Yochai Benkler describes Open Source as a methodology of “commons based peer production”. This means work made collaboratively and shared publicly by a community of equals. For Eric Raymond the virtue of Open Source is its efficiency. Open Source can create better products faster than the old closed source model. Many of the most successful software programs in use today, particularly on the internet, are Open Source.
Applying the ideas of Open Source to other projects, be they political, philosophical or artistic, is more difficult than it might seem. The idea of Open Source as a more efficient means of production has nothing to say about what Open Source politics or art should be like.
To take the example of the Open Congress event at Tate Modern, artists struggled to find an Open Source ideology to apply to their art, activists struggled to find an Open Source ideology to apply to their organisations, and theorists grinned and invoked Deleuze and Spinoza to cover the gaps.
This confusion is not a problem with the idea of Open Source. Rather it is the intended result of it. The name “Open Source” was deliberately chosen for its meaninglessness and ideological vacuity. This was intended to make the results of a very strong ideology more palatable to large corporations by disguising its origins. That ideology is Free Software.
Free Software is a set of principles designed to protect the freedom of individuals to use computer software. It emerged in the 1980s against a backdrop of increasing restrictions on the use and production of software. Free Software can therefore be understood historically and ethically as the defence of freedom against a genuine threat.
Once software users freedoms are protected the methodology that we know as Open Source becomes possible and its advantages become apparent. But without the guiding principles of Free Software the neccessity and direction of Open Source cannot be accounted for. Open Source has no history or trajectory, it cannot account for itself or suggest which taasks are neccessary or important. Free Software requires freedom, which is a practical goal to pursue.