Free As In Free Speech?
The American Library profession is at a crossroads: will our future be marked by the predominance of free and open source integrated library systems and open access journal publishing, or will we continue to use proprietary software and tolerate barriers to scholarly information? Does it matter?
The ethical and philosophical implications of open source and open access were debated at the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference in Chicago this past July. Keynote speakers included Richard Stallman on
open source free software, and Peter Suber on the open access movement.
Richard Stallman, I found out, is something of a celebrity in the computer science world. He is founder of the GNU Project and president of the Free Software Foundation. Stallman has a particular conception of free software that he promotes and defends with great verve. Stallman believes the terminological distinction between free software and open source software is important. Free software to Stallman means that the user has the “freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes.” Stallman believes these freedoms are not only about price, but about promoting sharing and cooperation. One of Stallman’s slogans is “free as in free speech, not free beer.”
The Library community, I’ve noticed (here, here, and here), tends to use the phrase open source. (Casey Bisson uses them both in “Free at Last” a recent American Libraries column only accessible to… ahem.) Systems librarians have long been fed up with the lack of development of proprietary OPACs and are now experimenting with open source models.
“Open source” originated at a strategy session in 1998 in which it was decided to “dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds.”
As a marketing strategy, this maneuver seems to have worked. Open source software is all over the place, and mainly for pragmatic reasons–the open development process is producing better software. And besides a few licensing details, open source software and free software are very similar and share the same goals. So does it matter what it’s called?
In their fascinating new book, Decoding Liberation, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter sidestep the issue by using “free and open source software.” Chopra and Dexter explore and expand on the ethical issues raised by Stallman. They raise the interesting points that as a scientific discipline, computer science requires code to be publicly inspectable, and that in a world increasingly infused with code, “personal and social freedoms become the freedoms granted or restricted by software.”
(Chopra and Dexter are taking some flak over publishing their book with Routledge which is listing it at $95.00 with an eye toward
the suckers who buy anything no matter how much it costs enabling publishers to make hefty profits and restrict knowledge from people the academic library market. Chopra and Dexter reveal why they went with Routledge and an interesting discussion is emerging on the differences between copyright in book publishing and copyright in software over at their blog.)
It’s time for the library community to start looking not only at the practical aspects of free and open source software but at the ethical issues as well. For Stallman, the development of free software is an ethical imperative. Chopra and Dexter raise issues of academic freedom and social responsibility. One thing I realized at the conference was how similar philosophically the library values of free speech and the hacker ethic of free software really are. What should be the future of academic libraries? More collaboration with programmers and more free and open source software for libraries which result in better services for users. Put that together with open access and we’ve got a vision that includes making scholarly information accessible to more people. If we’re not for that, what are we for?