthropologist Chris Kelty argues, “Coding, hacking, patching, sharing, compiling, and modifying of software are forms of political action that now routinely accompany familiar political forms of expression like free speech, assembly, petition, and a free press. Such activities are expressive in ways that conventional political theory and social science do not recognize: they can both express and ‘implement’ ideas about the social and moral order of society.”24 The FSF argues, therefore, that FOSS movements encompass a much broader range of social and political issues such as information access and control.

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