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Why “Free Software” is better than “Open Source”

This article has been superseded by a major rewrite, “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software, which is much better. We keep this version for historical reasons.

While free software by any other name would give you the same freedom, it makes a big difference which name we use: different words convey different ideas.

In 1998, some of the people in the free software community began using the term “open source software” instead of “free software” to describe what they do. The term “open source” quickly became associated with a different approach, a different philosophy, different values, and even a different criterion for which licenses are acceptable. The Free Software movement and the Open Source movement are today separate movements with different views and goals, although we can and do work together on some practical projects.

The fundamental difference between the two movements is in their values, their ways of looking at the world. For the Open Source movement, the issue of whether software should be open source is a practical question, not an ethical one. As one person put it, “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.” For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution.

Relationship between the Free Software movement and Open Source movement

The Free Software movement and the Open Source movement are like two political camps within the free software community.

Radical groups in the 1960s developed a reputation for factionalism: organizations split because of disagreements on details of strategy, and then treated each other as enemies. Or at least, such is the image people have of them, whether or not it was true.

The relationship between the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement is just the opposite of that picture. We disagree on the basic principles, but agree more or less on the practical recommendations. So we can and do work together on many specific projects. We don't think of the Open Source movement as an enemy. The enemy is proprietary software.

We are not against the Open Source movement, but we don't want to be lumped in with them. We acknowledge that they have contributed to our community, but we created this community, and we want people to know this. We want people to associate our achievements with our values and our philosophy, not with theirs. We want to be heard, not obscured behind a group with different views. To prevent people from thinking we are part of them, we take pains to avoid using the word “open” to describe free software, or its contrary, “closed”, in talking about non-free software.

So please mention the Free Software movement when you talk about the work we have done, and the software we have developed—such as the GNU/Linux operating system.

Comparing the two terms

This rest of this article compares the two terms “free software” and “open source”. It shows why the term “open source” does not solve any problems, and in fact creates some.

Ambiguity

The term “free software” has an ambiguity problem: an unintended meaning, “Software you can get for zero price,” fits the term just as well as the intended meaning, “software which gives the user certain freedoms.” We address this problem by publishing a more precise definition of free software, but this is not a perfect solution; it cannot completely eliminate the problem. An unambiguously correct term would be better, if it didn't have other problems.

Unfortunately, all the alternatives in English have problems of their own. We've looked at many alternatives that people have suggested, but none is so clearly “right” that switching to it would be a good idea. Every proposed replacement for “free software” has a similar kind of semantic problem, or worse—and this includes “open source software.”

The official definition of “open source software,” as published by the Open Source Initiative, is very close to our definition of free software; however, it is a little looser in some respects, and they have accepted a few licenses that we consider unacceptably restrictive of the users. However, the obvious meaning for the expression “open source software” is “You can look at the source code.” This is a much weaker criterion than free software; it includes free software, but also some proprietary programs, including Xv, and Qt under its original license (before the QPL).

That obvious meaning for “open source” is not the meaning that its advocates intend. The result is that most people misunderstand what those advocates are advocating. Here is how writer Neal Stephenson defined “open source”:

Linux is “open source” software meaning, simply, that anyone can get copies of its source code files.

I don't think he deliberately sought to reject or dispute the “official” definition. I think he simply applied the conventions of the English language to come up with a meaning for the term. The state of Kansas published a similar definition:

Make use of open-source software (OSS). OSS is software for which the source code is freely and publicly available, though the specific licensing agreements vary as to what one is allowed to do with that code.

Of course, the open source people have tried to deal with this by publishing a precise definition for the term, just as we have done for “free software.”

But the explanation for “free software” is simple—a person who has grasped the idea of “free speech, not free beer” will not get it wrong again. There is no such succinct way to explain the official meaning of “open source” and show clearly why the natural definition is the wrong one.

Fear of Freedom

The main argument for the term “open source software” is that “free software” makes some people uneasy. That's true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might rather ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject the idea for that. It does not follow that society would be better off if we stop talking about these things.

Years ago, free software developers noticed this discomfort reaction, and some started exploring an approach for avoiding it. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics and freedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to “sell” the software more effectively to certain users, especially business. The term “open source” is offered as a way of doing more of this—a way to be “more acceptable to business.” The views and values of the Open Source movement stem from this decision.

This approach has proved effective, in its own terms. Today many people are switching to free software for purely practical reasons. That is good, as far as it goes, but that isn't all we need to do! Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first step.

Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage. Countless companies seek to offer such temptation, and why would users decline? Only if they have learned to value the freedom free software gives them, for its own sake. It is up to us to spread this idea—and in order to do that, we have to talk about freedom. A certain amount of the “keep quiet” approach to business can be useful for the community, but we must have plenty of freedom talk too.

At present, we have plenty of “keep quiet”, but not enough freedom talk. Most people involved with free software say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.” Software distributors especially show this pattern. Some GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom.

We are failing to keep up with the influx of free software users, failing to teach people about freedom and our community as fast as they enter it. This is why non-free software (which Qt was when it first became popular), and partially non-free operating system distributions, find such fertile ground. To stop using the word “free” now would be a mistake; we need more, not less, talk about freedom.

If those using the term “open source” draw more users into our community, that is a contribution, but the rest of us will have to work even harder to bring the issue of freedom to those users' attention. We have to say, “It's free software and it gives you freedom!”—more and louder than ever before.

Would a Trademark Help?

The advocates of “open source software” tried to make it a trademark, saying this would enable them to prevent misuse. This initiative was later dropped, the term being too descriptive to qualify as a trademark; thus, the legal status of “open source” is the same as that of “free software”: there is no legal constraint on using it. I have heard reports of a number of companies' calling software packages “open source” even though they did not fit the official definition; I have observed some instances myself.

But would it have made a big difference to use a term that is a trademark? Not necessarily.

Companies also made announcements that give the impression that a program is “open source software” without explicitly saying so. For example, one IBM announcement, about a program that did not fit the official definition, said this:

As is common in the open source community, users of the ... technology will also be able to collaborate with IBM ...

This did not actually say that the program was “open source”, but many readers did not notice that detail. (I should note that IBM was sincerely trying to make this program free software, and later adopted a new license which does make it free software and “open source”; but when that announcement was made, the program did not qualify as either one.)

And here is how Cygnus Solutions, which was formed to be a free software company and subsequently branched out (so to speak) into proprietary software, advertised some proprietary software products:

Cygnus Solutions is a leader in the open source market and has just launched two products into the [GNU/]Linux marketplace.

Unlike IBM, Cygnus was not trying to make these packages free software, and the packages did not come close to qualifying. But Cygnus didn't actually say that these are “open source software”, they just made use of the term to give careless readers that impression.

These observations suggest that a trademark would not have truly prevented the confusion that comes with the term “open source”.

Misunderstandings(?) of “Open Source”

The Open Source Definition is clear enough, and it is quite clear that the typical non-free program does not qualify. So you would think that “Open Source company” would mean one whose products are free software (or close to it), right? Alas, many companies are trying to give it a different meaning.

At the “Open Source Developers Day” meeting in August 1998, several of the commercial developers invited said they intend to make only a part of their work free software (or “open source”). The focus of their business is on developing proprietary add-ons (software or manuals) to sell to the users of this free software. They ask us to regard this as legitimate, as part of our community, because some of the money is donated to free software development.

In effect, these companies seek to gain the favorable cachet of “open source” for their proprietary software products—even though those are not “open source software”—because they have some relationship to free software or because the same company also maintains some free software. (One company founder said quite explicitly that they would put, into the free package they support, as little of their work as the community would stand for.)

Over the years, many companies have contributed to free software development. Some of these companies primarily developed non-free software, but the two activities were separate; thus, we could ignore their non-free products, and work with them on free software projects. Then we could honestly thank them afterward for their free software contributions, without talking about the rest of what they did.

We cannot do the same with these new companies, because they won't let us. These companies actively invite the public to lump all their activities together; they want us to regard their non-free software as favorably as we would regard a real contribution, although it is not one. They present themselves as “open source companies,” hoping that we will get a warm fuzzy feeling about them, and that we will be fuzzy-minded in applying it.

This manipulative practice would be no less harmful if it were done using the term “free software.” But companies do not seem to use the term “free software” that way; perhaps its association with idealism makes it seem unsuitable. The term “open source” opened the door for this.

At a trade show in late 1998, dedicated to the operating system often referred to as “Linux”, the featured speaker was an executive from a prominent software company. He was probably invited on account of his company's decision to “support” that system. Unfortunately, their form of “support” consists of releasing non-free software that works with the system—in other words, using our community as a market but not contributing to it.

He said, “There is no way we will make our product open source, but perhaps we will make it ‘internal’ open source. If we allow our customer support staff to have access to the source code, they could fix bugs for the customers, and we could provide a better product and better service.” (This is not an exact quote, as I did not write his words down, but it gets the gist.)

People in the audience afterward told me, “He just doesn't get the point.” But is that so? Which point did he not get?

He did not miss the point of the Open Source movement. That movement does not say users should have freedom, only that allowing more people to look at the source code and help improve it makes for faster and better development. The executive grasped that point completely; unwilling to carry out that approach in full, users included, he was considering implementing it partially, within the company.

The point that he missed is the point that “open source” was designed not to raise: the point that users deserve freedom.

Spreading the idea of freedom is a big job—it needs your help. That's why we stick to the term “free software” in the GNU Project, so we can help do that job. If you feel that freedom and community are important for their own sake—not just for the convenience they bring—please join us in using the term “free software”.


Joe Barr wrote an article called Live and let license that gives his perspective on this issue.

Lakhani and Wolf's paper on the motivation of free software developers says that a considerable fraction are motivated by the view that software should be free. This was despite the fact that they surveyed the developers on SourceForge, a site that does not support the view that this is an ethical issue.


This essay is published in Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.

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