Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

The Elephant in the Room

I recently had my attention drawn towards a blog article about the trials of Free Software development by senior Python¬†core developer, Brett Cannon. Now, I agree with the article’s emphasis on being nice to other people, and I sympathise with those who feel that their community-related activities are wearing them down. However, I would like to point out some aspects of his article that fall rather short of my own expectations about what Free Software, or “open source” as he calls it, should be about.

I should perhaps back up a little and mention where this article was found, which was via the “Planet Python” blog aggregator site. I do not read Planet Python, either in my browser or using a feed reader, any more. Those who would create some kind of buzz or energy around Python have somehow managed to cultivate a channel where it seems that almost every post is promoting something. I might quickly and crudely categorise the posts as follows:

  • “Look at our wonderful integrated development environment which is nice to Python (that is written in Java)! (But wouldn’t you rather use the Java-related language we are heavily promoting instead?)”
  • Stub content featuring someone’s consulting/training/publishing business.
  • Random “beginner” articles either parading the zealotry of the new convert or, of course, promoting someone’s consulting/training/publishing business.

Maybe such themes are merely a reflection of attitudes and preoccupations held amongst an influential section of the Python community, and perhaps there is something to connect those attitudes with the topics discussed below. I do recall other articles exhorting Python enthusiasts to get their name out there by doing work on “open source”, with the aim of getting some company’s attention by improving the software that company has thrown over the wall, and “Python at <insert company name>” blogging is, after all, a common Planet Python theme.

Traces of the Pachyderm

But returning to the article in question, if you read it with a Free Software perspective – that is to say that you consciously refer to “Free Software”, knowing that “open source” was coined by people who, for various reasons, wanted another term to use – then certain things seem to stand out. Most obviously, the article never seems to mention software freedom: it is all about “having fun”, attracting contributors to your projects, giving and receiving “kindnesses”, and participating in “this grand social experiment we call open source”. It is almost as if the Free Software movement and the impetus for its foundation never took place, or if it does have a place in someone’s alternative version of history, then in that false view of reality Richard Stallman was only motivated to start the GNU project because maybe he wanted to “have fun hacking a printer”.

Such omissions are less surprising if you have familiarity with attitudes amongst certain people in various Free Software communities – those typically identifying as “open source”, of course – who bear various grudges against the FSF and Richard Stallman. In the Python core development community, those grudges are sometimes related to some advice given about GPL-compatible licensing back when CPython was changing custodian and there had been concerns, apparently expressed by the entity being abandoned by the core developers, that the original “CWI licence” was not substantial enough. We might wonder whether grudges might be better directed towards those who have left CPython with its current, rather incoherent, licensing paper trail.

A Different Kind of Free

Now, as those of us familiar with the notion of Free Software should know, it is “a matter of freedom, not price”. You can very well sell Free Software, and nobody is actually obliged to distribute their Free Software works at no cost. In fact, the advice from those who formulated the very definition of Free Software is this:

Distributing free software is an opportunity to raise funds for development. Don’t waste it!

Of course, there are obligations about providing the source code for software already distributed in executable form and limitations about the fees or charges to be imposed on recipients, but these do not compel no-cost sharing, publication or distribution. Meanwhile, the Open Source Definition, for those who need an “open source” form of guidance, states the following:

The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

This appearing, rather amusingly, in a section entitled “Free Redistribution” where “Free” apparently has the same meaning as the “Free” in Free Software: the label that the “open source” crowd were so vehemently opposed to. It is also interesting that the “Source Code” section of the definition also stipulates similar obligations to those upheld by copyleft licences.

So, in the blog article in question, it is rather interesting to see the following appear:

While open source, by definition, is monetarily free, that does not mean that the production of it is free.

Certainly, the latter part of the sentence is true, and we will return to that in a moment, but the former part is demonstrably false: the Open Source Definition states no such thing. In fact, it states that “open source” is not obliged to cost anything, which as the practitioners of logic amongst us will note is absolutely not the same thing as obliging it to always be cost-free.

Bearing the Cost

Much of the article talks about the cost of developing Free Software from the perspective of those putting in the hours to write, test, maintain and support the code. These “production” costs are acknowledged while the producers are somehow shackled to an economic model – one that is apparently misinformed, as noted above – that demands that the cost of all this work be zero to those wanting to acquire it.

So, how exactly are the production costs going to be met? One of the most useful instruments for doing so has apparently been discarded, and I imagine that a similarly misguided attitude lingers with regard to supporting Free Software produced under such misconceptions. Indeed, much of the article focuses on doing “free work”, that of responding to requests, dealing with feedback, shepherding contributions, and the resulting experience of being “stressed by strangers”.

Normally, when one hears of something of this nature taking place, when the means to live decently and to control one’s own life is being taken away from people, there is a word that springs to mind: exploitation. From what we know about certain perspectives about Free Software and “open source”, it is hardly a surprise that the word “exploitation” does not appear in the article because such words are seen by some as “political”, where “political” takes on the meaning of “something raising awkward ethical questions” that if acknowledged and addressed appropriately would actually result in people not being exploited.

But there is an ideological condition which prevents people from being “political”. According to those with such a condition, we are not supposed to embarrass those who could help us deal with the problems that trouble us because that might be “impolite”, and it might also be questioning just how they made their money, how badly they may have treated people on their way to the top, and whether personal merit had less to do with their current status than good fortune and other things that undermine the myth of their own success. We are supposed to conflate money and power with merit or to play along convincingly enough at least as long as the wallets of such potential benefactors are open.

So there is this evasion of the “political” and a pandering to those who might offer validation and maybe even some rewards for all the efforts that are being undertaken as long as their place is not challenged. And what that leaves us with is a catalogue of commiseration, where one can do no more than appeal to those in the same or similar circumstances to be nicer to each other – not a bad idea, it must be said – but where the divisive and exploitative forces at work will result in more conflict over time as people struggle even harder to keep going.

When the author writes this…

Remember, open source is done by people giving something away for free because they choose to; you could say you’re dealing with a bunch of digital hippies.

…we should also remember that “open source” is also done by people who will gladly take those things and still demand more things for free, these being people who will turn a nice profit for themselves while treating others so abominably.

Selective Sustainability

According to the article “the overall goal of open source is to attract and retain people to help maintain an open source project while enjoying the experience”. I cannot speak for those who advocate “open source”, but this stated goal is effectively orthogonal to the aim of Free Software, which is to empower users by presenting them with the means to take control of the software they use.¬†By neglecting software freedom, the article contemplates matters of sustainability whilst ignoring crucial factors that provide the foundations of sustainability.

For instance, there seems to be some kind of distinction being drawn between Free Software projects that people are paid to work on (“corporate open source”) and those done in their own time (“community open source”). This may be a reflection of attitudes within companies: that there are some things that they may use but which, beyond “donations” and letting people spend a portion of their work time on it, they will never pay for. Maybe such software does not align entirely with the corporate goals and is therefore “something someone else can pay for”, like hospitals, schools, public services, infrastructure, and all the other things that companies of a certain size often seem to be unwilling to fund as they reduce their exposure to taxation.

Free Software, then, becomes almost like the subject of charity. Maybe the initiator of a project will get recognised and hired for complementing and enhancing a company’s proprietary product, just like the individual described in the article’s introduction whose project was picked up by the author’s employer. I find it interesting that the author notes how important people are to the sustainability of a project but then acknowledges that the project illustrating his employer’s engagement with “open source” could do just fine without other people getting involved. Nothing is said about why that might be the case.

So, with misapprehensions about whether anyone can ask for money for their Free Software work, plus cultural factors that encourage permissive licensing, “building a following” and doing things “for exposure”, and with Free Software being seen as something needing “donations”, an unsustainable market is cultivated. Those who wish to find some way of funding their activities must compete with people being misled into working for free. And it goes beyond whether people can afford the time: time is money, as they say, and the result may well be that people who have relatively little end up subsidising “gifts” for people who are substantially better off.

One may well be reminded of other exploitative trends in society where the less well-off have to sacrifice more and work harder for the causes of “productivity” and “the economy”, with the real beneficiaries being the more well-off looking to maximise their own gains and optimise their own life-enriching experiences. Such trends are generally not regarded as sustainable in any way. Ultimately, something has to give, as history may so readily remind us.

Below the Surface

It is certainly important to make sure people keep wanting to do an activity, whether that is Free Software development or anything else, but having enough people who “enjoy doing open source” is far from sufficient to genuinely sustain a Free Software project. It is certainly worthwhile investigating the issues that determine whether people derive enjoyment from such work or not, along with the issues that cause stress, dissatisfaction, disillusionment and worse.

But what good is it if no-one deals with these issues? When taking “a full month off annually from volunteering” is seen as the necessary preventative medicine to avoid “potential burnout”, and when there is even such a notion as “open source detox”, does it not indicate that the symptoms may be seeing some relief but the cause remains untreated? The author of the article seems to think that the main source of misery is the way people treat each other:

It all comes down to how people treat each other in open source.

That in itself is something of a superficial diagnosis given that some people may not experience random angry people criticising their work at all, and yet they may be dissatisfied with their situation nevertheless. Others may experience bad interactions, but these might be the result of factors that are not so readily acknowledged. I do not condone behaviour that might be offensive, let alone abusive, but when people react strongly in their interactions with others, they may be doing so as the consequence of what they perceive as ill-treatment or even a form of oppression or betrayal.

There is much talk of kindness, and I cannot exactly disagree with the recommendation that people be kind to each other. But I also have the feeling that another story is not being told, one of how people with a level of power and influence choose to discharge their responsibilities. And in the context of Python, the matter of Python 3 is never far away. People may have received the “gift” of Python, but they have invested in it, too. In a way, this goes beyond any reciprocation of a mere gift because this investment is also a form of submission to the governance of the technology, as well as a form of validation of it that persuades others of its viability and binds those others to its governance, too.

What then must someone with a substantial investment in that technology think when presented with something like the “Python 2.7 Countdown” clock? Is it a helpful tool for technological planning or a way of celebrating and trivialising disruption to widespread investment in, and commitment to, a mature technology? What about the “Python 3 Statement” with projects being encouraged to pledge to drop support for Python 2 and to deliberately not maintain any such support beyond the official “end of life” date? Is it an encouraging statement of enthusiasm or another way of passive-aggressively shaming those who would continue to use and support Python 2?

I accept that it would be unfair to demand that the Python core developers be made to continue to support Python 2. But I also think it is unfair to see destructive measures being taken to put Python 2 “beyond use”, the now-familiar campaigns of inaccurate or incorrect information to supposedly stir people into action to port their software to Python 3, the denial of the name “Python” to anyone who might step up and continue to support Python 2, the atmosphere of hostility to those who might take on that role. And, well, excuse me if I cannot really take the following statement seriously based on the strategic choices of the Python core developers:

And then there’s the fact that your change may have just made literally tons of physical books in bookstores around the world obsolete; something else I have to consider.

It is intriguing that there is an insistence that people not expect anything when they do something for the benefit of another, that “kindnesses” are more appropriate than “favours”:

I switched to using kindnesses because being kind in the cultures I’m familiar with has no expectation of something in return.

Aside from the fact that it becomes pretty demotivating to send fixes to projects and expect nothing to ever happen to them, to take an example of the article’s author, which after a while amounts to a lot of wasted time and effort, I cannot help but observe that returning the favour was precisely what the Python core developers expected when promoting Python 3. From there, one cannot help but observe that maybe there is one rule for one group and one rule for another group in the stratified realm of “open source”.

The Role of the Elephant

In developing Free Software and acknowledging it as such, we put software freedom – the elephant in this particular room – at the forefront of our efforts. Without it, as we have seen, the narrative is weaker, people’s motivations seem less convincing or unfathomable, and suggestions for improving everybody’s experience, although welcome, fail to properly grasp some of the actual causes of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. This because the usual myths of efficiency, creative exuberancy, and an idealised “gift culture” need to be conjured up to either explain people’s behaviour or to motivate it, the latter often in a deliberately exploitative way.

It is, in fact, software freedom that gives Python 2 users any hope for their plight, even though many of them may be dissatisfied and some of them may end up committing to other languages instead of Python 3 in future. By emphasising software freedom, they and others may be educated about their right to control their technological investment, and they may be reminded that in seeking assistance to exercise that control, they might be advised to pay others to sustain their investment. At no point does the narrative need to slip off into “free stuff”, “gifts” and the like.

Putting software freedom at the centre of Free Software activities might also promote a more respectful environment. When others are obliged to uphold end-user freedoms, they might already be inclined to think about how they treat other people. We have seen a lot written about interpersonal interactions, and it is right to demand that people treat each other with respect, but maybe such respect needs to be cultivated by having people think about higher goals. And maybe such respect is absent if those goals are deliberately ignored, focusing people to consider only each individual transaction in isolation and to wonder why everyone acts so selfishly.

So instead of having an environment where a company might be looking for people to do free work so that they can seal it up, sell a proprietary product to hapless end-users, treat the workers like “digital hippies”, and thus exploit everyone involved, we invoke software freedom to demand fairness and respect. A culture of respecting the rights of others should help participants realise that they have a collective responsibility, that everyone is in it together, that the well-being of others does not come at the cost of each participant’s own well-being.

I realise that some of the language used above is “political” for some, but when those who object to “political” language perpetuate ignorance of the roots of Free Software and marginalise such movements for social change, they also perpetuate a culture of exploitation, whether they have this as their deliberate goal or not. This elephant has been around for some time, and having a long memory as one might expect, it stands as a witness to the perils of neglecting the ethical imperatives for what we do as Free Software developers.

It is, of course, possible to form a more complete, more coherent picture of how Free Software development occurs and how sustainability in such endeavours might be achieved, but evidently this remains out of reach for those still wishing to pretend that there is no elephant in the room.

2 Responses to “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. Bob Says:

    We have two distinct terms which effective meaning (aside the official and formal definitions) has been shaped by common usage:
    - free software = four freedoms, with all of the cultural and political implications;
    - open source = open and collaborative development model involving public repositories and public issue tracking (yes, this implies giving away the code for free).

    Free software is not open source (you know: “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”…), open source is not free software (look at the many public repositories licensed with non-free licenses).

    That said: yes, raising money is a problem. A big problem. But I’m not really convinced you will ever collect much money with the “free as in freedom” kumbaya-like argument. Business is business: let be grateful to the many companies working with free software, delivering free software, improving free software, collecting money with and for free software, and paying employees to develop free software.

  2. Paul Boddie Says:

    No, “open source” is not “open and collaborative development” resulting in “public repositories licensed with non-free licences”, at least according to the Open Source Definition. To demonstrate that is precisely why I brought the OSD into the article.

    I accept that you can assert that in practice people use “open source” to mean this, and because the term has a history dating back to before it was coined by the “open source” movement, people can almost make it mean anything. (Quite how effective the brainstorming was at the first meeting of minds to eventually arrive at “open source” is really something to wonder about.)

    But if you think that asserting software freedom is “kumbaya”, I ask you to think again and maybe review what I wrote. Things like copyleft are tools to encourage collaboration and they work against exploitation: one sees this when people request permissive licences to benefit “independent software vendors” because such vendors cannot get something for nothing when confronted with a copyleft licence.

    And I’m sorry but I don’t buy into “business is business” as an excuse for the status quo, people feeling forced to do work for free and burning out, all because we need to give “business” a break. I might not agree with the author of the article I referenced on many issues, but I think we both acknowledge that the status quo is not working out for responsibly sustaining Free Software development.

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