Free Software and Free Culture: Open Source's Influence on Society

Free Software and Free Culture: Open Source's Influence on Society

What is the relationship between free and open source software on the one hand, and "free culture," "open source culture" or "open society" on the other?

In an age when Microsoft (MSFT) is floating the idea of open-sourcing even Windows, it's clear that open source has pretty much conquered the world of software—or the parts of it that matter, at least. But, in a lot of ways, the weight of open source is now extending into many other realms, defining how people interact and collaborate well beyond the context of computers. That's a fascinating issue, and it gives the key to understanding what could be the ultimate legacy of the free and open source software movements.

When I write that open source's influence is evident beyond the world of technology, I am thinking of things such as Wikipedia, Creative Commons, open publishing and, in many cases, crowdsourcing and funding. In one way or another, all of these endeavors share two basic ideas at their cores: That information should be as freely and publicly accessible as possible, and that distributed modes of collaboration—that is, those in which large groups of people work together without a strongly centralized authority directing them—are highly effective.

Those principles also constitute the foundation of open source development—and not, I think, by coincidence.

Open Culture, Open Society

Different people have proposed various terms for defining the collection of movements in the realms of politics, economics and society that, in many ways, parallel the open source software world. In the early 2000s, Lawrence Lessig, a former member of the Free Software Foundation board, began writing about "free culture." Others, emphasizing the nuances between free software à la GNU and open source software, have preferred the term "open source culture." In some respects, both concepts mirror ideas first proposed by European scholars in the 1930s and 1940s, who wrote about "open society," which also owed much to principles of transparency (although less to the idea of distributed collaboration).

More recently, in a book published this month, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has written about "open organizations." He argues that the successful companies of the future will thrive by championing transparency, participation and community-building among their employees, rather than relying on a strongly centralized, top-down approach to management. That idea, too, reflects some key principles of open source development.

Software and Freedom

The growth of openness beyond the realm of technology is therefore clear enough, as are the parallels between that growth and open source. What's harder to define is the extent to which the free and open source software movements have explicitly influenced comparable developments in other realms.

There are plenty of direct links. For instance, as early as June 1989, the GNU project—which launched in 1983 for the express purpose of creating software whose source code would be freely shared—was throwing its weight against proposals to prohibit the lending or rental of musical recordings. The next year, it was promoting the Open Book Initiative, an endeavor similar to Project Gutenberg, as well as efforts to build an international "Universal Index" of freely shared information.

Also notable is the influence of the GNU General Public License (GPL)—the licensing tool that was developed in the 1980s and, today, protects many of the world's major free and open source software projects, including Linux—on the Creative Commons licenses, which date to the early 2000s and similarly promote the collaborative sharing of work.

And it's interesting that by 2000, writers were comparing the GPL to the Magna Carta—the medieval document that, if you buy into a certain interpretation of Atlantic World history, laid the foundations for some of the planet's most thriving liberal democracies today.

On the other hand, it's important not to take this argument too far. While free and open source software development has clearly influenced, and helped to support, similar movements in other areas of life, it would be far too great a stretch to say that it actually generated many of them, or even that they would not have taken place if free and open source code hadn't become so influential in the realm of technology.

Still, tracing the relationship between free and open software no the one hand, and free and open society on the other, is an important question. It's also one I've been thinking a lot about lately as I continue working on a book project about the history of the free software and open source movements.

On that note, I'd welcome thoughts on this topic that any of you patient readers out there might care to share. (Really, you need to be patient, since your comments won't be instantly published.) Would Wikipedia have emerged as one of the Web's top sites—or exist at all—if Linux had not come before it, showing that open, decentralized development works? Would there be such strong defenses of the "open Internet" and "Net neutrality" today if the Free Software Foundation had not been trumpeting similar principles since the 1980s? Is life harder for authoritarians, dictators and other opponents of transparency and equality because certain classes of software developers have shown how much better it can be for everyone when people collaborate freely, openly and according to their own whims?

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