Open Source is more than licenses

A few weeks ago I was honored to deliver the keynote of the Open Source Awards in Edinburgh. I decided to talk about a subject that I wanted to talk about for quite some time but never found the right opportunity for. There is no video recording of my talk but several people asked me for a summary. So I decided to use some spare time in a plane to summarize it in a blog post.

I started to use computers and write software in the early 80s when I was 10 years old. This was also the time when Richard Stallman wrote the 4 freedoms, started the GNU project, founded the FSF and created the GPL. His idea was that users and developers should be in control of the computer they own which requires Free Software. At the time the computing experience was only the personal computer in front of you and the hopefully Free and Open Source software running on it.

The equation was (Personal Hardware) + (Free Software) = (Digital Freedom)

In the meantime the IT world has changed and evolved a lot. Now we have ubiquitous internet access, computer in cars, TVs, watches and other IoT devices. We have the full mobile revolution. We have cloud computing where the data storage and compute are distributed over different data centers owned and controlled by different people and organizations all over the world. We have strong software patents, DRM, code signing and other crypto, software as a service, more closed hardware, social networking and the power of the network effect.

Overall the world has changed a lot since the 80s. Most of the Open Source and Free Software community still focuses mainly on software licenses. I’m asking myself if we are not missing the bigger picture by limiting the Free Software and Open Source movement to licensing questions only.

Richard Stallman wanted to be in control of his computer. Let’s go through some of the current big questions regarding control in IT and let’s see how we are doing:


Facebook is lately under a lot of attack for countless violations of user privacy, being involved in election meddling, triggering a genocide in Myanmar, threatening democracy and many other things. Let’s see if Free Software would solve this problem:

If Facebook would release all the code tomorrow as Free and Open Source software our community would be super happy. WE have won. But would it really solve any problems? I can’t run Facebook on my own computer because I don’t have a Facebook server cluster. And even if I could it would be very lonely there because I would be the only user. So Free Software is important and great but actually doesn’t give users and freedom or control in the Facebook case. More is needed than Free Software licenses.


I hear from a lot of people in the Free and Open Source community that Microsoft is good now. They changed under the latest CEO and are no longer the evil empire. They now ship a Linux kernel in Windows 10 and provide a lot of Free and Open Source tools in their Linux containers in the Azure Cloud. I think it’s definitely a nice step in the right direction but their Cloud solutions still have the strongest vendor lock-in, Windows 10 is not free in price nor gives you freedom. In fact they don’t have an Open Source business model anywhere. They just USE Linux and Open Source. So the fact that more software in the Microsoft ecosystem is now available under Free Software licenses doesn’t give any more freedom to the users.

Machine Learning

Machine Learning is an important new technology that can be used for many thing from picture recognition to voice recognition to self driving cars. The interesting thing is that the hardware and the software alone are useless. What is also needed for a working machine learning system are the data to train the neural network. This training data is often the secret ingredient which is super valuable. So if Tesla would release all their software tomorrow as Free Software and you would buy a Tesla to have access to the hardware than you are still unable to study, build and improve the self driving car functionality. You would need the millions of hours of video recording and driver data to make your neural network useful. So Free software alone is not enough to give users control


There is a lot of discussions in the western world if 5G infrastructure can be trusted. Do we know if there are back doors in cell towers if they are bought from Huawei or other Chinese companies? The Free and Open Source community answers that the software should be licenses under a Free Software license and then all is good. But can we actually check if the software running on the infrastructure is the same we have as source code? For that we would need reproducible builds, access to all the code signing and encryption keys and the infrastructure should fetch new software updates from our update server and not the one provided by the manufacturer. So the software license is important but doesn’t give you the full control and freedom.


Android is a very popular mobile OS in the Free Software community. The reason is that it’s released under a Free Software license. I know a lot of Free Software activists who run a custom build of Android on their phone and only install Free Software from app stores like F-Droid. Unfortunately 99% of normal users out there don’t get these freedoms because their phones can’t be unlocked, or they lack the technical knowledge how to do it or they rely on software that is only available in the Google PlayStore. Users are trapped in the classic vendor lock-in. So the fact that the Android core is Free Software actually doesn’t give much freedom to 99% of all its users.

So what is the conclusion?

I think the Open Source and Free Software community who cares about the 4 freedoms of Stallman and being in control of their digital lives and user freedom has to expand their scope. Free Software licenses are needed but are by far not enough anymore to fight for user freedom and to guarantee users are in control of their digital life. The formula (Personal Hardware) + (Free Software) = (Digital Freedom) is not valid anymore. There are more ingredients needed. I hope that the Free Software community can and will reform itself to focus on more topics than licenses alone. The world needs people who fight for digital rights and user freedoms now more than ever.


  1. serafean

    The battle is won, but the war is lost…

    Everything runs on OSS these days, but the Libre part of it is missing more than ever. The biggest issue I see is the issue of “ownership”.
    Physical ownership: I own my phone, my car, my house.
    Virtual ownership: I own my data.

    Streaming services are a case in point. You rent everything for $xx a month. If an actor becomes a persona non grata, and data with them is scrubbed (Think the Kevin Spacey situation, and, per events in march 2019, maybe upcoming with Michael Jackson), you don’t have access to it anymore.
    Another case in point is Amazon’s removal of purchased e-books of 1984 from Kindle devices (in 2009, if memory serves).
    You can’t (easily) rewrite a book purchased in paper form. You can rewrite an ebook.

    The formula (Personal Hardware) + (Free Software) = (Digital Freedom) is more important than ever, but we do need to focus more on the Personal hardware part, and I agree it is part of a greater issue…

  2. chomwitt

    I think the examples mentioned highlight that the opensource/libre software/hardware is not about
    software or hardware or about access to clusters or 5G infastructure but about a way to ‘see’ and ‘think’ about the things we build . How we build them , how we make a living out of them , how we treat the people using those things etc.

  3. Anonymous Commenter

    Before expanding the scope, it would also make sense to follow the principles as creator of Open Source in the development of one’s own products perhaps. This is something many are not doing, just see all the gmail email addresses of open source contributors. Using telegram for chatting. Or hosting development on github.

    I had some hard times to argue to people why Nextcloud makes sense as a product, when people pointed out that even Nextcloud development itself is done via central services being run with proprietary software ( Which was turned into the argument that even Nextcloud developers do not believe decentralized systems are better for one’s work, despite open source & decentral solutions existing

    Well, just look at the links at the bottom of your blog page: facebook, github, google, twitter.
    Now, how can I tell Open Source is a serious thing for you, other than selling it as unique selling point of your company product? Honest question, as I otherwise very acknowledge the achievements you did to push Nextcloud as FLOSS solution.

    • Dave Lane

      That’s a very good point. There’s also a word for it… “prefiguratism” – that is using means that are consistent with your end… Too many FOSS projects undermine themselves by employing closed/proprietary tools, and/or forcing their would-be collaborators to do so. Slack and Discord are two of my least favourite… see for my thinking on it. Also, I’ve moved my personal (and work-related) projects from Github to my own Gitlab instances (running the Community Edition – I’m not overly happy with Gitlab’s “open core” model) which are at least open source. I have adopted a policy of “Open first, centralised-proprietary-network-effect second, if at all”… I think that’s consistent, sends a clear message to would-be collaborators, but doesn’t limit project exposure to people who’re already committed to FOSS… we have to walk a fine line, but the balance always has to go towards FOSS-consistent where-ever possible.

    • Kurt Garloff

      The OpenStack community is rather strict in their non-use of proprietary tools.
      There are also other aspects of the software development process that go beyond just the source code access …

      So to stay true to the mission of Free Software to ensure Digital Freedom, we have to extend Stallman’s 4 freedoms (focused on software licensing) in several dimensions:

      (a) Avoid the usage restrictions from DRM, software patents etc. (The FSF, SFLC, … are taking up this fight — there is also the loophole in GPL that using code to host some service is not releasing it and thus not trigger the reciprocity clause from the GPL — something that is addressed in the not very popular AGPL.)

      (b) Ensure an open software development process. This is about the tools to be used, and the fact that design, development process, community and code must be open (the four opens from the OpenStack folks)

      (c) Ensure that the platforms that are built and that we use don’t lock us in — by not having interoperable data access standards (APIs), by not allowing users to control their own data, by requiring signing up and sharing data with providers we don’t trust, etc … (This is what Franks Blog article was about).

  4. g1

    Libre software cannot compete until it reaches the head wagon.
    Ğ1, the Libre Currency is available. Its WOT offers non intrusive decentralized identification… IPFS needs no datacenter. + Nextcloud….
    Hope war is not lost

  5. Linkdump 49/2021 | Dirks Logbuch

    […] die sehr streitbar sind. I can not agree more, things to consider when speaking about FLOSS, Open Source is more than licenses. Theorie und Praxis ist eine interessante, aber sehr technische Einführung in den Begriff […]


Leave a Reply