Free Software And Open Source Ethics
|A strong free software movement focused on the principled issues of software freedom — and a strong FSF in particular — will determine what freedoms the next generation of computer users enjoy. At stake is no less than the next generation's autonomy.|
—Benjamin Mako Hill, FSF board member
This learning resource is meant to support open source programmers in considering the ethical positions surrounding open source software and to develop an independent code of conduct or idioculture.
The ends of free and open source software development
The individual motivations of developers in the open source movement are probably as varied as the people and their software products. There are, however, recurring component vectors that may be useful to categorize motivations. The most common motivations appear to be:
- What are the ends of different groups in the open source movement?
- What are your personal goals and priorities?
A less relevant component vector can be "to get the software for free oneself" (free as in "free beer", not as in “free speech”), which may be a motivation left over from youth, when one couldn't buy all the software one might have wanted. The position only makes sense if one cannot make a sensible plan to sell a given piece of software, because selling should otherwise lead to the required funding for software purchases and one can always express solidarity with specific groups by offering community editions to members of those groups, either cheap or for free.
Open source karma
The term karma does not refer to a very well-defined concept. Open source karma could be imagined to refer either to an unspecific reputation system or to an unspecific theory of universal karma, but one would probably not see it as a code of conduct, which is another possible interpretation of karma.
Do open source programmers have free will?
One can argue that free will could exist in the form of higher-order volitions, even if the entire universe was a deterministic system. That is, however, not the question. The question is what determines the activities of open source programmers? Are these activities guided by long-term convictions and reasoning or are they guided by chance, opportunity and incremental improvements towards "inevitable" goals? The open source movement is somewhat anarchistic, because it mostly lacks means to aim for common goals (other than projects), as for instance codes of conduct. Thus one could argue that the responsibility rests with the individual programmer, which appears to connect to the initial argument concerning higher-order volitions. Planning higher-order volitions ahead means to develop a code of conduct, which should be seen as the future-compatible attitude.
Free will can also be seen as a filter on the white noise, the randomness of the universe at the quantum level, that ultimately allows you to implement a code of conduct. Thus successful application of the code of conduct (in the form of higher-order volitions) would be to exercise free will.
- What are existing codes of conduct in the open source movement?
- Does this appear to be sufficient?
- How can one prevent the open source movement from releasing the source code for a system that can develop into a sapient artificial intelligence as open source software?
- What other types of projects may be undesirable as open source software?
Benefits and drawbacks of open source software
Any open source software package exists in relation to other software packages, which may serve a relevant purpose in an economy as commercial software packages. Thus one could argue that releasing open source software has the potential to have detrimental effects on fellow programmers. On the other hand releasing open source software may also have the potential to have beneficial effects on other groups, including commercial entities. An open source programmer might want to at least try to understand the potential effects of releasing a given software package. A fixation on open source software without a proper analysis of the circumstances and potential effects could be seen as a failure to find a sensible intermediate position in relation to important aspects of the software development process and software economy. Furthermore the proverb "What goes around, comes around" could be seen to suggest that somebody who wants to sell software might also want to purchase software (and/or other intellectual goods), at least on occasion, otherwise the categorical imperative is not satisfied.
- Was the demise of SCO a detrimental effect on fellow programmers or an acceptable side effect?
- What other effects of open source software can be observed or deduced?
- Is software-that-hasn't-been-written-several-times-already a resource that can be depleted?
- Does open source software offer certified quality? Why not, is it somehow difficult to sign with more meaningful keys than "I-may-or-may-not-have-written-or-seen-an-arbitrary-subset-of-the-sourcetree"?
The term corporate social responsibility refers to the social responsibility of the corporate sector. In analogy a member of the open source community could and should demand "open source social responsibility".
- What are the ends and side effects of open source software development?
- What could and should be the responsibilies of open source software developers?
- What are problems an open source software developer may have an obligation to prevent altogether (possibly by planning ahead)?
One could argue that philanthropic open source software may suffer from the problem that is has the potential to create business opportunities that might otherwise not have existed, possibly without providing any goods or services beneficial to the more usual recipients of charitable giving. Thus the more usual recipients of charitable giving (who very likely do not own a computer) may even be affected negatively by this kind of philanthropy through the diversion of financial resources. Even the GNU General Public License and other licenses that may make commercial use less profitable do have the potential to contribute to this effect. One could see this as a motivation for open source authors and users to intentionally counter this effect, for instance with charitable license terms (e.g. as found in the Charity Software License) or a request for voluntary donations (e.g. as found in the vsrs reservation system).
- Idioculture (Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology)
- See also: Motives For Writing Free Software (Free Software Foundation)
- Karma Theory (Theory Design Lab, Wikiversity)
- Karma Lab (Theory Design Lab, Wikiversity)
- See also: Matthew effect (sociology) (Wikipedia)