Don't sacrifice the right ideas to win the right words

Published 2019-09-17 on Drew DeVault's blog

There is a difference between free software and open-source software. But you have to squint to see it. Software licenses which qualify for one title but not the other are exceptionally rare.

A fascination with linguistics is common among hackers, and I encourage and participate in language hacking myself. Unfortunately, that seems to seep into the Free Software Foundation’s message a bit too much. Let’s see if any of this rings familiar:

It’s not actually open source, but free software. You see, “open source” is a plot by the commercial software industry to subvert the “free software” movement…

No, it’s free-as-in-freedom, not free-as-in-beer. Sometimes we call it “libre” software, borrowing the French or Spanish word, because in English…

What you’re referring to as Linux, is in fact, GNU/Linux, or as I’ve recently taken to calling it, GNU plus Linux. Linux is not an operating system…

What do all of these have in common? The audience already agrees with the speaker on the ideas, but this becomes less so with every word. This kind of pedantry lacks tact and pushes people away from the movement. No one wants to talk to someone who corrects them like this, so people shut down and stop listening. The speaker gains the self-satisfaction that comes with demonstrating that you’re smarter than someone else, but the cost is pushing that person away from the very ideals you’re trying to clarify. This approach doesn’t help the movement, it’s just being a dick.

For this reason, even though I fully understand the difference between free and open-source software, I use the terms basically interchangeably. In practice they are effectively the same thing. Then, I preach the ideologies behind free software even when discussing open-source software. The ideas are what matters, the goal is to get people thinking on your wavelength. If they hang around long enough, they’ll start using your words, too. That’s how language works.

The crucial distinction of the free software movement is less about “free software”, after all, and more about copyleft. But, because the FSF pushes copyleft and free software, and because many FSF advocates are pedantic and abrasive, many people check out before they’re told the distinction between free software and copyleft. This leads to the listener equivocating free software with copyleft software, which undermines the message and hurts both.1

This lack of tact is why I find it difficult to accept the FSF as a representative of the movement I devote myself to. If your goal is to strengthen the resolve and unity of people who already agree with you by appealing to tribalism, then this approach is effective - but remember that it strengthens the opposing tribes, too. If your goal is to grow the movement and win the hearts and minds of the people, then you need to use more tact in your language. Turn that hacker knack for linguistic hacking towards this goal, of thinking over how your phrasing and language makes different listeners feel. The resulting literature will be much more effective.

Attack the systems and individuals who brought about the circumstances that frustrate your movement, but don’t attack their victims. It’s not the user’s fault that they were raised on proprietary software. The system which installed proprietary software on their school computers is the one to blame. Our goals should be things like introducing Linux to the classroom, petitioning our governments to require taxpayer-funded software to be open source, eliminating Digital Restrictions Management2, pushing for right to repair, and so on. Why is “get everyone to say ‘libre’ instead of ‘open-source’” one of our goals instead?

An aside: sometimes language is important. When someone has the wrong words but the right ideas, it’s not a big deal. When someone has the wrong ideas and is appropriating the words to support them, that’s a problem. This is why I still come down hard on companies which gaslight users with faux-open software licenses like the Commons Clause or the debacle with RedisLabs.

Note: this article is not about Richard Stallman. I have no comment on the recent controversies.

  1. For those unaware, copyleft is any “viral” license, where using copyleft code requires also using a copyleft license for your derived work. Free software is just software which meets the free software definition, which is in practice just about all free and open-source software, including MIT or BSD licensed works. 

  2. This kind of pedantry, which deliberately misrepresents the acronym (which is rightly meant to be “Digital Rights Management”), is more productive, since the people insulted by it are not the victims of DRM, but the perpetrators of it. Also, “Digital Rights Management” is itself a euphemism, or perhaps more accurately a kind of doublespeak, which invites a similar response. 

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Are you a free software maintainer who is struggling with stress, demanding users, overwork, or any other social problems in the course of your work? Please email me — I know how you feel, and I can lend a sympathetic ear and share some veteran advice.


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