[okfn-discuss] okfn-discuss Digest, Vol 24, Issue 14

Joshua Gay joshuagay at gmail.com
Fri Sep 21 16:05:20 UTC 2007

> 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
> terminology).

I can understand many arguments for using the word "open," instead of
"free," but your argument built upon pragmatics doesn't seem very strong.

By telling someone that something is "free software," you are letting them
know that they have explicitly the four freedoms defined in the free
software definition. Similarly, when you say something is a free cultural
work, you are saying that work can be accurately defined by the definition
of free cultural works. By telling someone they have free speech, you mean
that in the context of certain fairly well defined laws in their country. In
none of these cases are we talking about moral imperatives. Nobody is saying
whether or not one believes something should or should not be free when they
say it carries the property of certain freedoms. If that were the case, we
could just as easily imply the same holds true with the term "open." Does
OKFN assume all knowledge _should_ be open? No, you just said so yourself
that was not the case. So too, it seems, that you need a different argument
for why you to call it "open," instead of "free." What is difficult is that
on your site when you explain to people what "Open Knowledge" means, you say
that, "A piece of knowledge is open if you are free to . . . ." So, the
first thing you do is associate the idea of "open," to the better
understood, and older term "free." A term that people associate with common
phrases like "free speech."

Making up a new term and then defining it in terms of the well understood
term seems impractical. Obviously OKFN didn't come up with the use of the
word "open," they say it was inspired by OSI. We can easily trace the
etymology of the word "open," in the way that OKFN  and OSI uses it. It
comes from a very specific paper written by Eric S. Raymond that can be
found here: http://www.catb.org/~esr/open-source.html. He states, "we have a
problem with the term 'free software', itself, not the concept. I've become
convinced that the term has to go." He gives as reason a two fold argument:

First, it's confusing; the term "free" is very ambiguous (something the Free
Software Foundation's propaganda has to wrestle with constantly). Does
"free" mean "no money charged?" or does it mean "free to be modified by
anyone", or something else?

Second, the term makes a lot of corporate types nervous. While this does not
intrinsically bother me in the least, we now have a pragmatic interest in
converting these people rather than thumbing our noses at them. There's now
a chance we can make serious gains in the mainstream business world without
compromising our ideals and commitment to technical excellence -- so it's
time to reposition. We need a new and better label.

The first stated reason, the ambiguity of the word "free," is not a very
sound basis. It turns out that the ambiguity is correct in most cases: it's
both free as in cost and free as in freedom. The word "open," however, has
similar ambiguities that are no-less difficult to reconcile. So, let's
assume that this isn't the stronger of the two reasons presented and
carefully examine the second argument. That is, it "makes a lot of corporate
types nervous." I interpret this as Raymond feeling the need to dehumanize
people as "corporate types," that are immature and dumb and that can be
tricked by calling something by a new name. This may seem cynical, but, he
goes on to state his goal of changing the word to "open," so that him and a
group of people can more easily "work with and co-opt the market for our own
purposes." It would seem that their use of the word "open," was just to
create another layer of confusion and indirection: call it open and define
it as free.

Now, whether or not OKFN distances itself from Raymond's POV is not
something I can comment on. It does associate itself with OSI, which was
created on the basis of Raymond's arguments. However, Raymond's argument
certainly helped popularize the use of the term open over the past 7 years
and many people believe it is _the_ argument for using the new word "open"
instead of the older terms "free" or "libre." So, whether or not that is the
intention of OKFN, I do not know, but, it is a viewpoint that people from
the outside looking in might have and one that I thought would be good to

Please let me say that I'm really liking the work of OKFN. I don't mean to
barrage anyone or insult any of you with the arguments I made above. I'm not
trying to pick a fight or unfairly categorize anybody through association to
a the character of ERS that I created from interpreting one short essay that
he wrote in 1998. I do hope, however, that this can serve as a good
counterpoint to the argument of "pragmatism" that was presented. I do think
the argument I made is one that many others will make and that it is one
that should not be ignored. This argument, however, is not an argument that
would imply that anybody should distance themselves from the work the OKFN
is doing. To exhuast the point: there have been a lot of semantic arguments
along these lines in the past, and I don't want it to create yet another
rife or lead to destructive disgruntlement -- that is not my intent.

And thank you for all the work you are doing and for opening up so many
great discussions on this list!

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