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Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software

Author: Samir Chopra, Scott Dexter
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2007
Review Published: March 2009

 REVIEW 1: Brian W. Carver
 REVIEW 2: Andrew Famiglietti
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter

We very much appreciate both reviewers' engagement with Decoding Liberation, and believe they each capture our central motivations and arguments well. We're especially pleased both reviewers felt that the book's treatment of its subject invites further exploration: any successful free software project, even a book exploring its philosophical significance, must actively invite future collaborators to refine and improve it. Our initial motivation in writing this book was the sense that academic treatments of the free software phenomenon had focused unduly on but a handful of issues (e.g. the economic motivations of free software developers), leaving many other fruitful areas of inquiry neglected. Though the book does bring seemingly disparate areas of philosophical inquiry to bear, we are certain we have only scratched the surface.

Carver's framing of "the primary source of disagreement between the FSF and the OSI" is largely in consonance with our presentation in Chapters 1 and 2, though we would go a bit further. While the FSF's position is underwritten by an explicit normative stance on the desirability of free software, the OSI's position on free software is almost entirely pragmatic. As they say, "Open source is a software development method." If there is an underlying philosophy, it is that of the pragmatic engineer looking for solutions and methodologies, where evaluative approaches are almost entirely technical. We believe that understanding the differences underlying many apparent dualities in the FOSS world ("free" vs. "open source," Stallman vs. Raymond, copyleft vs. non-copyleft) is crucial to a nuanced perspective on the possibilities of the movement. But one must also take care not to overstate the differences between the "free software" and "open source" perspectives within the FOSS world. The spirit of the hacker is unquestionably the fundamental motivation of the entire FOSS movement: technical inquiry and progress is a fundamental social good, one not be to subjected to unreasonable legal and social strictures.

Freedom Zero is an important component of the protective stance of the free software toward hacker inquiry. As Famiglietti notes, a purely pragmatic argument for Freedom Zero may not be the most compelling one. We continue to explore the ramifications and justifications of Freedom Zero; in a forthcoming article in Ethics and Information Technology, we provide broader and deeper justifications for Freedom Zero, embedding this freedom in discussions both of the ethical uses of scientific knowledge and of how this freedom promotes deliberative discourse (and perhaps even democracy) in and beyond the FOSS community.

Famiglietti expresses concern we may be paying insufficient attention to the concentrations of power the GPL permits entities like Google to achieve. In the book's treatment, we use Google as an example of developers' unrestricted right under the GPL to keep non-distributed code modifications (such as Google's kernel optimizations) private. Thus, the GPL permits experimentation, tinkering, and any other private use, including commercial uses (as protected by Freedom Zero). Google, of course, is also an exemplar of the provision of "free software" applications as web services, which does not trigger the GPL's requirement to provide source code with distributions. The recently-released Affero General Public License addresses this concern; it remains to be seen whether the FOSS community will be successful in pushing software-as-a-service vendors to adopt this license.

The GPL is not a universal shield against the concentration of power. Vendors releasing software under the GPL (or other copyleft licenses) can easily retain a first-mover advantage, as any distributed changes to their code must be made public and thus can be easily integrated into the original product. However, the promise of such first-mover advantage could entice proprietary vendors into releasing their products under copyleft licenses as they would still be the most knowledgeable about their code base. Of course, someone with a novel idea about how to build off that code would now be able to do so. It may not be that the GPL's purpose is to protect against concentrations of power; perhaps its main virtue lies in increasing innovation and access to knowledge.

Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter

<schopra@sci.brooklyn.cuny.edu; sdexter@sci.brooklyn.cuny.edu>

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