Respect the Authors!

The title of this blog piece may surprize. Would I have turned to the side of the so-called content industry that is usually represented by the MPAA/RIAA and in France the SACEM?

Quite the contrary. In fact what I would like to discuss here is what I feel as a growing and critical misunderstanding about Free Software and for that matter, Open Source. On a personal basis, I used to coin the two notions at the same time and would not even think about it. To me « FOSS » is certainly something more akin to Free Software principles and values (as defined by the FSF), but certainly the BSD world, Apache community have their own importance and I am a big fan of them. Since some at Novell seem to use the term Open Source as a new way to express their more than warm embrace of Microsoft, I’m reluctant to refer to Open Source in an indifferentiate way these days. The fact is that « FOSS » can be many things to many people. Some take it as a religion, others as a mission, a state-of-the art in the age of participation, a better way to code, and many blend all these at the same time into their view.

But what I’m witnessing here and there is those comments, mostly from large accounts interested in using FOSS, about the need for the community to focus « on what the customers really want ». That is, and I’m sorry to ruffle some feathers here, a completely wrong and inadequate view of both the community and FOSS. Here’s why.

Free Software has never been made to « serve the customers’ needs ». Never, ever. It’s been thought and designed in order to ensure everybody’s freedom and rights to access, use, modify and redistribute software. And the FSF is keen on stressing on the ethical aspect of things, to the point that it won’t deny, together with its detractors, that it is a political movement. That’s not what I call a business-minded endeavour. In fact, let me tell you a story that happened to me and I believe to some others. The first time I met with Richard Stallman in Paris, I handed out my card at the end of our meeting. I told Richard « here’s my business card ». He took it, smiled at me and replied that he would never have any business card, but that he had a « pleasure card » for me, which he then gave me. That’s hardly the behaviour of a business man on the run, is it?

Open Source is a term that has been coined to differentiate with the FSF agenda itself, and came to encompass all the software licensed under terms that ensured the basic four freedoms of Free Software but were, depending on whom you would ask, more lenient and less stringent than the GPL/LGPL. In essence, Open Source and its recognized representative, the OSI, came to be everything that didn’t live under the umbrella of the FSF. What Open Source meant, according to people like Bruce Perens or Eric Raymond, freedom to code. It did not insist on the ethical aspect of things just like Free Software would do, but would leave anybody the freedom to value one or all the benefits of software freedom and openness. Eric Raymond theorized Open Source as a better way to develop, fix and distribute software, and essentially hinted at businesses that could exist with it and businesses that could simply use Open Source Software. The issue here is that Open Source has never been that one way avenue that some of the press and the IT environment would think it is.

Open Source does not value business over freedom, nor anything else. It is a set of principles describing how software can be developed, shared and distributed in an open and effective manner among the community. If you don’t agree with it, fine. If you do, then perhaps you should read some basics about it. And what do those basics say? That anybody’s free to develop software. Even businesses for that matter, but here’s the catch: business is one possible case, one possible way to use Open Source. Not the only way.

Petitioning “the community” to focus on the customers’ needs thus strikes me as ludicrous. At best, one customer’s needs would be different from another, making the changes to Open Source software partly or woefully non compliant with these other customers’ criteria.

Perhaps the misunderstanding lies in the very notion that customers are talking to us, and worse, that they think they’re still customers when talking to us (the community/ the FOSS projects, the HCCotCAMaeA (High Command Center of the Conspiracy Against Microsoft and everything American)). I don’t think they are customers. Actually, they only are customers when they have a business conversation and transaction with a company and/or a consultant. It should be as simple as that, but unfortunately it is not. Why would you want to label anything in terms of customer – supplier? You’d precisely miss the point of the community, where so-called customers can be stakeholders of the community process. In his latest book, Yochai Benkler shows very well that our civilization seems to have lost the sight of its own social aspect of things, and FOSS, together with the commons, are only one symptom of the reemergence of this side of our society.

So, dear customers: take a deep breath. Relax. You have worries, and so does everybody around you. But when people develop software, don’t wonder why the software does not exactly match your business requirements. You can act on it, wether by staying a customer of a company, or by joining the community. Not the other way around. Respect the software authors, don’t substitute yourself to them. If you want to fix something go ahead and do it. This is Free and Open Source Software, after all.

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