Open Source is not about freedom, nor is it about licenses.

Open Source is not about freedom, nor is it about licenses. It’s about community. Of course everyone knows about Richard Stallman’s concern about having the freedom to modify all software on his machine. Tim O’Reilly has had a concern for many years that Open Source licenses do not keep software Open Source when it is not being distributed but instead performed as in Web 2.0 applications. Yet, after ten years of Open Source, I’ve come to think that both these concerns are misplaced.

Yes, freedom is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. There’s plenty of free software out there that has no value because there is no community surrounding the software. The pyramid of editors, developers, contributors, and users is absent. You can maximize your freedom by living as a hermit. Such a person is free to do anything they can do within their personal resources — which isn’t much. Freedom is maximized in a society, which means giving up some freedoms in exchange for the resources to make use of other freedoms. “Your freedom to swing your fist ends when it hits my nose.”

At OSCON, Alex Russell (author of dojo) pointed out to me that there are companies exploiting the “Open Source” name by using an Open Source Initiative Approved license, but deliberately cutting off the community. They don’t accept outside patches. They don’t look to the community for development direction. This is true. They get the value of the name, but they don’t actually get the value in their code. I’m not too worried about people who do this — or for Tim’s concern about web 2.0 companies.

To the extent that companies take software out of Open Source, they punish themselves by alienating themselves from the community. The value comes not from the license, but instead the community ecosystem. Companies that do this suffer from hubris: we are big enough to establish our own internal ecosystem, which we then own. They think that they know better than their users — that they can close the loop better than Open Source. This is just the socialist calculation problem again, writ Y2K. Centralized markets (promoted by socialists as a response to the perceived injustice and waste of free markets) failed because they could not get the information necessary to plan. In a free market, information is drawn out and carried around by prices. When you control prices, or try to control the distribution of software, information about the proper operation is lost.