August 2010

"In order to get the maximum benefit from the process, the maximum diversity of persons and groups should be equally eligible to contribute to open sources."

Open Source Initiative

Open source is at once a type of software licensing, a community model, an ideology, and a social movement. As a movement aiming not only to promote open source software within the software development community, but also to change the attitudes of commercial users, it can benefit from lessons learned by earlier social movements.

This article is intended for entrepreneurs, developers, and open source proponents who wish to maximize the market for their products. It will begin with a discussion of the successful strategies and common pitfalls of the feminist movement. It will then apply these lessons to the open source community. Overall, it will discuss the importance of united ideologies, inclusive communities, and the pursuit of legislative changes in promoting open source software as a viable alternative to traditional proprietary software.

Historical Lessons from the Feminist Movement: Internal Discord

Since its inception in Britain in the late 1840s, the feminist movement has experienced many successes and setbacks in its mission to achieve equality for women. While many of these setbacks have come from external sources, such as right-wing conservative movements and difficulties in breaking through longstanding systemic discrimination, others have come from within the movement itself.

A primary example of internal dissension is the frequent disagreement between different rights activists in terms of which groups to represent and which platforms to support. In the United States, this resulted in a split between liberal and radical feminism within the largest women’s association, the National Organization for Women (NOW), that lasted from the late 1960s to the 1990s.

The divide centred on whether lesbian issues should be included within NOW’s push for equal rights for all women, with lesbians being considered too radical and "the seeds of [the feminist movement’s] destruction". Initially, many prominent lesbian women’s rights activists were exiled from the organizations they had themselves founded or supported as members. Toward the 1980s and 1990s, room was made for the inclusion of this group, but only according to a narrow definition of what its membership could entail. NOW has since welcomed lesbians fully into its fold.

Even where sexuality has not been an issue, various groups have taken different perspectives on the role of women within marriage, the family, the workplace, and society in general. In the earliest moments of the American feminist movement, disagreement on whether women should have the right to vote nearly resulted in this issue being removed from the “Declaration of Sentiments” of the first women’s rights convention in 1848.

In the 1960s, the Women’s Liberation Movement drew a parallel between housewives and war prisoners that encouraged some women to break free of their home lives and husbands’ ‘oppressive patriarchy.’ However, it also left happy homemakers incensed at the defamation of their traditional family values as they were made into negative symbols for the movement to fight against.

In other cases, open rivalry has erupted between groups with differing priorities as each attempts to secure policies in favour of its own interests at the expense of the interests of others. This lack of consensus can thus harm all sides of the movement.

Historical Lessons Continued: Sources of Success

The women’s movement succeeded in gaining momentum and support despite these internal differences for two major reasons. The first was an inherent understanding that legislative changes needed to be made for women to have any influence over the policy issues central to their concerns. The second consisted of a set of very powerful activist voices that pushed these issues into the mainstream.

When the movement was first founded, the women at its head realized that the laws that kept them powerless within society would not be changed until they themselves had a say in the making of these laws. Consequently, their initial list of grievances recognized that they lost all rights to property, education, physical wellbeing, and even their own children within the institution of marriage, but even more so that the right to vote was fundamental to their ability to change these laws.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the continued push for legal changes to promote women’s equality resulted in affirmative action programs being implemented throughout North America. Where women had still been struggling to enter the workforce alongside their more established male peers, these programs ensured their ability to participate. In Canada, this legislation ultimately resulted in the Employment Equity Act.

The key to these legislative changes being enacted was the dissemination of women’s issues by strong voices like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer, among others, not to mention their political allies in the form of major figures like former American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Even though these figures did not represent the whole of the women’s movement, no dissenting voices from within were strong enough to outshine the powerful rhetoric of the more radical and outspoken feminists.

Despite internal conflicts, the diversity of opinions and organizations reflects the variety of perspectives within society, and these are a positive indication of the amount of thought, discussion, and support in favour of women’s issues. The trouble emerges when these groups fight each other for political prominence instead of working together in pursuit of their common interests. Correspondingly, it is when the movement unites to pass new legislation that all women benefit the most. It is from this perspective that we can apply the lessons learned by the feminist movement to the open source community.

Disunity and Discrimination within the Open Source Community

The open source movement can learn from the experiences of the feminist movement in terms of the downsides of internal rivalries and discrimination when promoting a cause.

Like NOW and its competing organizations in support of various subgroups, the historic rivalry between such open source authorities as the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and its spin-off Open Source Initiative (OSI) often has a divisive effect on supporters. Even though these organizations have similar ideologies and shared principles, open source users and developers can find themselves forced to choose sides. Such rifts can occur on purely academic issues such as whether to call their software "open" or "free", never mind on more complicated questions such as which license to use for a product.

At an even more basic level, disunity exists within the open source community in terms of the exclusion of various interested groups. In the feminist movement’s initial fight for equal rights for all members of society, this took the form of some women’s organizations excluding the rights of single mothers and homosexuals from their mandates. Within open source, the group most often ignored is the non-technical user.

In "Cave or Community? An Empirical Examination of 100 Mature Open Source Projects", Sandeep Krishnamurthy notes that "communities do things other than produce the actual product [such as] provide feature suggestions, try products out as lead users, and answer questions" Even though these activities may largely fall within the purview of software developers, his comment points to the variety of activities within open source and, by extension, to the diversity of the types of people who can participate. In other words, not every participant in the open source movement is a software developer.

At first glance, the rights of all users figure prominently in both the OSI and FSF definitions of open source/free software. In particular, the FSF states that "free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software". However, examining the terms of this freedom reveals that "user" in this context is actually almost synonymous with "developer". Commercial users have the right to use and distribute the software as desired: "it is the user's purpose that matters, not the developer's purpose." Still, no provisions are made for how this software should be documented or supported, or how user feedback can effect change.

While this focus on the rights of developers makes sense from a definition standpoint, the tendency to forget about commercial and non-technical users unfortunately extends to the community itself. The effect of the disconnect between the user and developer or entrepreneur is that open source software becomes software by developers, for developers only. Translation: the needs, wants, and feature suggestions of the user are not necessarily represented, and the resulting software may thus not correspond to market desires.

When these users are also referred to as "leeches, vampires, or freeloaders" for using source code without contributing any in return, the level of animosity directed toward this key part of the open source community can further alienate its members. The same type of discrimination is aimed at software developers who provide software at no cost but do not follow open source principles in their licensing, with the same result.

Negative Consequences of Disunity

As is already apparent, the negative results of infighting within the open source community are manifold.

One example is wasted energy when proponents and organizations spend time attacking each other instead of uniting to focus on common goals like better licenses and public education. For example, when FSF and OSI disagree on licenses and terminology, this can create an image of internal dissension and instability that can lead to an increased perception of risk on the part of potential commercial users.

The negative attitudes of "ideological 'believers'" toward groups within and on the fringes of the movement similarly scare away prospective businesses and source code contributors who are "too afraid of running afoul of the 'open source community'."

In terms of application support for non-technical users, several companies have now emerged to provide support for certain software packages and the situation is improving. However, this type of user can still be left helpless when trying to "compile your own version" is the best option available for an immediate bug fix.

Promoting the Open Source Movement Within and Without: Keys to Success

As can be seen clearly from the successes of the feminist movement, pursuing changes to current legislation and having strong voices support the need for these changes are central to the expansion of the open source movement. One example of a way to promote open source through law is by using "copyleft", an alternative to copyright that makes a program open source and "says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it".

Prominent voices like Michael Geist have noted that current copyright laws including Bill C-32 (2010) in Canada pose challenges to open source software by prioritizing digital locks over the rights of the user. FSF frontman Richard Stallman also notes the difficulties with patent and copyright law as they impact open source programs and intellectual property in general.

Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus as to which changes need to be made to current laws, but the key elements are in place for future efforts. With the help of other powerful voices like Lawrence Lessig, Harvard professor of law and founding member of Creative Commons, as well as other open source proponents like Eric S. Raymond, the main focus should be on determining a clear message and direction to convey to politicians who can help effect these changes. If there is too much fracturing in the message due to polarized opinions, the result will be far less effective.

Once a clear direction is determined, having prominent figures educate and work with political figures in positions of power about the realities of open source and the legal needs of copyleft licenses is one way to ensure that open source becomes better represented in future copyright and intellectual property laws. In Canada, one example of an MP who has shown interest in copyright concerns and could be a powerful ally to the open source movement is New Democrat Digital Affairs Critic Charlie Angus.

In addition to the promotion of open source issues through public figures and legislative changes, the following activities can also assist with the continuing development of the open source movement:

  • encouraging increased collaboration between the FSF and OSI and other open source organizations to develop better licensing criteria and public campaigns

  • educating potential users and contributors of the benefits of open source software from the perspective that all forms of participation are valid and desired

  • promoting positive attitudes toward inclusiveness and acceptance of other paradigms among open source proponents to decrease the perception of fanaticism and bigotry

  • conducting extensive consultations with target markets to understand the user’s perspective before determining the functionality and interface of a software product

  • developing better application support systems to improve the usability of open source software by non-technical users

The above activities would create an image of solidarity and strength within the movement, as well as an openness to the needs and concerns of users, contributors, and other groups. This positive image will encourage consumer confidence, promoting the adoption of open source software to a wider market than at present.

Concluding Thoughts

While the feminist and open source movements may at first glance seem to be two entirely distinct interest groups, a comparison of the internal issues each has faced shows a common perspective of inclusiveness from which to achieve greater success.

With the above lessons in mind, the open source movement can develop a better understanding of its community and how it should present itself to the wider community of commercial users, buyers, and software developers at large. In this way, entrepreneurs and other open source proponents can generate increased positive visibility and heightened consumer confidence in open source software.


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