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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

Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software advances the scholarly analysis of open source and free software along several lines. The book's arguments concerning the ethics of free software, the relationship of free software to the aesthetics of code, the practice of computer science as a science, and the role of free software in an increasingly technological world are each novel contributions to this maturing field of study. The co-authors, one with a Ph.D. in Philosophy and one with a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering, form an ideal collaboration that enables their work to be both thoroughly sure-footed when explaining technical details while simultaneously pushing the reader to look beyond those particulars to the underlying philosophical issues. The co-authors also achieve a remarkable balance between being accessible to those who lack a strong background in the subject matter to providing something new for even those most immersed in these issues. Free software has been of interest to scholars in various disciplines since at least the mid-1990s, but this book takes on philosophical issues that have been infrequently addressed. If the book disappoints it is only that each of the chapters is not itself developed at book length, as the co-authors' arguments in each chapter are likely to leave the reader intrigued and ready for more.

The first chapter, "Free Software and Political Economy," lays the groundwork necessary for the other four, detailing the history of computing and software development, the rise of the free software and open source movements, and the economies and governance of free software projects, among other preliminary topics. When the co-authors speak of free software, they mean software which is licensed under terms that guarantee the four freedoms identified in the Free Software Definition of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Users are free to run such software, for any purpose, to study how it works through direct examination of the source code, to adapt it, and to redistribute both verbatim and modified copies. This chapter also introduces the schism between the FSF and the Open Source Initiative (OSI), which has its own Open Source Definition, which defines "open source" software.

The FSF makes a point to use the word "free" as a vivid reminder that its members believe they are engaged in an ethical movement working towards freedom. The OSI instead takes a pragmatic approach that places greater emphasis on the efficiencies provided by the collaborative, distributed, software development model that accompanies open source software. In Decoding Liberation, Chopra and Dexter locate the primary disagreement between the FSF and the OSI as one centered on the OSI's greater tolerance for co-existing with proprietary and non-copyleft software. A "copyleft" license requires that modifications of the software be licensed under the same terms as the original. Thus, once software is placed under a copyleft license, subsequent modified versions will retain the same freedoms provided under the original license. In contrast, some open source and free software licenses are not copyleft licenses and permit derivatives with different -- even non-free -- licensing terms. While the co-authors' view is in many respects supported by statements made by leaders of the two organizations, I would instead locate the primary source of disagreement between the FSF and the OSI along the following lines: The FSF believes software freedom is an ethical matter such that non-free software is a moral harm, while the OSI instead promotes the practical benefits of the accompanying ecosystem and generally accepts that non-free licensing practices are ethically permissible, if often suboptimal.

Chapter two, "The Ethics of Free Software," focuses on whether copyleft licenses better preserve community freedoms than non-copyleft licenses which allow licensees the choice of re-licensing under non-free terms. I suspect that for most readers an antecedent question will seem more pressing: Is the licensing of software an ethical matter at all? The overwhelming majority of people that use software interact with and rely on non-free software on a daily basis and unreflectively accept it as part of any capitalist society. However, while I would have preferred that the authors spend more time directly addressing this question at this point in the book, the patient reader will be rewarded, because in part, an over-arching strategy of the entire book is to present, in each chapter, a specific moral good that free software enables or encourages and to thereby make an implicit argument that where something best provides these moral goods, a moral issue does arise with respect to its adoption and further development.

Whether copyleft or non-copyleft licenses are more "free" has been fodder for epic mailing list and message board flame wars for as long as such licenses have existed. The authors elevate this debate, bringing classical ethical analysis to bear on the question and have now provided the definitive argument in favor of the copyleft camp, finding, among other things, that copyleft licenses exhibit a preferable ethical foresight by protecting the commons of free code from being co-opted. Even the reader who may disagree with some particular aspect of this argument will likely agree that Chopra and Dexter have established a space in which that debate can now proceed with academic rigor.

The third chapter, "Free Software and the Aesthetics of Code," highlights the creative and aesthetic potential of free software. The authors explain how the collaborative enterprise of producing free software connects the programmer-as-artist with critical audience responses in unique and transformative ways, with important and creativity-facilitating consequences for both the artist and the resulting art. The authors argue that free software developers are challenged by the community that observes and directly participates in their work and that this collaboration produces singular aesthetic results. Given the great extent to which so many primarily focus on the utilitarian nature of all software, the co-authors, in this chapter, perhaps do the most to push the discussion in interesting new directions.

Chapter four, "Free Software and the Scientific Practice of Computer Science," makes a forceful argument that for Computer Science to realize its potential as a science, it must more fully embrace and rely on free software and avoid its current entanglements with industry's closed code which constrains the propagation of scientific knowledge. To the extent contemporary computer scientists construct legal and economic barriers through non-free code, they work against the scientific method which depends upon peer review. The co-authors discuss how corporate influence alters computer science pedagogy, leaving students with an impoverished ability to study the works of the past. They suggest a way forward, based on free code, protocols, and standards that could lead to greater innovation.

The book finishes with chapter five, "Free Software and the Political Philosophy of the Cyborg World." In this chapter the co-authors explain that in our increasingly technological world, the boundaries between the biological and the technological blur. They write, "Questions of technology are no longer external to us: to inquire into the nature, shape, form and control of technology is to inquire into our selves. Those to whom we grant this control are those to whom we vouchsafe control of our selves" (148). Thus in our cyborg world governed by software, political power depends in large part upon control of code and a transparent society only becomes possible through free software. In this chapter in particular those least familiar with free software ideals will find recognizable arguments that demonstrate how the philosophical questions discussed in this book transcend the merely technical and speak to the very freedom of society itself.

It is the rare work in this space that I can recommend equally to the novice and expert, but Decoding Liberation is one. Additionally, individuals from a broad range of disciplines will be able to find something that resonates here. This is perhaps the work's chief value: because it is accessible to so many, it has the potential to spur further discussion on these issues in a way that many works could never expect. Decoding Liberation is a remarkable collaboration that invites further debate.

Brian W. Carver:
Brian W. Carver is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information, where he teaches Intellectual Property and Cyberlaw and concentrates his research on copyright law, open source and free software, and technology and innovation policy. He was previously in the litigation group of a Silicon Valley-based law firm, where his practice focused on copyright, trademark, trade secret, and complex commercial litigation.  <bcarver@ischool.berkeley.edu>

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