Simon Fowler's Blog

Authority and Freedom: OpenSource

Posted by Simon on June 1, 2010

The relationship between authority (or structure) and freedom is a theme I’m sure to return to frequently.

Today I received an email from a colleague about The WebM Project . The launch of this project was supported by Mozilla, Opera, Adobe, Google and many other publishers, software and hardware vendors. No Apple? Quelle surprise.

“WebM is an open, royalty-free, media file format designed for the web.”
“WebM defines the file container structure, video and audio formats.”

And there is

“The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.
“One of our most important activities is as a standards body, maintaining the Open Source Definition for the good of the community.”

Overall I think these are great initiatives. The point I want to make here is simply that the very freedom and openness being sought by these communities are enabled by maintaining authority and control.

Tis a paradoxical fish, to be sure.


4 Responses to “Authority and Freedom: OpenSource”

  1. Kate said

    I’m not sure it is a paradox. Isn’t freedom, in part, the opportunity to pursue that which interests you because other things are already decided? That’s an over-simplified summary of how some poets (and literary critics, who are far more likely to write about such things :g: ) think about writing, say, sonnets or limericks or haiku, instead of free verse (or making up your own). Because the structure is already defined, the poet can spend all her time on the language and meaning.

    Just a thought.

    • Simon said

      I totally agree, Kate. Personally I think that’s exactly right, and your example of poetry is a perfect illustration. Thanks for pointing me to poetry as an example, I’ll dig more into that a future posts!

      I think it is a paradox for people who don’t define freedom as freedom FOR something. If they think of personal freedom as absolute, non-relative, and just freedom FROM all rules and structures, then any authority structure is an outrage and inhibition to their freedom. Opensource and poetry have ends in mind, people want freedom FOR. And they need rules because the freedom is also for more than one person it’s not just my own individualistic freedom. The moment we have more than one person trying to do something with another (create a video to be watched/re-mashed, write a poem that someone will hear/read) we need the rule/structure to which we both adhere if we’re going to be free and successful to do that thing.

      • Kate said

        I love that distinction between freedom FOR and freedom FROM. Great way to think about it!

  2. This interface between freedom and authority is illustrated by a very cool sculpture that has just arrived in LA from Geneva, Switzerland. It is called “invitation/decalogue” and depicts the decalogue (aka the 10 commandments) as resembling ten giant fingers, set in a circle. The sculptor, Liviu Mocan, expresses how divine law can really be considered as an invitation to freedom, relationship, hope and ethical reflection. This theme is explored on the sculpture’s website at

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