Two years ago, Nadia Eghbal published a blog piece about how she hates the term “open source”, and not for the usual reasons; the way it misses the point of software freedom, emphasizing corporations’ freedoms to use the work of the free code community without reciprocity, instead of peoples’ freedoms to modify and share the software they use. Instead, her argument is that “open source”, as defined by the Open Source Initiative, is too specific and exclusive, and proposes that we start using a vaguer and more inclusive term like “public software”.

In that piece, she pulled a quote from another blog post by Mike Perham of Sidekiq, stripping it from the context of what Mike is arguing, and giving the initial impression that he is saying something totally different (and arguably incorrect). Upon reading Mike’s piece, where says …

“Open Source != Free Software”

… he clearly does not mean that open source software is not Free Software, as defined by the Free Software Definition (“libre” or “free-as-in-speech”). What he is saying is that open source software does not have to be free-of-charge (“gratis” or “free-as-in-beer”). Being gratis is not a requirement for being Free Software either:

“we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If a license does not permit users to make copies and sell them, it is a nonfree license.”

The two different meanings the word “free” has in English have always caused confusion, and this was probably the main reason the phrase “open source” took off in the Anglophone world (speakers of French and Spanish always know which meaning of “free” they’re using because they have words like libre and gratis). But the software freedom movement has always been concerned with finding ways to pay people to work on free code software. A recent example is the talk by Denver of JMP at LibrePlanet 2018 about Free Software business models.

The open source movement, on the other hand, was founded by people whose goal was to get people working on free code software paid for by corporations, entities that are highly allergic to concepts like “freedom”, “sharing”, and “cooperation”. The open source movement has been very successful with this, but with the consequence that most of that free code consists of back-end libraries under non-copyleft licenses (“MIT”, “BSD”, Apache 2.0 etc) which corporations then use to make proprietary apps for end users (including GitHub).

In his piece, what Mike recommends is licensing your code under a strong copyleft license (eg GNU AGPL), then selling exceptions to companies who don’t want to comply with the copyleft obligations of that license, like X-wiki Labs do with software like Cryptpad. Where this means a company is using and funding free code under a copyleft license, where they otherwise would have been using and funding proprietary software, this seems like good strategy. But this is more of an argument for using copyleft licenses than it is an argument for watering down or replacing the term “open source”.

If you’re looking for a more general term for collaborative work to create a common good, which is what people usually mean when they say “open source” outside of software (like Open Source Ecology, OpenStreetMap, WikiHouse, and WikiSpeed), I suggest “peer production”. If you need a term for people dumping their “IP” into an unstewarded commons, using something like CC Zero or the WTFPL, I think “public domain” does the job nicely. Perhaps there needs to be another term for things like Tesla offering free licenses for their electric car patents, because while this was a public-spirited offer, it is not “open source” by either common definition of the term (free code or peer production).

But I honestly don’t understand what purpose Nadia wants a term like “public software” to serve. How does it help anyone to fudge free code (open source/ Free Software/ FOSS/ FLOSS) together with “shared source” (you can see it but not use it), and “fair source” (basically shareware), and code placed in the public domain, and unlicensed code (which defaults to ARR copyright in the US and most jurisdictions), and arguably inappropriate use of CC licenses for code (to create proprietary freeware), as if these are all the same thing? Because whatever the motivations behind them, these approaches have very different consequences.

Filed May 30th, 2018 under Uncategorized

OpenBenches.org is an open data project that collects photos and information about memorial benches in public places.

OpenBenches photo by @sjorford (CC BY-SA) 

I learned about them today, thanks to iSpooge developer Harlan Iverson, who shared a link to OpenBenches blog piece on having their birdsite account suspended by bots and then just as mysteriously restored - minus their followers. In that piece, they felt the need to defend their use of the birdsite, saying:

“Yes, I know. We should redecentralize and put our content on Mastodon, or the BlockChain, or some other convoluted platform which has no users.”

I drafted a response to them in a GH Issue but it got long, so I’m posting it here with a TL;DR version there.

I share your sceptical view of blockchain startups whose “decentralized” software only connects with other versions of itself, but Mastodon is part of a larger network known informally as the fediverse, all inter-operating via a common standard called OStatus. The OStatus fediverse is currently made up of 6 federated apps (including GNU Social), all with multiple live instances, most of which are multi-user (although some people do self-host a single account). There’s plenty of us there to share your bench photos with.

Obviously, it’s not necessary to stop using the birdsite to start experimenting with decentralized replacements. The GNU Social server that my fediverse account is hosted on can be set up to automatically repost anything I post there to my account on the birdsite, so I can publish on both networks with the same action. There are similar bridging tools available for Mastodon, and probably for some of the other apps.

If you don’t want to set up a separate microblog app on your server at all, you can use IndieWeb protocols to enable your existing openbenches.org website to inter-operate as a first-class citizen of the social web. This can connect you with the rest of the IndieWeb right away, and eventually with the fediverse using BridgyFeb (note: this is about a year old and still experimental). W3C recently made ActivityPub an official web standard for social networking, and all the fediverse apps either have implementation rolled out (eg Mastodon), or are working on it, and the same is true for a growing list of other apps (including BridgyFeb).

It’s hard to get an accurate population census of the fediverse vs. the birdsite. Even if you could find out the total number of accounts on all fediverse instances, it’s hard to know how many of these are test accounts set up by one user to try out the UX of the different apps (I have several). You can get user numbers for the birdsite, but it’s hard to know how many of these are bots or sock puppets, rather than unique human users.

Anecdotally, I’ve never had more than about 200 followers on the birdsite, while I’m humbled to have about 600 people following my current fediverse account. So, a large total number of users on a platform doesn’t guarantee greater engagement for any given feed published there. But it does contribute to the network effect that leaves users like yourselves feeling trapped there, despite the user maltreatment you experienced. Someone once convinced you to use the birdsite because they were already there, despite not knowing anyone else who was. You could be that person or project in the fediverse for your social network.

Filed May 8th, 2018 under open social networks
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