The idea of open source developed in a closed manner is hardly new. The first real discussion of it came, as best as I can tell, in Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. A culture of open discussion and decision making is still a conscious act for projects. It’s not always pretty: consensus decision making is frustrating and some media outlets jump on every mailing list suggestion as the final word on a project’s direction. Still, it’s important for a project to make a decision about openness one way or the other.
Bradley Kuhn recently announced the copyleft.org project, which seeks to “create and disseminate useful information, tutorial material, and new policy ideas regarding all forms of copyleft licensing.” In the first substantive post on the mailing list, Richard Fontana suggested the adoption of the “Harvey Birdman Rule,” which has been used in his copyleft-next project. The limited response has been mostly favorable, though some have questioned its utility given that to date the work is almost entirely Kuhn’s. One IRC user said the rule “seems to apply only to discussions, not decisions. The former are cheap and plentiful, but the latter actually matter.”
I argue that the discussions, while cheap and plentiful, do matter. If all of the meaningful discussion happens in private, those who are not privy to the discussion will have a hard time participating in the decision-making process. For some projects, that may be okay. A ruling cadre makes the decisions and other contributors can follow along or not. But I see open source as being more than just meeting the OSI’s definition (or the FSF’s definition of free software for that matter). Open source is about the democratization of computing, and that means putting the sausage-making on public display.
There are two major license types in the free/open source software world: copyleft (e.g. GPL) and permissive (e.g. BSD). Because of the different legal ramifications of the licenses, it’s possible to make theoretical arguments that either license would tend to produce higher quality software. For my master’s thesis, I would like to investigate the quality of projects licensed under these paradigms, and whether there’s a significant difference. In order to do this, I’ll need some objective mechanism for measuring some aspect(s) of software quality. This is where you come in: if you have any suggestions for measures to use, or tools to get these measures, please let me know. It will have to be language-independent and preferably not rely on bug reports or other similar data. Operating on source would be preferable, but I have no objections to building binaries if I have to.
The end goal (apart from graduating) is to provide guidance for license selection in open source projects when philosophical considerations are not a concern. I have no intention or desire to turn this into a philosophical debate on the merits of different license types.
This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a speech by a man whose work over the past decades enters into my life on a daily basis. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology at Purdue hosted Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman is a well-known and controversial figure, not only because of his technical work, but also (primarily?) because of his idealism and activism. His un-nuanced views and public lack of tact have driven fans of his work away from the FSF. I went into the talk expecting some pot-stirring. I didn’t expect to walk out deep in thought.
Stallman opened with a discussion of terminology, drawing a distinction between free (for the purposes of this post, free software means libre, not gratis) and proprietary software. It is an ethical, social, and political distinction, not a technical one. Free software, Stallman argues, is a contribution to society. Proprietary software is morally unjust. Stallman prefers, given the choice between writing proprietary software and doing nothing, that developers do nothing. Even though free software is often available at no cost, encouraging the adoption of free software should be framed as a moral issue, not an economic or practical one. Software as a Service (SaaS) is morally equal to proprietary software in Stallman’s view, regardless of the licensing of the software, because users have no control over it.
During the question-and-answer session at the end, this view brought a heated discussion from NCN director Dr. Gerhard Klimeck. NCN runs nanoHUB, which is effectively SaaS for nanotechnology simulation. Stallman seemed to argue that it was a niche and not really important to discuss. He also semi-adroitly dodged the question of how developers can make money with free software, only asserting that it is being done without providing the [mostly student] audience any insights as to how.
Stallman’s views are based on his personal morality and seem to be absolute. This is what occupied my thoughts on the walk back to my car. Because I largely agree with Stallman, I’ve been inclined to see his extremism as an annoying, but useful thing. By being on the edge, he defines the middle. But why should extremism that I happen to generally agree with be more valid than extremism that I disagree with? While extremism does help define the middle ground, it also poisons reasonable discussion. I admire and appreciate his technical accomplishments, but I think he hurts his own ideological cause.
In my younger days, I made great use of CNET’s download.com website. It was an excellent tool for finding legal software. Apparently, it has also become an excellent tool for finding malware. An article posted to insecure.org describes how CNET has begun wrapping packages with an installer that bundles unwanted, potentially malicious software with the desired package.
This is terrible, and not just for the obvious reasons. It’s bad for the free software community because it makes us look untrustworthy. There’s a perception among some people (especially in the business world) that software can only be free if it’s no good. I suppose that’s one reason some in the community use “libre” to emphasize the free-as-in-freedom aspect. (Of course, not all free-as-in-beer software is free-as-in-freedom. That’s another reason the distinction can be important.)
When this conveniently-bundled malware causes problems for users, it’s not CNET who gets the blame. Users will unfairly blame the package developer, even though the developer had nothing to do with it. For well-established and well-respected packages like nmap, this reputation damage may not be that important. For a new project just getting started — or for the idea of free software in general — this can be devastating.