The next episode of Computer Floss, a YouTube series aimed at educating about FLOSS. This one attempts to clear up the naming issues and the so-called differences between Free/Libre/Open Source. Here’s a transcript:
So far in this series, the terms “free software” and “open source” have been used somewhat synonymously, and this has been a little naughty of me, because there are actual differences in the usage of these terms, even though the extent of the difference is arguable. Let’s take a closer look.
As explained in previous videos, if you’ve been following the plot, when the father-figure of the movement, Richard Stallman, put together his ideas for freely using, changing and distributing source code, he named it “free software”. He tackled the obvious ambiguity in this name by distinguishing between “free-as-in-speech” and “free-as-in-beer” to make it clear that making money from free software is certainly permitted.
But to Stallman the moral issues were of supreme importance. To him, denying other people the right to fix, adapt or improve software themselves, and to share these changes, was immoral and anathema to progress. He argued it was divisive of society, and hindered the ability of people to learn and help others. What a nice chap.
And so, the free software movement continued. In the late 1990s, the term “open source” was coined; this was the result of the coming together of a number of programmers and businessmen, among them Eric Raymond, whose essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, had kick-started the meeting and went on to become an important book about the theories behind open source. These were guys who agreed with the principles of Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, but didn’t like the name or the moralising attitudes behind it, so they set up the Open Source Initiative and infused it with a politically neutral and business-friendly image, like a marketing make-over.
Yes, there was a divergence. You might have in your mind an image of the old groups of radical left-wingers, who would form political groups, only to splinter predictably into warring factions even though they believed the same things.
Here we go again, you might think, another movement splintering. Just hurry up, collapse and let us get on with our lives. But there’s a curious difference in this case: whilst the radical left-wing hippies of yesteryear shared the same ideologies, but differed over the practicalities, free software and open source form the mirror image of this: it is their ideologies and motivations that differ, but in practice they do most things the same. The Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative both do things like approve licences, support communities and provide consultations; there’s considerable overlap where they do it and sometimes they even collaborate.
And that’s why the whole thing doesn’t collapse in on itself. Let’s say you want to get involved: You could join up with the free software lot and be motivated by promoting the user’s freedoms, or you can go over to the open source bunch and espouse the pragmatic and economic benefits. You can even give both of them the finger and just concentrate on developing stuff that others can use, change and redistribute, because even then, you’re still helping everyone in the community, regardless of their persuasion.
As if I’ve not bored or confused you enough, there’s even a third label that the Europeans have come up with. The chaps on the continent use different words to describe “free as in freedom” and “free as in price” — how cunning of them — the freedom sense being translated as “libre”. Libre software then, is an unambiguous name for free software.
So, to answer the question “What’s in a Name?” — it turns out, not much. Free, Libre, Open Source: they’re just labels, and by their definitions they pretty much describe the same thing. But they can be misused or misunderstood like any other label, so rather than rely on the name, just ask those three magic questions: can I see the source? can I change the source? can I distribute the source? If you get a yes to all three, you’ve got a piece of FLOSS.