Lentis/The Open-Source Movement


In this chapter, we will discuss open-source software as a socio-technical phenomenon. We will consider the interactions of four relevant social groups: open-source developers, closed-source developers, end users, and the government. For brevity, we limit legal discussion to the US government and its intellectual property laws.

Competition Between Open- and Closed-Source SoftwareEdit

Open-source developers often reproduce the functionality of closed-source software. Prominent examples include OpenOffice.org (cloning Microsoft's Office software), the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP, reproducing many function of Photoshop), the K Desktop Environment (KDE, implementing the windowing features of closed-source desktop operating systems), and WINE (WINE Is Not an Emulator, implementing the widely-used parts of the Windows API). This trend suggests a competition between the open- and closed-source software communities. In the following sections, we demonstrate how both communities act to support that suggestion.

Commercial Opposition to Open-SourceEdit

In this section, we discuss the actions and rhetoric used by closed-source developers to prevent the proliferation of open-source software.

Proprietary software developers may use software patents as appeals to the government to limit open-source development. Software patents could, depending on interpretation, prevent open-source efforts to reproduce functionality of closed-source projects, but, at present, the scope and legality of software patents are under debate. Several US Supreme Court cases have addressed the issue, including Gottschalk v. Benson[1] and Bilski v. Kappos[2].

Even when court decisions don't rule against open-source development, accusations of illegality are an effective form of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) propaganda, deterring open-source development by threat of legal action and creating widespread distrust of open-source software. A recent example is the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA)'s 2010 report[3] suggesting that the Indonesian government's encouragement of open-source software is tantamount to piracy, and will "deny fair and equitable market access to software companies" (p. 51). The IIPA cites this as a reason to keep Indonesia on a "Priority Watch List" (p. 50) for copyright protection and enforcement.

A video posted to the official Microsoft Office YouTube channel also demonstrates FUD. It attempts to scare potential OpenOffice.org users with the rhetorical question "If an open-source freeware solution breaks, who's gonna fix it?" It also tries to instill fear by suggesting that the open-source software is incompatible with advanced features of the Microsoft's proprietary office software. The second argument relates to an additional way in which proprietary software vendors compete with open-source software: the embrace, extend, and extinguish strategy. By drawing users toward an initially-open standard, then extending it in proprietary ways, closed-source vendors can build loyalty by breaking compatibility.

While open-source advocates may cast extend-extinguish as a conspiracy by proprietary vendors, the closed-source developers often argue that proprietary extras are innovative improvements that would be otherwise impossible. Famous closed-source developer Bill Gates claimed in a 2008 speech that the General Public License (GPL, an open-source license) creates an environment in which "nobody can ever improve the software."

Open-Source Opposition to Closed-SourceEdit

In this section, we discuss arguments from the open-source community against development and use of closed-source software. Note that the open-source community makes more appeals to ideology than the proprietary developers who mainly discuss practical or legal consequences.

Rhetoric Suggesting That Closed-Source Development is ImmoralEdit

Open-source advocates, especially members of the vocal "Free Software" movement (represented by the Free Software Foundation (FSF)), argue that closed-source software is immoral. The term "free" and the FSF's definition of it as a "matter of liberty, not price" are more ideologically-charged than the straightforward suggestion of accessibility behind the term "open". This is the same rhetoric used to promote patriotic devotion to the government, possibly counteracting the suggestions of closed-source FUD campaigns that associate free and open-source software with shaky legal status.

Prominent free software advocate Richard Stallman advanced beyond imitation of nationalistic propaganda by employing religious rhetoric. He often promotes his cause in costume, as Saint IGNUcius, patron saint of the "Church of Emacs". While he highlights the establishment's satirical status by noting that "taking the Church of Emacs (or any church) too seriously may be hazardous to your health", the underlying message still suggests that a free software project (the Emacs text editor) deserves to be worshiped. The Church also demands that its converts repeatedly chant "There is no system but GNU". Such arguments have no practical elements; they imitate religious preaching, appealing entirely to the listener's conscience and asking for faithful adherence to moral principles.

Legal BasisEdit

While appeal to principles is an effective rhetorical technique, it does not stand up in court. The open-source movement has developed other mechanisms to defend itself from legal attacks. Its first line of defense is licensing. The most famous free software license is the GPL that Gates denounced. It has a provision to ensure that all modifications of a GPL'd code-base must also be GPL'd, preventing proprietary projects from absorbing open-source code. Open-source developers may also attempt to use software patents. Red Hat, Inc., an open-source developer, gives a patent policy on their website that claims software patents "are inconsistent with open source/free software" while justifying their own "portfolio of software patents for defensive purposes".

Commercial Involvement in Open-SourceEdit

While the above portrays the open- and closed-source communities as bitter enemies, the groups overlap peacefully in many contexts. For-profit companies frequently fund external open-source developers with the expectation of profit or employ mixtures of open- and closed-source development internally, even within the same project.

Commercially Backed Open-Source ProjectsEdit

Major tech companies that work on closed-source projects such as Apple, Google, and IBM make public statements supporting open-source development, actively funding and contributing to such efforts. As a case study, consider Google's involvement with open-source web browsers. Google has provided significant funds to the Mozilla Foundation, the developer of the open-source Firefox web browser. The Mozilla 2006 Financial FAQ states that this funding accounted for 85% of the foundation's 2006 revenue. The FAQ also mentions "parts of the product that offer Google services (i.e., the Firefox Start Page)", suggesting a self-promotional motive behind Google's generosity. Google delved deeper into open-source web browsing by releasing the source code for Google Chrome and hosting the open-source Chromium project. This further involvement, by a for-profit corporation, suggests that Google's management considers such open-source development profitable.

Release of Legacy CodeEdit

There is a precedent for companies releasing formerly private source code under free licenses. This practice is somewhat prevalent among computer game developers because fans' nostalgia creates an unusual demand for maintenance of long out-dated software. Maintenance may account for half the total cost of software development[4]. Releasing code that is no longer state-of-the-art (and thus not likely to be copied by competitors) frees developers from maintaining it themselves. The complete source code for executables from many of id Software's past projects is available from their FTP server, subject to the GPL. The company's fans have since developed improved and modernized versions of these programs, maintaining them long after official support stopped.

Perceptions of UsersEdit

The survival of commercial, closed-source software alongside free, open-source imitators testifies to the mixed perceptions of potential users. A 2007 study[5] collected user opinions about open-source software in education. It uncovered user perceptions in favor of and opposition to using open-source software at educational institutions. The arguments in favor of open-source adoption were that it reduced licensing fees and allowed institutions to customize their software. One user criticized the price of a closed-source software system (Blackboard), saying "we want to have all options open so we don't just have to pay what Blackboard asks us" (p. 440). Another user called the malleability of open-source alternatives to Blackboard a "very attractive feature that most commercial applications don't offer" (p. 441). Among the negative perceptions of open-source software were the accusations that it had a steep learning curve and would incur high operational expenses. One such user expressed the sentiment that "I don't have any vision that open source comes and it's a freebie" (p. 440). Many institutions had technical staff with skill sets centered around closed-source solutions and feared a transition to new software with no official support. Notably absent from the subjects' responses are appeals to the moral arguments advanced by free software advocates like Richard Stallman. This absence suggests that most users are not concerned with such issues.

The perception that open-source software is unusable and reserved for seasoned computer hackers extends beyond educational institutions. It appears in popular media such as Randall Munroe's web-comic, xkcd. Comic 456 portrays the open-source Linux operating system as consuming a new user's life by presenting technical challenges. Comic 619 satirizes Linux's perceived narrow technical focus by contrasting a Linux developer's goals with a common user's needs.

While there exist many different open-source projects, at varying levels of quality, not all of them match this stereotype. Samoladas and Stamelos[6] review a number of usability studies comparing Free/Open-Source Software (F/OSS) with closed-source counterparts. They conclude that "overall results seem to indicate that F/OSS has achieved an acceptable level of quality" (p. 1). Specifically, they display results from a usability study finding that users require about the same amount of time to perform common tasks in a Linux/KDE environment as they do using Windows XP.

Necessarily Open-Source SoftwareEdit

All of the above examples of open-source software have had some relation to closed-source software or commercial interests: they have involved competition or cooperation between the open- and closed-source communities. In this section, we will present a third category of open-source project -- projects with little or no significance beyond their own source code. Such projects are, essentially, works of open-source art, often with no practical purpose. Examples include The International Obfuscated C Code Contest (IOCCC) and the anonymous "Black Perl" poem. Entire esoteric programming languages exist to produce such works of art. Languages like INTERCAL and Brainfuck appeal mainly to software enthusiasts who present their confusing programs in source code form, to be admired for implementation details rather than functionality. These projects typically have no serious end users, keeping them uniquely isolated within the community of open-source developers.


The open-source movement remains a target of criticism and a subject of praise for both closed-source developers and software users. Proprietary software companies tend to argue and act for or against open-source on the basis of practical value. Advocates of free software tend, instead, to form arguments around moral and ethical principles. Opponents of open-source spread fears that productivity and profits will plunge for users of freely-licensed programs, while opponents of closed-source portray its use as a sin, going so far as to adopt the trappings of religious figures. Both sides exploit gray areas in intellectual property law, such as software patenting, to further their respective causes.

While open-source software's encroachment on proprietary realms is controversial, it has turf of its own, such as open-source artwork. Further contributors to this chapter might investigate significant developments within the open-source community that haven't stepped on toes to draw attention from without. This would provide a case study of technology birthing a unique subculture rather than merely disrupting a larger community.


  1. Gottschalk v. Benson, 403 U.S. 69. (1972)
  2. Bilski v. Kappos, No. 08-964 (2010).
  3. International Intellectual Property Alliance, 2010 SPECIAL 301 REPORT ON COPYRIGHT PROTECTION AND ENFORCEMENT, pp. 50-62
  4. Foster, J. (1991) Program lifetime: a vital statistic for maintenance, Software Maintenance, 1991., Proceedings. Conference on, 98 - 103.
  5. van Rooij, S.W. (2007) Perceptions of Open Source versus Commercial Software: Is Higher Education Still on the Fence? Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(4), 433-453.
  6. Samoladas, I., Stamelos, I. (2003) Assessing Free/Open Source Software Quality, Department of Informatics, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (available here)
Last modified on 3 December 2010, at 15:07