Needles in a haystack (sorting out differences between Free and Open Source Software)

As announced in my previous post I will try to explain why the differences theoretically existing between Free Software and Open Source are not actual opposites; but why they rather complement each other.

You don’t need to browse the Internet very far to find the two official definitions of Free Software and Open Source Software. The problem, or perhaps the absence of a real problem starts after reading these two pages. The two definitions emphasize the absolute freedom of anyone to run, use, study, modify and redistribute code (the access to the source code being the initial demand) and they pretty much end up at this point.

You have to read the two websites a bit further to realize that the initial “schism” is more a matter of persons and their pursuit of their own goals than any real difference in their perception of technology and software. The paradox is that this schism never really happened, in a sense, although you will find real differences of opinions between, say, Bruce Perens and Richard M. Stallman. What this page, attempting to explain those differences from the official FSF point of view reveals is that there are essentially two groups of theoricians. Some first coined the term Free Software as an ethical movement and emphasized the term “free” as in “freedom”. This left aside another category of people with a not so structured movement, some of whose had been working inside the BSD-licensed software and others who saw value in freedom better expressed as its expression in rights wedged to the very technical object of their attention, the code. These people formalized their views as subtly differing with Free Software and its incarnation(s), the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project. What they were up to was not an ethical, -Simon Phipps might coin the term “holistic”- approach to software, it was rather a pragmatical, no-nonsense and experimental way to develop and distribute software. Open Source was born.

But the only real difference is that Open Source Software and its advocates are about pretty much the same rights and freedoms that Free Software is, only without the “moral” frame the latter comes with. If you take away the difference of intent, one might wonder what you’re left with: Free Software wants freedom for everyone, Open Source wants nothing except a set of licensing terms (98% of these terms being the same than Free Software) and advocates nothing to no one in terms of ethics. A way for Open Source to differentiate its message was to repeatedly explain why development methods first inherited from academic practices and then formalized by Open Source Software developers were the best way to develop good, powerful and reliable software. There again, differences with Free Software are most of the times blurry. Free Software uses the same methods most of the time, but does not advocate them as the best ones. You can have an in-house, closed doors development style and still distribute Free Software as an end result. Whether this is desirable or even compatible with the spirit (the letter notwithstanding) of Free Software licenses is another question. On the other hand, you generally produce Free Software with Open Source development methods, some other times you might end up developing Open Source Software with Open Source methods, but you cannot produce proprietary software with Open Source methods. (Or else, you’re doing marketing à la Microsoft).

This brings another distinction: What is the difference between Open Source Software and Free Software? As we have seen above, the two definitions are very much the same. Sometimes there seems to be differences with certain very specific licenses that can be considered Open Source but not Free Software; in these cases the terms of the license might for instance dictate non essential terms that can be understood -and are understood that way by the FSF- to hamper freedom. One old example I always keep in mind to show how these things can sometimes make everyone lose their time is the old Mozilla Public license. By a strange turn of events, the old steward of the Netscape Code, AOL, had inserted the condition that any legal dispute related to the Mozilla license had to be judged by a specific jurisdiction inside the State of California. This was deemed as a condition limiting the freedom to have the dispute settled by any other court, in and outside America and was therefore declared Open Source, but non Free Software by the FSF. Other, more serious considerations can sometimes weigh in such as the copyleft nature of the license. But we need not to bother with that; what’s important is that both Free Software and Open Source almost completely overlap in practice but may differ in their ideals.

And there we come back to Matt Asay’s blog and the rant against Free Software. So far what I understood about Matt’s essays is that since freedom is too much of a word to swallow we should leave it to the gates of business and never bother with it again.

There is just a mild disappointment everyone ought to have about this view: Open Source does not advocate Free Software and software freedom are bad things: it just tries to narrow their specifics for practical -and sometimes business-oriented- reasons. It does not mean, however, that Free Software gets in the way of business or stands against software business. It adds another layer of demands, moral demands that anyone can endorse in the hope to make software a better tool for social improvement, and turn this world into a better place for all. No one must take this extra step, no business will die from it. But in the end , everyone benefits from freedom. I am disappointed that anyone would find the simple possibility of this extra step a negative option to investigate.

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