[okfn-discuss] Open vs free/libre
rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Thu Sep 20 20:19:56 BST 2007
Kim Tucker wrote:
> Hi all,
> Apologies if this an old debate you all had a long time ago, but it
> seems relevant to this discussion.
Thanks for the link. While this kind of debate (free/libre vs. open) is
something that has definitely cropped up before but as it is good to
raise again. Having now read fully that document I would still prefer
prefer to use 'open' rather than 'libre/free'.
My reasons are very similar (but obverse) to those cited for using the
'libre/free' term. Most importantly, I don't think that making
information 'libre/free/open' is a *moral* obligation but is rather a
question of pragmatics (or maximizing social welfare in economist's
To put it most bluntly: suppose there is a particular piece of knowledge
(be it a book, a software programme, or the formula for a
pharmaceutical) that would *only* be developed if it were to be
'nonfree/closed' (e.g. covered by secrecy or by a patent or a copyright)
-- perhaps because without those monopoly rights the developer would
not gain sufficient rents. In that case I would certainly prefer to have
that piece of knowledge albeit in a closed form than no knowledge at all.
Thus I cannot see that there is some overriding moral obligation to make
information open. Rather one advocates an 'open/libre/free' approach to
knowledge production where that makes sense -- and with the particular
awareness that because of the nonrival nature of knowledge it is always
optimal to provide the knowledge openly once created (but note that
'once created' for therein lies the rub).
I think there is clearly huge potential for increased usage of
open/libre approaches to knowledge production and distribution and for
such approaches to deliver immense value to society. But this is very
much *not* a blanket statement that "open knowledge good, closed
knowledge bad". In each situation one must look at the costs and
benefits, both for those specifically involved and for society as a
whole. Almost always there will be (complex) trade-offs between current
producers, future producers and users (of course in some cases producers
and users may be the same).
I would like to end this discussion on a cautionary note. My stance as a
pragmatist here also has, in some sense, philosophical underpinnings.
Looking at what is written by proponents of the 'libre' approach I often
get the eerie sense that they see 'libre' software (and knowledge) as
having some kind of revolutionary potential for the liberation of
humankind and for the erasing of existing social inequalities (this talk
 by Eben Moglen is a good example). While it would be wonderful if
this were true *I am deeply sceptical that it is so*. For thousands of
years people have been seeking (and advocating) ways to liberation (and
as Moglen notes occasionally coercing others in pursuit of this goal)
and it seems to me unlikely that 'open/libre' knowledge will suddenly
allow us to crack the problem.
Of course 'open/free' knowledge might be of some assistance in helping
people 'liberate' themselves -- and one can hope it will -- but even
here one should be realistic: all of humanities greatest literary,
philosophical and scientific works up to 1920 are already in the public
domain and, at least in developed countries, accessible to anyone who
wishes to read them. Any yet somehow most people can still spend a lot
of time watching big brother or reading mills & boon. Thus, I do not
think it is the cost of accessing information, or even the inability to
participate in collaborative development communities, that is holding
humanity back from perfection but simply ourselves. As Cassius had it:
"The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves"
> Keep up the great work :-).
Thank-you very much and I think you're article has done an excellent job
of summarizing the arguments.
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