A rose by any other name...

Story: "Open Source" vs "Free" Software: Is "Free Software" Dead?Total Replies: 15
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Dec 29, 2004
9:15 AM EDT
So much irony. Stallman has won the war, but keeps trying to turn a trivial battle.

This particular piece of nonsense has galled me for years. The author is right:

Free and Open Source software are the same thing. I realize that the definitions are different. I understand that, here and there, thanks to some RMS technicality, a piece of Open Source software might not meet the GNU definition of free, but...

As a practical matter, when looking at actual software with actual developers, there's about a gnat's ass worth of difference.

Stallman's prickly insistence on "free" is fine for a theoretical discussion, but no place else.

Getting from point A to point B requires understanding where point B is, and being willing to call it the promised land, camp B's knees, or whatever, if it will get the tribes moving in the right direction.


Dec 29, 2004
10:47 AM EDT
I think what RMS has in mind is more semantics than anything else.

Dec 29, 2004
2:31 PM EDT
Well.. actually there is a difference and a valid point.

GPL does help protect useful things better than just "open source".

The idea of free software is that useful ideas can be preserved irrespective of some "owning" party.

Free Software != Open Software, not even close in 90% of all OSS cases.

1. Can I fork an OSS project code base?.. maybe yes... maybe no.

2. Do I have to publish modifications of the OSS if I distributed the modified version?... maybe yes... maybe no.

3. Can non-OSS project embrace and extend using my OSS?... maybe yes... maybe no.

4. Can I charge for the distribution of OSS?... maybe yes... maybe no.

5. Can I use OSS anyway I want to?.. maybe yes... maybe no.

6. Am I allowed to charge for supporting OSS?.. maybe yes... maybe no.

7. Can I port the OSS to any operating system or environment?... maybe yes... maybe no.

... etc, etc, etc.

The GPL (for example) allows you to use the code however you like but does not allow you to taint and distributed it with non-Free ("closed" or possibly OSS non GPL) source. You can charge as much as you like for distribution and support, but others can distributed and support it as well.. possibly with a fee, possibly without a fee.

If the "owner" of a GPL project goes away, no legal battle needs to ensue to transfer the rights to the community or some other "owner".

The longer a GPL project remains active, the better off the using community is since all changes distributed include the source modifications... that's something you don't have to get with OSS.

RMS does have some valid points (though he does try to put everyone on the defensive... lacks tact sometimes).

I remember eating dinner with him a few years back... there was a fellow at the table who made an invention. He started the invention while employed for a certain company. He left that company and now the company wants to OWN the invention. Technically, under his employment contract, everything he makes while under employment belongs to the company... anyway, he was trying to explain his plight to RMS... and well... it generated a pretty heated and not well received response. In this case, the invention was software, so RMS's response was: You get what you get.. you should have GPL'd it while you had the chance... now it's lost.

While harsh, it was pretty accurate though. I think the fellow expected RMS to rush to his defense.

Open Source may be a more popular term, but most OSS licenses have strings attached (supposedly to protect the "owner"). GPL's string is that distributed binaries should come with distributed source as well. Reality is that the GPL can be a source of protection far greater than the self-centered approach of most OSS (non GPL) projects. There are a few exceptions perhaps though.


Dec 29, 2004
2:41 PM EDT
Not often I disagree with you, dinotrac, but in this case the differences are not trivial. The fact that people generally treat anything FOSS as if it were GPLed tends to mask a lot of the differences in practice, but they are there and they are important.

"Open" is inclusive of "Free" but in including it, it also dilutes some of the point of "Free". "Open" is software which is available for re-use, and I agree that especially in the short term, this is the biggest piece of the pie.

"Free" is software which demands to stay available. Without a core of "Free" to draw a line in the sand, we'd see more and more abuse of BSD licensing to the point where it was treated as freeware and many authors gave up publishing it. Amongst other things, "Free" gives the other classes of "Open" something to be more gentle than.

If all we had was licensing which only qualifies as "Open", not "Free", LinkSys and Minitar routers, forex, wouldn't be available as cheap embedded computing platforms. "Free" is valuable as a door-opener like this in a way which "mere Open" cannot achieve.

Stallman sometimes gets quite unreasonable about this. Stallman sometimes gets quite unreasonable, period. That's OK, both in the general and specific sense, because that kind of zealotry is sometimes quite useful to society at large – it makes him the frog that the stork couldn't swallow – and because Stallman is not the only one pushing the GPL. However, some people associate Stallman's hard line with the GPL in general requiring a hard line, and it ain't so. Stallman is also evidently aware that BSD has a place, and has on a couple of occasions blessed the use of a BSD licence.

My only regret about "Free" is that we can't say "Libre" in English and be instantly understood by more than a small fraction of an English audience. The taint of "-as-in-beer" also tends to reduce the impact of "-as-in-speech". We really don't need that dilution helped along at all.

The other point is that the existing confusion allows detractors to make stupid claims like "if you use GPLed software you have to GPL all of your software". If they can taint non-GPL licenses with that by association, they would have leverage with which to damage the case of all Open software even more.

Dec 29, 2004
3:47 PM EDT
DinoTrac wrote: > As a practical matter, when looking at actual software with actual > developers, there's about a gnat's ass worth of difference.

Geeze, I really didn't see anything in the article that referred to such small dimensions at all. But that really didn't matter to you did it? You were just "itching" for an excuse to flame the poor writer of this article, weren't you Dean?

You nit-picking hackers are all alike. You crouch in the dust of your laboratories, nothing but the glow of cathode-ray tubes and the smell of bubbling toxic substances to guide your way. You thought you'd pull one over again, eh Dino? Thought the ole' "gnat" trick would get past the likes of the discerning crowd of LXer.com (that's right, I've seen past your "little" ploy here -- HA).

Well, it didn't get past me. I'm all about painting with a broad brush here Dean -- I'm not going to "gnat-pick" -- that's your job! Go ahead, pretend like it's not true. Soon Dave will have a button just for your posting -- it'll say something like "Post a Petty Reply to this Thread, if you're DinoTrac!"

Yeah, then, THEN, we'll see who's picking on who. In the mean time I'll be sitting back, calm as a cucumber, unencumbered by the cumbersome dialog that you often schpew forth like so many insects.

So go ahead and flame away -- it'll just attract (A 'trac' t) more of your kind, I'm sure!

(DISCLAIMER_MODE=1 -- yeah, I didn't have my meds today, I'm off to do that now).


Dec 29, 2004
3:55 PM EDT
There are three common definitions to "FOSS": the FSF's definition, the OSS foundation's definition and the DFSG (Debian Free Software Guildenes). Where there are some slight differences, the DFSG are closer to the FSF's definition. The OSS tends to look a bit the other way when vendors want to keep control of their software and not fully release it.

"Open Source" is, IMHO, a marketoid speak for "free". They practically mean the same thing, but some "marketing" folks (VA Linux^WSoftware) thought that without the word "free" it would sound better.

As a result people started thinking that the availability of the source code is the point of OSS software, which is totally incorrect. Aladin's AFPL Ghostscript is not open source, neither is software for which you have the source from Microsoft's SharedSource. At least not according to the OSS's definition of "open source". But why aren't they, if you have the source?

This is why I just call it "free software".

Dec 29, 2004
5:57 PM EDT
Oh Paul, you silly fuzzy caterpillar,

I thought for a moment that you, having been around this stuff even longer than I have, would understand the reality of reality and not do flips over a nit that wouldn't trip a gnat.

What is with all of these numb nuts folks trying to tell me the difference between GPL'd software and Open Source software?

GPL'd software IS Open Source software. It also is free software. It is possible to have Open Source software that is not free software -- at least by an RMS definition. It is not possible to have free software that is not Open Source software.

And all of folks trying to educate me on the GPL and its merits -- I understood the GPL back when Mr. Whitinger was starting up his first Linux news site (what was the name of that thing again?). You remember it, don't you, Paul? Weren't you involved with it in some trivial way? But I digress...

First and foremost: Free Software does not equal GPL. GPL'd software is free software, but so is lots of other stuff. Apache and postgresql are both free software projects done under the BSD license. The GNU clib is done under the LGPL, which shares some initials with the GPL, but is a very different license. Ogg Vorbis has its own free license as do Mozilla and Zope.

The Free Software Foundation recognizes all of them as free software licenses, though certain of them may not be compatible with the GPL.

So, the practical (not theoritical) difference between free and open source software is exactly what? Gnat's asses.

It really makes no never mind to me. The software you call free I call Open Source and we are both right. It is technically possible that some Open Source software is not free, but the vast majority of it is.

If the difference matters that much to you, feel free to enjoy that sand around your head.

Better yet, feel emboldened. Take a trip. Join large crowds of like thinkers and go to Washington next month so that you can see President Kerry's inauguration.

Oh -- one more thing. Paul -- be careful if you do take that trip. DC is a town where they keep the rant mode cranked all the way up. They'll eat you for breakfast and leave wanting more.


Dec 29, 2004
6:04 PM EDT
To anonymous coward:

I don't dispute the value of true free software. I'm just tired of so much energy spent on so little substance. The whole Open Source thing is a marketing strategy, not a whole different camp of developers and projects.

Frankly, it seems that Open Source has come to be understood to mean free. If that's the case, cool. The end result is people value free software and it lives on. We just call it something different. Kind of like the Czech Republic or the New Orleans Hornets.

Dec 29, 2004
7:35 PM EDT
> What is with all of these numb nuts folks trying to tell me the difference > between GPL'd software and Open Source software?

They're trying to educate you, Dean. I could have saved them the effort at least and explained that would be a waste of time! Well that and -- you are, in fact, a lawyer by trade (see, I found a better way of insulting you in public -- use the truth I always say, it'll set you free! -- That's free as in freedom, not free as in beer, which, by the way, we really need to get together sometime soon and drink some more of it).

Anyway _I_ digress -- I was only involved in that web site in the same fashion that one might get involved with a bus if it hit you while you were crossing the street. Can't remember the name of that Linux site, today... it's been too long.

The whole GPL vs Open Source thing is kind of sad, really -- Richard (Stallman) was involved in the spawning of the term, then got into a tiff with the rest of the lot -- Raymond and Perens, if memory serves me right. Then those two got into a tiff -- it all looks kind of murky from here.

The important thing isn't all of this crap. Far more important that words are the care with which you educate people on the true foundation of all of this -- the community. I think the GPL is, in and of itself, extremely important -- the haggling points _are_ important -- but the discussion shouldn't be so vocal. All the loud discussion of Free Software vs Open Source accomplishes is a round of puzzled looks from the newcomers.

And that's damage. My feeling is that this kind of stuff doesn't belong in the press. Richard should maintain some kind of blog or forum-like place where it can be tossed about like so much salad -- the people that care can tune into that. Putting this kind of stuff out on LinuxWorld where it might get picked up like real news would be a real dis-service to what we're trying to acomplish, in other words.

I guess in a way, I think the licensing _is_ important -- but the image moreso.

Yeah, I know Richard started it all -- I'm grateful he did (I always use the GNU/Linux reference as the first call-out to the software in my articles). But that's as far as it should go (Again IMHO).

On a related note, one day in 2000, I was at a conference in Jacob Javitts center in NY, watching Stallman give a lecture. He repeated looked like some sort of snob as members of the audience would ask him questions about Free Software (but, horror of horrors, they constantly referred to it as "Open Source Software") -- and rather than politely correcting them, he'd act like they'd pissed in the roses.

Shortly after that I read a story about him getting a PR person...

God, I hope she's still doing Pro-bono work for him.


Dec 30, 2004
3:16 AM EDT
Paul -

You fuzzy little wombat! I knew you could do it!

Your last post made SOOOOO much sense. It must be right -- I agree completely and we all know I'm never wrong, right?

You're right: The licensing matters. If Open Source software were rife with non-free licenses, it would be a very bad thing. If people using it did not expect and demand that it be freely licensed, that would be a very bad thing.

On the other hand, if RMS weren't such a prickly pear, that would be a good thing.

Not that it matters very much. Think about how many times you see RMS get mentioned, quoted, written up these days. Contrast that with a few years back, when that **other** Linux site was still worth reading. Quite a drop-off, eh? RMS has marginalized himself. Kind of sad when you consider the seminal role he has played in the whole movement. But, to carry the metaphor forward to the point of pain, in a world that bustles with billions of people, who remembers the billions of sperm who got them rolling?


Dec 30, 2004
3:20 AM EDT

I'm just waiting for some kind of 'grass root's movement to reclaim the feelings of the early nineties and open source as it was then. :)

Dec 30, 2004
3:21 AM EDT
PaulFerris: WRT your last point: me too.

Dec 30, 2004
5:10 AM EDT
Just a note. I have noticed more and more lately that many of the people I interact with at FOSS related sites are pretty new to the scene. This is good, but has some consequences. For example, at spreadfirefox.com, I mentioned that the PDF (of the NY Times ad) that they released was created with proprietary Adobe software and could not be viewed with *any* FOSS viewer whatsoever, and that as I don't use nonfree software, I could not view it. The response I got from one of the other members? "Get a life! And just download acrobat." (Really. I'm not kidding.) Some there seem to have the "Firefox Good, Microsoft Bad" thing down pat, but seem to have missed the history, and hence, the underlying concepts of *why* FOSS is important.

Now, I say "Linux" and not "GNU/Linux", and I consider myself to be an OSS supporter, rather than a "Free Software" supporter. (But hey, are any of us really 100% one or the other?) However, it is becoming clear to me that it is more important than ever to emphasize the importance of software freedom, lest the concept become overwhelmed and perhaps lost. (Is that last bit too alarmist? Not sure.) That said, Paul's point about the image being more important than the licensing is well taken. Hair splitting is probably not the best way to get the point across.

-Steve Bergman

Dec 30, 2004
6:02 AM EDT
Devnet: Make it happen man -- don't wait around. I may not agree with everything you say, but I do like your style :) The whole "like it was in the 90's" thing though is a misperception -- it never left really. Check out the stats for LinuxFest Ohio sometime -- it's gaining momentum, and has been (slowly) for a long long time. The impatient among us (cough) may think this isn't fast enough.

Well, just my suspicion here -- I think we're about to see another spurt...

Dino: > Your last post made SOOOOO much sense. > It must be right -- I agree completely and we all know I'm never wrong, > right?

Um, yeah :P

But you never answered me on the beer...

Dec 30, 2004
9:03 AM EDT
Paul -

I must admire your audacity in mentioning beer, free or otherwise.

I think I remember -- and the circumstances make it very iffy --

an encounter that included you and Dave and me and assorted others at the late, lamented brewpub up above Times Square.

Beer is a dangerous thing. Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous...

Of course, sometimes we must look steadfastly into the face of certain danger.


Dec 30, 2004
11:11 AM EDT
> an encounter that included you and Dave and me and assorted others at > the late, lamented brewpub up above Times Square.

> Beer is a dangerous thing. > Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous...

> Of course, sometimes we must look steadfastly into the face of certain > danger.

Such are the perils of life!

By the way, I was in Times square about 2 years ago -- that pub is gone.

We'll just have to use my Dad's cabin...


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