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Ian Jackson: Doctrinal obstructiveness in Free Software

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Any software system has underlying design principles, and any software project has process rules. But I seem to be seeing more often, a pathological pattern where abstract and shakily-grounded broad principles, and even contrived and sophistic objections, are used to block sensible changes.


I could come up with a lot more examples of other projects that have exhibited similar arrogance. It is becoming a plague! But every example is contentious, and I don't really feel I need to annoy a dozen separate Free Software communities. So I won't make a laundry list of obstructiveness.

If you are an upstream software developer, or a distributor of software to users (eg, a distro maintainer), you have a lot of practical power. In theory it is Free Software so your users could just change it themselves. But for a user or downstream, carrying a patch is often an unsustainable amount of work and risk. Most of us have patches we would love to be running, but which we haven't even written because simply running a nonstandard build is too difficult, no matter how technically excellent our delta.

As an upstream, it is very easy to get into a mindset of defending your code's existing behaviour, and to turn your project's guidelines into inflexible rules. Constant exposure to users who make silly mistakes, and rudely ask for absurd changes, can lead to core project members feeling embattled.

But there is no need for an upstream to feel embattled! You have the vast majority of the power over the software, and over your project communication fora. Use that power consciously, for good.

I can't say that arrogance will hurt you in the short term. Users of software with obstructive upstreams do not have many good immediate options. But we do have longer-term choices: we can choose which software to use, and we can choose whether to try to help improve the software we use.

After reading Colin's experience, I am less likely to try to help improve the experience of other PostgreSQL users by contributing upstream. It doesn't seem like there would be any point. Indeed, instead of helping the PostgreSQL community I am now using them as an example of bad practice. I'm only half sorry about that.

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