Free software and the wish to be good

The free software movement has recently been going through a lot. From the introduction of Commons Clause, to the resignation of Stallman. It seems like the mood in the air is that now is the time for a redefinition of what free and open source software actually is.

My view on this is that free software, and open source, is about software. For instance, I agree to Roman Gilg’s great post about activism. What we share within the FOSS movement is our passion for software licensing. For other political issues, we do not all agree. It is important to recognize this, and that by implying political standpoints, we limit the size of the communities.

To me, we in the FOSS movement need to define tackle two issues: what is distribution (to address the Common Clause issues), and can we be neutral to what the software is used for (to address the activism issues).

When it comes to distribution, the open source definition explicitly says “No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups” and “No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor“. I think we all can agree that software is used for both good and evil. However, what is good and what is evil depends on your viewpoint. I believe that the license should be free of this type of politics, as opening the discussion will be like opening a Pandora’s box.

If we, as a community, want to define good and and bad, and restrict usage accordingly, I would argue that we should make sure to use an established, and accepted standard such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This would avoid creating an impenetrable forest of various uses that each author feels strongly about and prohibits. The latter would make it very difficult to ensure compliance.

When it comes to compliance, including a definition of good and restricting usage accordingly has an interesting effect. Common day objects such as cars, can be used for both good and evil. Is it allowed to use FOSS licensed software in a car, if that car could be used in activities breaking the human rights?

Another problem with incorporating human rights into the license, is that those who ignore the human rights probably don’t care about software licenses either.

The second point is the definition of distribution. Here I’m approaching the discussion from a GPL standpoint. The GPL licenses are triggered when software is distributed. By taking the distribution concept further, e.g. including access over a network, the license can be further extended.

Here, the balancing act is going far enough, but not too far, and to provide a range of licenses that make it easy for the authors to control how the software can be used.

The problem that I see with going too far, is that entire fields of endeavor might be excluded by extending the license to far. One example of this is the anti-Tivioization clauses in (L)GPLv3. We all know what purpose they serve. The side effect is that they exclude entire fields where the OEMs feel that, for liability or compliance reasons, they need to introduce Tivioization.

I see this in the automotive sector, but would assume that it exists in medtech and other industries where the final product needs to fulfill safety requirements.

For me, I think that the license should prevent Tivioization from an end-user standpoint. It should be possible to change and deploy the software. I believe it should be explicitly allowed to detect the non-OEM software and, for instance, void warranties and warn the end-user, but not prevent usage of the product (this in itself is interesting – can other physical devices refuse to talk to the device, e.g. a cloud backend, or other ECUs in the same car? – it will be tricky to define the boundaries here). This opens the door for FUD warnings, but it also extends the reach of FOSS.

Both these topics form a complex discussion that needs to be given time. The current open source definition serves us well, and the current licenses are familiar. Introducing more licenses, or even challenging the definition of open source, will introduce complexities and side effects, so we need to tread carefully.

One thought on “Free software and the wish to be good”

  1. License couldn’t been taking in mind without it restrictions/flow to rights of user, so licenses could be good or evil. In my opinion, free software isn’t only related to freedom, but also to human right, especially the right to having a property.

    Closed source, called funny proprietary isn’t a user property. Not dependent how we try to explain closed source licenses right to exist, it always gives us one aspect: the software isn’t owned by user, because licenses disagree about that. We could explain this in this way: user didn’t bought software or copy of software, but only right to sign license (service), so user don’t own software. We could explain it in user perspective: user go to shop and buy (for example) boxed version of software, but something is wrong… Why in many licenses are text: not bought, but licensing? I answer: because, when you sign an license, vendor stole the software from you. No matter how we try explain closed source licensing model: always user doesn’t poses software, so many software vendors are evil. They told us: buy software, by putting it into something like shop (electronic or traditional), they told: we wanna governments treads our rights (intelectual property) as user rights, but does it enforce in licenses that users doesn’t have any rights? So they lie. In fact, they act as communism reign – in communism governments told: “it will be great! We distribute the gods to everybody, but doesn’t it stolen gods from richest? Doesn’t (governments) have nearly each property?”. So software vendors are communism, not free software developers!
    In my opinion, someone, who invent password proprietary software are an internet troll or sociology engineer, who tries to told people: free software are bad and we are great, but best solution to create new trend is protect ourselves from attack, so if someone told somebody, closed source software vendors are an communism, he/she will told: “not! free software vendors are an communism! everybody told that! free software isn’t property of users!”. But truth is different, as I described.

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