Letter to the Editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal

Dear Editor,

I am sure you don't realize how ironic it is to associate me and Tim O'Reilly with “open source.”

If the House Un-American Activities Committee asked me, “Are you now or have you ever been a supporter of the open source movement,” I could proudly and cheerfully say no. I've been campaigning since 1984 for free software—free as in freedom. (See the GNU Manifesto, Dr. Dobb's Journal, Sept. 1985.)

Free software means, roughly, that you are free to study what it does, free to change it, free to redistribute it, and free to publish improved versions. (See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html for more details.) You deserve these freedoms; everyone deserves them. I wrote the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), the target of Microsoft's greatest ire, to defend these freedoms for all users, in the spirit of the free software movement.

Years later, in 1998, another group began operating under the term “open source.” They have contributed to the free software community in practical ways, but they stand for very different views. They studiously avoid the issues of freedom and principle that we raise in the free software movement; they cite only short-term practical benefits as the reasons for what they do.

Their stated definition for the term “open source” is somewhat broader than free software, and thus includes my work. But describing the GNU GPL as an “open source license,” as Microsoft did, is more than half misleading. The GNU GPL embodies the firm philosophy of the free software movement; it doesn't come from the open source movement. I am not a supporter of the open source movement, and never have been.

Tim O'Reilly, by contrast, is a pillar of the open source movement, at least to hear him tell it. However, if you look at actions rather than words, most of the manuals published by O'Reilly Associates do not qualify as open source, let alone as free. The handful of free titles are exceptions. He could easily excuse himself to HUAC—“Yes, I talked about open source, but I didn't really do much of it.”

If O'Reilly moves to selling free-as-in-freedom books in the future, he could become a true supporter of the free software movement, or at least the open source movement. [Later in 2001, O'Reilly Associates published a couple of additional free books. We are grateful for this contribution to the free software community, and we look forward to more of the same.]

With the recent founding of FSF-Europe, and the coming inauguration of FSF-India, the free software movement is going stronger than ever. Please don't lump us in with the other movement in our community.


Richard Stallman
Free Software Foundation