Some thoughts on “When Free Software Isn’t Better”

Earlier this week I read a new essay by Benjamin Mako Hill called “When Free Software Isn’t Better.” Although I found it incredibly insightful, the reaction to this essay hasn’t been universally positive. The criticism has focused on a perceived attack on the Open Source Initiative. I want to address why I think Mako has taken a stance here that’s not aligned with the OSI, and why I also think it doesn’t constitute an attack.

In fact, what he’s done is articulated how important the goals of the OSI are, and why we need to work towards those goals as a conclusion instead of just assuming them as a starting point.

There are three major benefits most often touted by free and open source software boosters:

  • the “four freedoms” to run, study, distribute, and improve software;
  • the exciting collaborative elements of participating in a free and open source project; and
  • the superior software that comes as a result of that collaboration and many eyes making all bugs shallow.

Mako’s premise is that the collaborative development of the kind described by open source boosters around free or open source software projects is actually very rare, and that the superiority of free software projects is not guaranteed, and he provides evidence to back up those claims. But these are not reasons to abandon freely licensed software. Rather, he takes the opportunity to stress the importance of pursuing freedom, which is ensured even where the other benefits aren’t.

Of course he agrees, and he goes out of his way to clarify, collaborative development and community projects are incredible, popular, and real. The Linux kernel, Ubuntu and Debian distributions—and in the free culture world, projects like Wikipedia—all demonstrate not just freedom but also superiority through community participation. That can and should be an end towards which groups like the Open Source Initiative strive. Mako’s consideration, then, is just that nobody take those qualities for granted.

When active community involvement and better software are taken for granted, their absence is seen as a particular shortcoming of that project. And that situation sells the developers short: the individuals that are doing great work without a lot of community behind them, and the many projects in earlier stages that are functional and useful but lack the polish of proprietary versions deserve support and users, too.

That idea resonates deeply with me as a user of free software. I grappled with a tension between a commitment to free software being better and my hands-on experience with lots of it which, to put it bluntly, isn’t. It was after seeing Mako speak about “antifeatures” at Free Culture X last year, a talk which held the seeds of this essay in it, that I realized the reason I stick with free software when it isn’t better is because it’s free.

There was a time, certainly around the 1998 founding of the Open Source Initiative and especially in the “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” world of enterprise IT, when free software was not an option even when it was better than the proprietary alternative. Now, due in large part to the efforts of the FSF and the OSI, that’s not the case any more.

Today, it’s easy to use free software when it’s better. But there are important and non-obvious reasons to do so even when it’s not.