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Free Software Vs. Open Source

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Free Software and Open Source

While Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman argues that Free Software is not Open Source, he is only half right--or only speaking about the question of motivation (the half that matters to him). The definition of Open Source, as enshrined in the Open Source Definition (OSD) is a nearly verbatim copy of the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG). Both the OSD and DFSG are practical articulations of Stallman's Free Software Definition (FSD). Open Source, with a different political and philosophical basis, can only exist because the FSD is broad enough to allow for its translation into other terms yet defined enough to allow for a directed and robust social movement. As much as Stallman might want to deemphasize Open Source, he would never change the broadly defined definition of freedom that made its existence possible.

This level of translatability within the domain of Free and Opens Source Software

(FOSS) is echoed in the accessibly of its philosophies and technologies to groups from across the political spectrum. Recalibrating the broad meaning of freedom outlined in the FSD to align with their own philosophies and politics, these groups perceive FOSS as a model of openness and collaboration particularly well suited to meet their own goals. In this process of re-adoption and translation, FOSS has become the corporate poster child for capitalist technology giants like IBM, the technological and philosophical weapon of anti-corporate activists, and a practical template for a nascent movement to create an intellectual "Commons" to balance the power of capital. In these cases and others, FOSS's broadly defined philosophy--given legal form in licenses--has acted as a pivotal point of inspiration for a diverse (and contradictory) set of alternative intellectual property instruments now available for other forms of creative work.

As a site of technological practice, FOSS is not unique in its ability to take multiple lives and meanings. For example, Gyan Prakash (1999) in Another Reason describes the way that many of the principles and practices of early twentieth century techno-science were translated, in ways similar to FOSS, during India's colonial era. British colonizers who built bridges, trains, and hospitals pointed to their technological prowess as both a symbol of a superior scientific rationality and justification for their undemocratic presence in the subcontinent. Prakash describes the way that a cadre of Indian nationalists re-visioned the practice and philosophical approach to techno-science to justify and direct their anti-colonial national liberation movement. Techno-science, which was an instrument for colonialism and an icon for idea of progress, was nonetheless revalued and redirected toward "another reason," thus acting as a "tactic" productive of other social and political practices. We call this dynamic iconic tactic.

FOSS has been deployed as an iconic tactic in a wide range of projects.

FOSS philosophy simply states that it is the right of every user to use, modify, and distribute computer software for any purpose. The right to use, distribute, modify and redistribute derivative versions, the so called "four freedoms," are based in and representative of an extreme form of anti-discrimination resistant to categorization into the typical "left, center and right" tripartite political schema. This element of nondiscrimination, coupled with the broad nature of FOSS's philosophical foundation, enables the easy adoption of FOSS technologies and facilitates its translatability.

FOSS's broadly defined freedom acts as an important starting point and one conceptual hinge useful in understanding the promiscuous circulation of FOSS as a set of technologies, signs, methodologies and philosophies. Also helpful is an analysis of the way in which this philosophical and legal form is animated and redirected in historically particular, and at times divergent, ways through the use of FOSS technologies and licensing schemes. It is to three contrasting examples of such transmutations that we now turn to.

With over 81 billion USD in yearly revenue deriving in no small part from the companies vast patent and copyright holdings, IBM is an example of global capitalism whose bedrock is intellectual property. With a development methodology that IBM recognizes as more agile and profitable than proprietary models in many situations, IBM was quick to embrace FOSS.

Hiring a cadre of FOSS developers to work in-house on FOSS software, IBM launched the first nationwide advertising campaign promoting the FOSS operating system GNU/Linux. In their first campaign, they highlighted the ideas of openness and freedom in ways that, unsurprisingly, reinforced their corporate goals. Featuring the recognizable Linux mascot Tux the penguin and a message of "Peace, Love, and Linux," IBM connected using and buying FOSS-based enterprise solutions with 1960's countercultural ideals of sharing, empowerment, and openness.

IBM's engagement with FOSS is representative of a much larger corporate movement to translate FOSS principles into a neoliberal language of market agility, consumer choice, and an "improved bottom line." While their position, as the recent SCO and IBM court cases over Linux have demonstrated, is not uniformly shared in the corporate world, IBM is a highly visible example of a larger corporate push toward Free Software as the basis of a service-based business model.

While the money behind IBM's advertising machine makes their take on FOSS particularly visible, they hold no monopoly on the interpretation of FOSS's meaning and importance. This is evidenced by the extensive use of FOSS as an iconic tactic by leftist activists around the world. Also bearing a three letter acronym, the Independent Media Centers (IMC) are a socio-political project whose mission and spirit are completely contrary to the goals of a large corporation like IBM. Indymedia is a worldwide collective of loosely affiliated grassroots online media websites and non-virtual spaces that allow activists to directly make, move, and "become" the media. IMC's are an important and integrated part of the anti-corporate and counter-globalization movement. In their work, IMC activists have aligned FOSS philosophy with their goals and visions for openness, media-reform, and large-scale socio-political justice.

Like IBM, IMC's use existing FOSS software and create their own tools. IMC software is, by charter, FOSS. As a volunteer organization with limited economic resources, FOSS has been



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