[okfn-discuss] Open vs free/libre

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Thu Sep 20 19:19:56 UTC 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.
> http://communities.libre.org/philosophy/saylibre

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 
[1] 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"

[1]: http://www.geof.net/research/2006/moglen-notes

> 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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