[okfn-discuss] Open vs free/libre

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Fri Sep 21 17:05:45 UTC 2007

Saul Albert wrote:
> On Thu, Sep 20, 2007 at 08:19:56PM +0100, Rufus Pollock wrote:
>> 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.
> While I agree with your pragmatic cost/benefit stance in many cases,
> Rufus, I'd add that in some cases, making a choice to produce
> proprietary knowledge can actually reduce the likelihood of future open
> knowledge production - which is Stallman's reasoning for his dogmatism.

I'm not sure I follow: do you mean that because it is closed no-one else 
can build upon it. In that case I completely agree -- and what I was 
getting at when I said "Almost always there will be (complex) trade-offs 
between current producers, future producers ...".

> Debates about Open Knowledge always become ideological at some point
> because Knowledge is political, and political thought and action,
> rigorously applied is very likely to become ideological.

I very much see what you are getting at. Certainly greater access to 
knowledge might well enable people to be more active (and informed) 
citizens -- leading as a result to a juster and better run society. 
However I am not sure why this would necessarily be 'ideological' and 
certainly not why it is a moral issue as to whether *all* software or 
all knowledge/information to be open. I emphasize all because clearly in 
some cases one could argue it is a moral question for information to be 
freely available. For example, I recall George Soros recently talking 
about efforts he had supported to publish information about where oil 
revenues in Nigeria ended up. But I don't think that's really what is 
being debated here.

>> "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves"
> I take your point, but who is to say what fantastic cultural gems might
> come from Open Mills & Boon and Free Big Brother? Now *that* would be an
> instant populist rival to Open Shakespeare! 

Sure :) But that wasn't my point here. I was pointing out that if it was 
being argued that that closed knowledge was an obstacle to liberation 
(and that 'libre/open' knowledge would help people become truly free) 
then one had to explain the fact that there is already a fair amount of 
open knowledge of very significant cultural value which people don't 
seem to 'use' as much as they might.

> Working in the entertainment industry, I often notice that the kinds of
> cultural infrastructures that exist to provide people with meaningful
> entertainment are impoverished - by obsolete, abusable copyright
> mechanisms, but also by broadcast paradigms and entrenched captive
> markets and dinosaur technology. New structures are emerging that will
> give rise to different economic, political and aesthetic norms. 

Perhaps but I have to admit I am a pessimist who is sceptical that the 
chains we find ourselves in are wholly (or even mostly) due to some 
entrenched interest or other. The fact is that the amount of available 
leisure time in western countries has increased massively over the last 
century yet people don't seem to use much of that leisure time to 
'enlighten' and/or liberate themselves.

> Although I am also turned off by doctrinaire 'Free/Libre' eulogies, I'd
> be careful about dismissing them on utilitarian grounds, which may not
> stand up to scrutiny when the economic reality of 'protected' knowledge
> markets are taken into account.

I should clarify here that I'm really supportive of those who do like 
the moral aspect of 'free/libre'. I may not personally agree with all of 
the reasoning but does that matter? Even if both groups don't agree 
exactly on motivations, and may as a result disagree occassionally on 
outcomes/actions, there is huge amount on which there is agreement.

> I am often reminded of the awful flexibility of 'Freedom' in discussions

Just like the term 'open' I'm sure!

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it 
means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' [Alice in 

> around the Talkaoke.com table - and I've recently found Adam Curtis'
> documentary 'The Trap - what happened to our dreams of freedom' to be a
> very useful foil to check my opinions against:
> There's a wikipedia entry:
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trap_%28television_documentary_series%29
> And the entire series is available on Google Video:
> http://video.google.com/url?docid=8372545413887273321&esrc=sr1&ev=v&len=3569&q=Adam%2Bcurtis%2BThe%2BTrap&srcurl=http%3A%2F%2Fvideo.google.com%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D8372545413887273321&vidurl=%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D8372545413887273321%26q%3DAdam%2Bcurtis%2BThe%2BTrap%26total%3D48%26start%3D0%26num%3D10%26so%3D0%26type%3Dsearch%26plindex%3D0&usg=AL29H23bKZm9WcAwL37zmyGJubg-lZYNMw
> http://video.google.com/url?docid=-7849982478877371384&esrc=sr3&ev=v&len=3537&q=Adam%2Bcurtis%2BThe%2BTrap&srcurl=http%3A%2F%2Fvideo.google.com%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D-7849982478877371384&vidurl=%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D-7849982478877371384%26q%3DAdam%2Bcurtis%2BThe%2BTrap%26total%3D48%26start%3D0%26num%3D10%26so%3D0%26type%3Dsearch%26plindex%3D2&usg=AL29H21vI7NGVhkjlUdzDHh6CiUixKtl1A
> http://video.google.com/url?docid=1343199130780182696&esrc=sr4&ev=v&len=1049&q=Adam%2Bcurtis%2BThe%2BTrap&srcurl=http%3A%2F%2Fvideo.google.com%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D1343199130780182696&vidurl=%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D1343199130780182696%26q%3DAdam%2Bcurtis%2BThe%2BTrap%26total%3D48%26start%3D0%26num%3D10%26so%3D0%26type%3Dsearch%26plindex%3D3&usg=AL29H21TNsmP9rq7l4EpZInr1xv3-gsbVQ
> You can draw your own conclusions from the freeness or non-freeness of
> these two sources, and the resultant relative value of the Knowledge
> they constitute.



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