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Is "Free Software" Dead?

Is "Free Software" Dead?

There are some people who are passionate about the differences between "free software" and "open source." I'm beginning to wonder if the difference matters.

The term "free software" came into use at about the same time that Richard Stallman quit his job at MIT, launched the GNU Project, and began writing the software that would eventually become the core of the free software community: emacs, the GNU "C" compile (gcc), the "C" libraries, and a few others.

Richard wanted to give users "freedom" and he called the GNU Project software "free software." For him, "freedom" was primarily a social and moral goal rather than an economic one. He felt that users had the right to know what the software on their computers was doing and that software that didn't allow this "freedom" was socially and morally wrong. He promoted the idea (and still does) that free software represents the ideal of "free as in freedom." It was a side benefit of the process that the software could be used and distributed at no cost.

When Linus Torvolds created the first versions of the Linux operating system, he used all the GNU tools that had been developed by the GNU Project. As a result, to this day many refer to Linux as GNU/Linux. Linux still uses the GNU "C" compiler and its "C" libraries.

But there were others who believed that the name "free software" worked against the growth and acceptance of Linux and other free software applications. They felt the name was confusing and that explaining it to managers and business people was too difficult. And the ideas behind "free as in freedom" didn't always excite management as much as it did those who were spending countless hours developing it. Another problem was that the word "free" was sometimes equated with "cheap." Many felt that if the software was "free," it must not be worth much.

This group of people, led by hacker and free software developer Eric Raymond and Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute, proposed that the name "open source" be used instead of the term "free software."

Richard Stallman didn't support this new name. According to Richard: "Teaching new users about freedom became more difficult in 1998, when a part of the community decided to stop using the term 'free software' and say 'open source software' instead."

Stallman continued, "Some who favored this term aimed to avoid the confusion of 'free' with 'gratis' - a valid goal. Others, however, aimed to set aside the spirit of principle that had motivated the free software movement and the GNU project, and to appeal instead to executives and business users, many of whom hold an ideology that places profit above freedom, above community, above principle. Thus, the rhetoric of 'open source' focuses on the potential to make high-quality, powerful software, but shuns the ideas of freedom, community, and principle."

Not everyone agrees with this assessment of the open source community. Recently, one of the leaders of the open source movement wrote to me in an exchange we had on this topic:

The distinction between "open source" and "free software" is not technical; it's the same code and licenses. Nor is it social; it's the same developers. It's strictly one of attitude - are we focused on moralism and changing peoples' thoughts (free software) or on results and changing peoples' behavior (open source)?

Reality has spoken. You get to RMS's (Richard Stallman's) condition of freedom faster by taking the pragmatic course - by shutting up and showing them the code.

In addition, some research recently published by Eric Raymond has shown that "among software developers and in the technology trade press, use of the term 'open source' dominates use of the term 'free software' by 95%-5% or more." (See www.catb.org/~esr/writings/terminology/ for more on this research.)

Is free software dead or dying as a label for software that meets Richard Stallman's goals of "free as in freedom"? Does open source work as a label to represent these goals now? For my part, I'm happy to say "Yes" to both of these questions.

While I know that some will strongly disagree, I think it's time to stop dividing the community using labels. We don't need different names for the same thing. Enough of us believe strongly in Stallman's goal of freedom - and believe that open source is achieving it - to be confident the goals won't be forgotten even if the label is.

More Stories By Kevin Bedell

Kevin Bedell, one of the founding editors of Linux.SYS-CON.com, writes and speaks frequently on Linux and open source. He is the director of consulting and training for Black Duck Software.

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Most Recent Comments
Jeff Davies 09/13/04 06:18:30 PM EDT

Daniel Wallace. Once again you repeat your nonsense about the GPL and BSD licences. Your "proof" is somewhat lacking in authority. Who are you? Are you a lawyer or a wannabe. Compare your status with the Legal giants on the GPL side.
If you really don't know what you are talking about, then kindly go learn something before commenting.

Daniel Wallace 09/01/04 09:00:56 PM EDT

Why argue about open v. free source code
licenses. The GPL, LGPL and the licenses at
OSI all fail the "extra element" test required
to avoid preemption under 17 USC sec. 301.

IBM is feeding the free/open source community
their last meal... FOSS under its present
license schemes *really* is D.O.A.

kenlars99 09/01/04 12:18:05 PM EDT

In the battle of the purists vs the realists, an issue that looms larger in my mind is GPL vs LGPL-style licenses. That is, licenses that require you to also open source your linked code versus those that don't. This seems to really be dividing the community, in particular something like the GPL KDE/Qt, which are libraries, but GPL, making them fundamentally incompatable with things like say, Eclipse and SWT, which are open-source under the less-restrictive CPL. These two incredibly cool technologies will never meet. MySQL does something similar, making their drivers GPL (which radically different from making the database GPL). While normally using a database is not an act of "linking", you always link to a driver.

RMS and the FSF have been encouraging people to license libraries (as opposed to entire applications, operating sytems) under the GPL instead of the LGPL. This just creates more of a division between business-friendly and business-unfriendly open-source software.

So call it open-source, call it free, that's an issue of wording. LGPL versus GPL - thats an issue that creates real restrictions.

morgaine 09/01/04 10:31:53 AM EDT

I can't understand why the anti-RMS brigade feel somehow hurt by RMS's statement that "Linux [the kernel] itself is no longer essential". It is simply a 100% accurate statement of fact, without any advocacy or preferences to taint it, in view of the undeniable evidence that there are hundreds of thousands of *BSD users and systems spread across the world and doing very nicely thank you, all with their own non-Linux kernels.

It's about as precise a statement as you can make. Those *BSD users are not figments of our imagination, and indeed they might even claim that they run the best kernel. However, that would be advocacy, and others might deny it. The undeniable claim though is the one that RMS made. One should not try to find hidden criticism in an utterly precise and unadorned statement of fact.

I'm completely dependent on the Linux kernel myself so any problems it might suffer could hurt me. But I can't argue with RMS's clear point.

Stallman Says 09/01/04 10:26:03 AM EDT

Sure: RMS wrote...June 23 2003

Linux itself is no longer essential: the GNU system became popular in conjunction with Linux, but today it also runs with two BSD kernels and the GNU kernel. Our community cannot be defeated by this.

So I guess he doesn't agree with Kevin Bedell. (The ref is here: http://techupdate.zdnet.com/techupdate/stories/main/0,14179,2914132,00.html)

FreeVersusOpen 09/01/04 10:20:30 AM EDT

hey wasn't it RMS who argued last year that the Linux kernel wasn't essential any more

anyone have the reference handy?