Free software vs open source

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I heard that the open source software movement grew up when it was noticed that people reacted badly to the idealism that the phrase “free software" suggests. In an attempt to attract more people to free software they decided to move away from the ideas implicit in the term “free software" and use their own term “open source" which promotes the practical benefits of this style of development.

There’s definitely been benefits to this approach: the open source camp has attracted many new users to come and try free software such as GNU/Linux, OpenOffice, Firefox etc. The problem is that many of these new users never realise that it was someone refusing to give RMS a copy of a printer’s source code—failing to share as was the norm in the programming world at the time—that started this whole community; with Microsoft’s new DRM riddled operating system just around the corner and various media groups attempting to restrict our rights to use, enjoy and share content a belief that this sort of attitude is basically a good thing is more important than ever.

Free software is the other extreme: while providing us with the legal and moral basis to help us keep developing, enjoying and sharing brilliant software applications, I believe it’s also quite likely that it has put off its fair share of users. Free software, just like open source software, has weakened our ability to share our outlook with others—both now and in the future—by reducing the number of people who are going to really listen to us!

Idealism is for dreamers, what we have is reality!

Perhaps we need a middle ground. In a speech (or essay, I’m afraid I can’t remember which!) by Eben Moglen, which I read this week, it was suggested that idealism is no longer necessary: free software, and the culture that has developed around it, already exists; Idealism is for dreamers, what we have is reality! This fact allows people from across the whole spectrum of the community to stand up and say: “We did this...and that... and that... and that...". And when people ask how we managed to do this we can point them in the direction of (and tell them about!) the GPL, all those other free software licenses, and the freedoms that they guarantee.

A new (well relative to 1998 or 1985) term seems to be emerging around the net: “FLOSS"—Free Libre Open Source Software. I like it, I think it gives us a chance to firmly plant our feet in reality—to point to all that we have achieved—whilst still celebrating the principles that founded the community; it’s just a shame it’s not recursive. Is it too bold of me to suggest we use this new acronym? Probably!

NB: I’m not sure how good a job I’ve done of expressing myself today. I’ve read a lot this week and it’s taking some time for it all to sink in and organise itself into a coherent set of thoughts! Also, I should point out that the challenge now, is to ensure that what is reality now is still a reality in 10 years.



Tyler's picture
Submitted by Tyler on

You argue that open source undermines the Freedom concept that is so central to the Free Software movement, but Free Software has somehow 'put off' users, and we need a new moderate term. Funny, that's pretty much where the term 'open source' came from in the first place, as an attempt to provide a new, more moderate reframing of 'Free' software. But whatever the next term is (FLOSS etc.) it can't emphasize Freedom more than the original term Free Software.

Maybe what we really need is to address the issue head on. Not in a foaming at the mouth, raving zealot kind of way, but rather in a nuanced, balanced and sober presentation. Much like Eben Moglen does in his speeches. He doesn't shy away from the concept of Freedom, and yet he still manages to make persuasive arguments without alienating listeners.

There is nothing wrong with the phrase 'Free Software'. We need to educate ourselves about the concepts and their history, and then have the courage to present them to others in a respectful manner. If you really believe that Free Software is a worthwhile alternative, then you won't need to resort to name-calling and raving. And if you can keep your arguments civil and well-informed, eventually people will come around. But searching for a catchier phrase is taking the easy way out.

If the concept is good, it will sell itself when people have the information to make an informed decision. Given all the solid arguments in favour of Free Software, if someone needs a trendy new catch-phrase to take it seriously then I question whether they're the sort of people we should put a high priority on persuading. Better to slowly build a strong base than to quickly build a weak one.


Papa's picture
Submitted by Papa on

As a long standing proponent of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS - ) I feel comfortable with overall concept, from a philosophical standpoint.

What needs to be emphasized is that software should be valued! Free, in the minds of consumers, suggests that they are not responsible for 'valuing' the software that they use. We need to acknowledge the value of a given software author(s) contribution AND remunerate them in the manner that THEY choose appropriate.

Some only ask for a postcard telling them how you use their program. Others offer support programs that provide additional value at a price they deem appropriate. In either case, as end-users, we should accept the responsibility of the value of the software and respond accordingly.

William "Papa" Meloney

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Some only ask for a postcard telling them how you use their program. Others offer support [...]

Yet others just require us to sign restrictive EULAs. Great, if that's what THEY choose appropriate, then I can't remember what the problems with Flash, RealPlayer, and nVidia's graphics driver were...

I don't think that's the meaning that you intended, but your argument could be read in this way (and I remember having read arguments along the lines of "whatever they request, the authors are always right" before; not from you). I think the canonical Free Software opinion would be that no author has the right to restrict users' freedom, even if the author has the "right" (= copyright) to do so. (Or at least, that'd be MY opinion.)

@Johnathan: Do you have a link to Eben Moglen's speech that says "idealism is no longer necessary"? I'd really like to read that for myself.

Mauro Bieg's picture

I like the idea of uniting the two terms 'free software' and 'open source software', but the outcome (be it FLOSS or FOSS) just doesn't sound that catchy.

It would be nice to have one word, accepted by everyone, to describe this kind of software. It would be easier to find it (ie. by googling) an newcomers would get less confused. But complicated as the world is, there isn't such a word which would express all that we value about Free/Open Source Software. Maybe we should create a whole new word, but the chances for broad adaption are quite small... :-)

I hope one day, when we're talking about software, we just mean FOSS only, because free software has become ubiquitous, and proprietary software is an old myth of a strange transition-time where old (industrial) business models were used on a then-new phenomenon called software.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I only use Linux. Why do we pander to the braying of barnyard glory-hounds insisting on pointless name changes for the sake of their egos? Haven't you hurd the stupid things some of the arrogant but inept people will do? The impact of the article - indeed my ability to follow it - was significantly impacted by the offensive capitulation of the writer.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

> I don't use GNU/Linux

Somehow I find it very hard to believe simply because using Linux only as opposed GNU/Linux will mean that you only run pure linux kernel with nothing on top of it.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

GNU is the operating system. Linux is the kernel that runs below the GNU operating system. Calling the combined GNU/Linux operating system as "Linux" would be incorrect as Linux is an operating system kernel and not an operating system. Linux is an important part of a free operating system and therefore should be mentioned. Linux is not part of the GNU project and therefore shouldn't be called GNU Linux. GNU is mentioned before Linux because the GNU project was started before Linus started work on Linux.

Jonathan Roberts's picture

My "offensive capitulation" is one that has grown out of carefully reading the arguments of the "glory hounds" as you call them and deciding that they have a good point to make, beyond just their egos. Maybe if you would take the time to read what they've said? A few good places to start include the philosophy section of the GNU website or perhaps RMS's book Free software, Free society. If you still disagree then I'm happy to agree to disagree :D

Also, for the person who requested the Eben Moglen speech; I think it can be found here though I cannot be certain! If not then other things by Eben Moglen can be found here and here. I don't think that was a direct quote but I'm sure it was the jist!


Check out my podcast at; my Free Software Magazine blog at or my personal blog at

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"The problem is that many of these new users never realise that it was someone refusing to give RMS a copy of a printer’s source code—failing to share as was the norm in the programming world at the time—that started this whole community;"

I'm not sure I understand this assertion. Open source predates RMS by at least a decade, as the IBM and UNIVAC user commnuties were sharing software long before RMS ran into his issues with closed printer drivers. Or were you addressing the Free Software community specifically?

guydjohnston's picture

I think that depends on what you mean by the term 'open source'. The most common definition used is the one from the Open Source Initiative, starting in 1998, as an offshoot of the free software movement. I don't know if the term was used before that. I think before Richard Stallman ran into his troubles with nonfree software, and especially a decade before that, software was generally free and open source, as it was distributed in source form, and programmers weren't restricted from copying or modifying it. Therefore, I wouldn't expect anyone would have used any particular terms for free and open source software, because that was generally all software. From what I can tell, Richard Stallman only started the GNU project and the free software movement specifically because he started encountering proprietary software, and it started becoming more common than free software. Then again, I could be wrong.

GNU - free as in freedom

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

This is true. The concept of free software predates the term as defined by RMS. This is because everyone shared software and everyone was allowed to tinker with their software. The name "free software" didn't exist because free software was all that existed.

The problem is, people took free software for granted and as a result, people lost their freedom. Stallman found his loss of freedom so distasteful that he decided to start the GNU project which was dedicated to providing people with a free operating system. Stallman defined the term "Free Software" because there was a need for a term that embodied the ideals of free software.

I use the term "Free Software" because the term "Open Source" does not place any emphasis on the ideals of free software. This is important because we will lose our freedom if we don't value it. Stallman lost his once and I don't want it to lose it in the future. Open Source doesn't emphasise freedom. People are less likely to understand the value of the freedom of Free Software and therefore be more likely to lose it under that term.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I think that the Open Source Software ( OSS ) term used is the correct term to describe the "middle ground". FLOSS sounds overly hyped up in my opinion. 'Free' and 'Libre' mean the same thing after all and it would seem to sound more like the FSF itself. I think that the OSS movement is doing an absolutely fine job.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Whilst I appreciate that we like to use collective nouns, and have personally used FOSS and FLOSS in the past, I think we need to remember (and remind others) that Free software and Open source software are two different concepts and use the appropriate term where applicable.

Open source software should refer to any software whose licence gives you permission to access the source code - with varying degrees of latitude on what you can do with it.

Free software specifically refers to software whose licence gives the user the four freedoms. It is a term that should be used in this context only.

By nature Free software is a subset of Open source. All oaks are trees and I have never heard anyone looking for a collective noun for oaks and trees. When we refer to oaks we say - er - oaks and similarly when we say trees we refer to all trees collectively.

So which term you use depends on how specific you are being.


guydjohnston's picture

I agree. Each term represents different ideas. Free software can be defined as a social movement, whereas open source software can be defined as a method of development. I think combined terms should generally just be used to talk about the software collectively without promoting either of the two sets of ideas. People who only support one of the two generally just want to use one of the terms most of the time. 'Open source' also isn't as good a term if you care about the freedom people have to use their software, rather than just producing good quality software. That's because the actual name only tells you that the source code can be looked at, and not what freedom people have to modify and redistribute it. Access to the source code is only a precondition for two of the four key freedoms in the definition of free software.

GNU - free as in freedom

Crosbie Fitch's picture

I think any new descriptor has to embrace more than just software.

It has to describe a work that upon publication nullifies all rights suspending mechanisms such as copyright, DMCA, and patents.

How about a PARR work? PARR software?

PARR=(published) Public, All Rights Restored (to all members of the public)
PARR=(unpublished) Private, All Rights Restored (to the private individual(s))

pvdg's picture
Submitted by pvdg on

I wonder why some people are afraid of the word 'free'. The only problem is the double meaning of the word in English (free as in free beer vs. Free as in Freedom), which can confuse newcomers. In Portuguese, Spanish, French and other languages the confusion doesn't even exist and English-speaking people can be easily educated on the meaning of the term.
There is free, open source and non-free software running on the linux kernel, depending on distribution choices. It is important to make the distinction and never use linux as a synonym of free software.

Crosbie Fitch's picture


The problem with 'free' is not that anyone is afraid of it, but that it turns people who don't understand it away - it makes the grok barrier higher - easier to laugh and dismiss FS than to grok 'free'.

People who don't understand the concept tend to assume that FS is a labour of love for the good of 'the community', and only commercially viable if you form a well funded company to provide anciallary services (or have an esoteric business model).

People get the idea that FS is about working for nothing (apart from a begging bowl).

This is why folk initially prefer the more commercial sounding 'open source' - it sounds like it means to do business, rather than work for free.

It doesn't matter even if you explain what 'free' means. Subconsciously, 'FREE' screams out 'No money involved - you will not earn a living here - at least, not in the short term'. And this is reinforced by the fact that copies of free software can be made for free - legally!

It would be better if instead of explaining software in terms of the publishing author giving privileges away (free surrender of commercially advantageous restrictions), it was explained in terms of the author/purchaser not having their rights taken away (all rights restored - truth+privacy+liberty), e.g. "This software is not free of charge. However, as a bonafide purchaser, your full rights to inspect, use, copy, modify, and publish the software have been restored to you (on condition you do not suspend them from anyone else)."

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I look upon "FOSS" or "FLOSS" as terms that "bridge the gap" between software that is "free" as defined by the "four freedoms" contained in the GPL and software that doesn't necessarily meet the GPL definition of freedom...but does meet the "Open Source Definition".

Mozilla Firefox for instance isn't "free" as defined by the GPL but is indeed "open source" as defined by the open source definition.

Ideally I would like software to be "free" but failing that, I will make use of "open source" software...because it's the next best thing.

The free software movement sees itself fundamentally as a political movement dedicated to software freedom. The open source movement promotes the technical and economic merits of using FOSS/FLOSS software.

I used to think that folks like Richard Stallman were a bit "over the top" in their views. But with the Novell/Microsoft "deal" and Windows Vista being DRM'ed up the wazoo, I am more and more coming to the conclusion that Richard Stallman is right. Software freedom is important and well worth defending.

We are moving into becoming a society where more and more of our interactions with others are digitized. If we as citizens of the world don't have some degree of control over the tools we use to interact with one another and have no easy way to find out what the software tools are doing then that will not create a good society.

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Jonathan Roberts's picture


Currently a gap year student! I have a huge interest in Free Software which seems to keep growing. I run the Questions Please... podcast which can be found at On an unrelated note I'm reading theology at Exeter next year.