In defense of Open Source Software

How to realistically navigate the good and the bad of the modern Open Source terrain

6 min readFeb 17, 2022
Open Source Software

I read an article recently titled “Why I Dislike Open Source”, laying out arguments about in essence why Open Source Software (OSS) is dumb and bad. Like most opinions, there’s a bit of truth and a bit of emotion mixed together and served up as facts. And while I don’t entirely disagree with the content of the piece, it’s important to defend OSS and to offer solutions to the gripes the author, Leo Liou, has listed.

What happens often with good things in principle is that they are written off as dumb, backwards, ineffective, and quite simply worse if they don’t somehow beat everything else. For instance, GIMP, a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) application for editing images. It is, by most measures, worse than Adobe Photoshop, a Closed Source competitor. Blender, a FOSS 3D creation suite, is another example. As a hobbyists tool, Blender is a great way to make 3D animations. If you want to be a professional though, most advocate for using Maya, a Closed Source competitor. What is clear from comparing Closed Source applications and Open Sourced applications is that Closed Source applications are by and large preferred by power users and professionals in their respective fields.

So what’s wrong with Open Source? After all, it was the future and the place the modern internet started from. It has, for a very long time, been almost impervious to critique except by those wishing to privately profit within the technology industry, and even then those (such as Microsoft), have been gradually worn down to embrace Open Source. Has the tide shifted though? Is Closed Source software becoming increasingly popular?

A large aspect is who has profited from OSS. For seasoned developers, there is a stinging sense of betrayal and disillusionment as private enterprises, often separate from the developers driving innovation, have made millions off the back of Open Source contributors, and taken much of the credit. At best, some pennies of charity might be thrown their way, or perhaps a large company like Google would hire them to continue maintaining their library in a way that supported Google’s wider interests. Regardless, people feel used.

That disillusionment is real. FOSS is not what many had hoped it would be, and neither is the internet or the way we interact with technology today. The vision of Utopia is dead, replaced with a bitter will to reap some of the rewards and comforts brought to individuals by profitable software. FOSS is dead, long live CASH.

This outcome was predictable, in hindsight. As humans expand into new spaces and new frontiers, ideals are often subverted by existing power structures for the personal benefit of those “playing the game”. Those who produce software for free consumption assume that they have left the game. That is a lie. If there’s a fundamental truth, it is that wherever humans go, so to does human nature follow. Corruption, greed, and self interest will perservere. For FOSS, this means that the communal sense of moral good is put on the chopping block for those with the right alacrity to carve out rich slices from.

But FOSS is necessary. It is a cornerstone of the modern economy and modern society. Linux, GIMP, Blender, and all the little OSS components hosted via npm or other package managers are all necessary components of a wider ecosystem of development and innovation in the computer world. One cannot understate the impact of OSS.

“How then can FOSS ethically exist within the modern digital context?”, one might ask. By confronting and dealing with the realities of our current context. While experts have yet to reach a strong consensus, the alternative disillusionment and darkening mood felt across the developer community must be moderated. Reactionary movements are often justified in their gripes and wrong in their blame, as is the case here. And if reactionaries are given what they want, a full about face away from OSS and leaning into the world of digital walled gardens, software created in silos behind walls and barriers, we will all be worse off for it.

Instead, now is the time to critique the real culprits. If the internet’s pioneers believed in FOSS, because it fostered community, created transparency, built security through transparency, and de-coupled innovation from profitability, it seems foolish to throw their ideas out. Instead of tossing the baby with the bathwater, the software community should instead challenge corporations and the profiteers, leveraging new power structures to foster a more positive digital ecosystem.

OSS should be funded and supported by central entities acting toward the collective good. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Alibaba, Baidu, Uber, or the rest are not that. Governments and non-profits provide the most suitable answer. Properly funding digital development via government spending and unbiased non-profit organizations can ensure that OSS contributors and developers are fairly compensated for their contributions and that FOSS applications enjoy the same diligence of support enjoyed by large, well funded Closed Source applications like those in the Adobe Suite.

Governments and nonprofits have their own share of issues compared to companies, including falling victim to the “private enterprise breeds productivity” fallacy. Ultimately though, they can provide the right proxy funding necessary to support things that make people’s lives better without profiting directly off the outcome. Their funding mainly comes through taxes or donations, rather than direct payments via licensing fees or business to business contracts. Their core motivation, though subject to the same pitfalls of human greed and self interest, is for the betterment of a collective.

In America, the public imagination has forgotten this. While government grants via defense spending often funds academic research, including providing a pittance salary to graduate researchers, governments including the US Government have often acted with far greater imagination on supporting the public good. Today’s fear and security based hyper individualistic government spending — on freeways and military equipment, predominantly — can make people forget of the days when the US government provided social housing projects in most major cities for not just low income residents but middle income families as well.

In Western Democracies, fear-mongering against the rising power of the Authoritarian East bolster the need for security spending and the disdain for anything that symbolizes social progress in modern authoritarian regimes such as public transportation and public spaces. Between the two axes of global power, in the apartheid regime of Israel, the government, military, and private software enterprises leverage their unique global position to fund the development of Closed Source ‘defense’ software such as the Pegasus phone hacking program. In the absence of any global leadership on Free and Open Source Software, society has implicitly handed the reins of control from the idealistic GNU developers of the 90s to shrewd and power-hungry developers and companies of today.

One might wonder why overcomplicate a techincal debate. It is Open Source vs. Closed Source, not China vs. The West, or about Israel’s human rights abuses against the Palestinians. The problem with FOSS is that it’s worse than Closed Source alternatives. History has proven this. Close case. Yes? No. That is a naive interpretation of a much more complex issue. There is no fundamental reason OSS needs to be worse than FOSS, so if it is we must truly ask why, and not fall for red herrings.

While the involvement of government entities and sociopolitical forces in the modern world might seem like an over-complication of a purely technical question, “FOSS vs Closed Source”, it is the only proper lens with which to view the matter. It’s all connected, and it is all necessary to understand before one can accurately ascribe blame and offer solutions. Only by leaning deeper into OSS, by giving it the resources and funding the people behind it fully will we be able to see the benefits of OSS reaped with the technical polish resource-rich private enterprises currently enjoy.




Software Engineer passionate about the future of cities. Currently building libraries for Azure IoT.