Open source is the software you own

I often see proprietary advocates re-frame open source as communist or socialist, in their comments here and elsewhere. But Tomlinson's view of the matter seems profoundly conservative, something right out of the Bush Administration playbook. Open source is the ownership society applied to software.

Chris Tomlinson, a British computer consultant, offers a Lakoff-like re-framing of the open source issue in his latest column for the Birmingham Post.

Open source is the software you own.

Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California in Berkeley, famously told Democrats a few years ago they had to "re-frame" their political disputes, that owning the words used to describe your position is crucial to victory. (That's the cover of his latest book, at right. You may order it here.)

To the politicians this seems like a great insight, but it's Marketing 101. Defining and controlling your corporation's message is Job One. Coca-Cola isn't flavored, sugar fizzy water, with a patent medicine past. It's "delicious and refreshing," it's "the real thing."

The trouble is open source is not a company, or even a collection of companies. Thus it loses control of its image to whomever claims to speak for it. And that image can easily be re-framed by proprietary opponents.

Tomlinson's framing has the advantage of being true. Open source contracts do give you the advantages of ownership. Many BSD-type contracts let you profit from that ownership. The GPL places improvements in the commons.

But however it's defined, it is a world away from any proprietary contract, which doesn't let you see the software you use, or modify it, or control it in any way. It's licensed. Under specific legal conditions, and with the understanding it may not work, its owner lets you use it.

I often see proprietary advocates re-frame open source as communist or socialist, in their comments here and elsewhere. But Tomlinson's view of the matter seems profoundly conservative, something right out of the Bush Administration playbook. Open source is the ownership society applied to software.