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Introduction and Thesis
I have read a lot recently about the effort some net activists are
making to replace the term "free software" with "open-source
software". (I will use "non-proprietary software" in an effort to be
somewhat non-partisan). Supporters of this include such people as Eric
Raymond (who wrote a manifesto on the subject (See
http://earthspace.net/~esr/open-source.htm), Linus Torvalds, and Bruce
Perens. This move has been opposed by some people, most notably
Richard Stallman of the GNU Project (who has posted a rebuttal
The supporters of "open source" give two main reasons for their
-- It eliminates confusion about the term "free software",
which can be taken to mean either software received at no cost, or
software that is free under some other definition, such as the
one promulgated by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). (See
-- It will make this type of software more acceptable to corporate
purchasers who might be scared off by the term "free".
These two reasons have largely framed the terms of the debate.
Most postings I have seen on the Net debate the point in terms of
which term is clearer or which one will appeal most to business.
There has been a lot of discussion, but no real resolution to this
But I believe the real reason there is a division is not because of
a difference of opinion over which term best communicates what
non-proprietary software is. I believe there are fundamental
philosophical differences about the nature of software ownership
between many people on both sides of the debate, and that those
differences play a part (perhaps unconsciously) in how people feel
about a switch.
My belief is that the "open source" advocates do not believe
software should intrinsically be free. They do want to see
non-proprietary software thrive, but it is because they believe it is
technically superior and because they prefer it as a matter of
personal taste. So they define the terms of discourse in a manner
compatible with that philosophy, and in a manner they hope will bring
about their vision of world domination by non-proprietary software.
I think the "free software" advocates do believe in the intrinsic
freedom of software and, having successfully promoted a term
consistent with their philosophy, do not want to see it changed. They
are more likely to care more about the purity or ethics of
non-proprietary software as opposed to its market acceptance.
Many people fall in the middle, of course, including myself. But
after thinking a lot about this, I have come to the conclusion that
"free software" should remain the preferred term. I also believe
that, at a bare minimum, everyone should look at this terminology
debate not strictly as a disagreement about definitions, but as an
important philosophical decision point.
I will try to explain each of these points in detail, hopefully
without getting too boring or offending everyone on the planet.
Some of my analysis is based on my conclusions about the beliefs of
the principals of the different camps. Obviously there are a lot of
people out there and judging a movement by its leaders provides only a
limited insight. In particular, I should point out that most people's
personal views probably fall somewhere in the middle. This posting
should be read with that limitation in mind.
I do not personally know any of the principals, and therefore I
have had to rely on reading their published works. This limits me to
talking about people who have published a great deal on the net.
Those people are Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, and Linus Torvalds.
Obviously my interpretation of their writings or quotes is just that -
my opinion. It should not be viewed as authoritative, particularly in
light of the fact that all these people are alive to explain
It may seem controversial to suggest that the "open source" camp
does not believe in the freedom of software. Indeed, people like
Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond have produced some of the finest and
most widely used software available today - much of it distributed
under the exact same terms as Richard Stallman's. No one (certainly not
me) questions their personal contributions to non-proprietary software
and computing in general.
However, neither Eric nor Linus believe software needs to be free.
In fact, both of them are very comfortable with the idea of
proprietary software. Linus is upfront about stating he does not mind
proprietary software. He was quoted in an interview (see
http://www.twics.com/~tlug/linus.html) as saying:
Then there is software that is commercial but doesn't come
with sources (the "traditional" commercial software as opposed to a
Red Hat Linux distribution). And I don't try to preach against that
either: I hate the fact that I (and others) can't fix bugs in them,
but sometimes that kind of software is the way to go.
So he personally prefers free software (and says so in the
interview), but does not think that software particularly needs to be
free or that there is anything wrong with proprietary software (except
perhaps not being able to fix bugs).
Eric Raymond is even stronger in his support of proprietary
software. Here is a quote from a paper he wrote (see
I believe in strong intellectual-property rights. I believe
any programmer has the same fundamental right as any other producer to
`hoard' and sell the fruits of his/her labor on whatever terms the
market will bear. While I choose to publish nearly all of my software
as open-source, I will never, ever condemn others for choosing
So there are at least two principal advocates of the term "open
source" that personally do not believe in the intrinsic freedom of
software, and in fact have no problems with proprietary software. For
them, the choice of non-proprietary versus proprietary is one
primarily of personal preference and/or choosing the right tool for
On the other side of the fence, Richard Stallman's views on
software are perhaps the best known on the net. He wrote a paper
called "Why Software Should Not Have Owners". (See
http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/why-free.html). The title alone
pretty much sums up his views. Richard Stallman believes that it
is morally wrong to produce software that is not free. He
personally refuses to even use software that is not free (except
for the purpose of creating a free replacement).
So in this debate, we have leadership with diametrically opposed
views on the nature of ownership in software. Because of this, I do
not find it surprising that these people have a major difference over
The absolutism of Richard Stallman's free software stance has often
been troublesome to people who feel that what they produce is theirs
to do with as they please. I suspect this is particularly true of
Americans, who tend to be believers in strong private property rights.
For a long time however, not too many people challenged this
philosophy. My personal speculation is that this is because during
much of the 1980's and early 1990's, the FSF was the dominant producer
of major non-proprietary software packages. People were willing to
play along with the hard line philosophy in return for the great
dividends in software that it paid (Emacs, gcc, gdb, etc).
In the mid-1990's though, the FSF ceased to be the driving force in
non-proprietary software. Most of their replacements for Unix
utilities were complete and had reached a point of reasonable
maturity. The major uncompleted component of the GNU system - the
kernel - was under development, but the design was ambitious (perhaps
overly ambitious) and the pace of development slow. Meanwhile, the
non-proprietary Linux kernel, released under the GPL and combined with
the rest of the GNU programs, exploded in popularity as the OS of
choice among those who preferred non-proprietary software. Other
programs like perl, under a different but similar license to the GPL,
also rose in popularity. So with most of the developments in the
non-proprietary software world coming from non-FSF sources, the
incentive to ignore basic philosophical differences with the FSF began
"Why" Is As Important As "What"
So we come to the "open source" versus "free software" debate.
First let me state clearly that I do not believe the backers of the
term "open source", including Eric Raymond and Linus Torvalds, are
engaged in a sinister plot against the FSF, non-proprietary software,
or anything else for that matter. I am not alleging a conspiracy.
But I do believe that switching to the term "open source" and focusing
on penetrating corporations represents more than just a change in
terms. It is a fundamental shift in thinking about what
non-proprietary software is all about. A shift away from thinking
that non-proprietary software should be developed because it is the
right thing to do, towards thinking non-proprietary software should be
developed because it provides greater user benefits than proprietary
software. Or, as Eric Raymond said, getting rid of the "losing
attitude" associated with term "free software" and concentrating on
how to increase the number of people using non-proprietary software.
This effort has a great many guns in its arsenal, because there are
a great many tangible benefits to non-proprietary software. For
-- Non-proprietary software tends to be of higher quality
than proprietary software.
-- You can get good support for non-proprietary software through the
user community - often times better than from a proprietary software
company's help desk.
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