A few myths and misconceptions have arisen over the years about what free and open source software actually is. This edition of Computer Floss addresses some of these and spells out what open source isn’t.
Myth: Open Source Software Costs Nothing
This is perhaps the most common misconception concerning open source, and it’s easy to see where this mistake comes from. Firstly, of course, our old bearded friend Richard Stallman, whom you should remember as the godfather of this open source thingamajig, when he came up with the idea, decided to call his creation “free software”. He meant “free as in freedom”, but in English free can also mean “free as in cost”.
Nowhere in the definition of free or open source does it state that software must be free of charge. In fact, the GPL, the General Public Licence, the most popular licence used to cover open source code, explicitly states that you may charge any price you wish when distributing.
The second reason is the fact that much open source software is available for no cost, which might lead people to believe that all of it is free of charge. As I’ll explain a little later, that’s not the case.
Myth: Open Source is the Same as Freeware/Shareware
Freeware and shareware are actually very different from open source. Both freeware and shareware are most definitely available without cost by definition, and, as we just learnt, this is not the case with open source software. But more importantly, freeware and shareware typically come with restrictions.
A freeware program can come with conditions such as allowing personal use only, or non-commercial use; furthermore, it may even come in a binary executable form only, and as we learnt in the first edition, that’s bad.
Shareware is only available on a trial basis, enforced by making it usable for a limited number of days or by taking out some functionality. Those restrictions will only be removed when you’ve coughed up the cash.
Myth: Open Source is Communism
This, frankly bizarre myth, equates open source software with Marxism. It’s hard to know exactly what someone means when they claim this: Communism advocates a stateless, classless society based on common ownership of property and means of production — not much to do with software.
It’s no better if we try and draw analogies: A central principle of Communism, “common ownership”, runs slap bang in opposition to the way that open source respects the author’s copyright. The author of a piece of open source code is still automatically the owner of that code, it’s just that the licence applied to the code grants certain rights to the users. Furthermore, another stated aim of communism is to end capitalism, so given that open source allows you to charge any fee you like for software, it’s really a lot more compatible with a market-based economy. In fact, open source might be a bit too pro-capitalist for some of those lefties.
It’s hard not to conclude that this labelling of open source software as communism is an attempt at FUD by those who prefer proprietary software, such as Steve Ballmer, the head of Microsoft, seen here in an old Microsoft advert.
Look at him, he’s insane — no seriously I think he might be quite ill.
Myth: Open Source Means You Can See the Source Code
Well, close; this brief definition doesn’t do the concept any justice, but get used sometimes, so it’s worth reiterating the basic tenets: Open source software requires that any user who requests access to the source code can obtain it (with or without a fee), and also grants that user the right to change and redistribute it. This is enforced by applying a licence to the that allows all users these rights; a licence that doesn’t allow them is *not* a free or open source licence.
Myth: There is No Accountability or Support in Open Source
People, especially businesses and other organizations, like to know that someone is responsible for their software when it goes wrong. A myth has grown, perhaps because much open source software is written by volunteers and enthusiasts, that no-one owns the software and therefore there is no accountability or support.
We’ve already established that open source code does have an owner, namely the author, but that author is under no obligation to support the software after its release. However, because of the nature of open source licences, what happens in practice is that organizations come along that take existing software, and offer support or warranty on it. Non-profit foundations like Mozilla or Apache, or companies like Red Hat or even IBM, are examples of organizations that are supporting open source software right now out in the real world. And this is in addition to the endless websites and forums where people can post problems, advice and fixes — a process made very much easier with access to the source code.