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Innovation in Free Software is No Fantasy

Buffy the FUD-Slayer?

  • December 10, 2007
  • By Bruce Byfield
Like Dracula, the old myth that free software can't innovate keeps returning. Its latest incarnation is in the form of a column by Jaron Lanier in the December issue of Discover Magazine. (The column isn't online yet, but Lanier has disparaged community-based creativity many times, in particular when talking about Wikipedia). But this accusation is one that's overdue for a stake through the heart. Those who have experienced free software projects firsthand know that they depend on innovation and genrally foster it. And although this isn't a highly innovative era for the computer industry as a whole, free software is an exception--and likely to become more of one as it continues to come into its own. In fact, the very idea of free software is one of the most innovative ideas in the history of computing.

For Lanier, the accusation seems based on the assumption that creativity is the product of gifted individuals, and can only be diluted or lost in a collective. And it is true that, at times, politics and personalities may interfere with the acceptance of new features in a free software project, as the struggle to get Reiser4 into the Linux kernel shows.

Yet if you frequent any project's mailing list, you'll know that the usual reception of a brilliant new idea is unrestrained glee. For instance, last month, when the LTSP project announced it now had a way to run applications on the local machines on a thin-client network, not a discouraging word was to be heard. Far from restraining innovation, free software projects generally act as its incubator, critiquing and refining it more quickly than any single person possibly could.

You wouldn't say that editorial corrections are an enemy of creativity in writers. Many writers actually acknowledge, at least in private, that they need the editorial process to correct flaws they can't see or fix for themselves. So why should free software projects be viewed as any more stifling, when they serve much the same function as an editor?

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