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'Free' or 'Open Source' - Which Kind of Software Do We Need Most?

'Free' or 'Open Source' - Which Kind of Software Do We Need Most?

In many ways the differences between the Free Software and Open Source software movements have more to do with social goals than the software itself.  The Free Software movement had its roots in Richard Stallman's initial effort to create a 'free' operating system. This effort led him to quit a job at MIT and begin working on it full-time. His primary goal and motivation was to create something to which all users had free and open access and that could be inspected and modified by the users themselves.

He quit his job to dedicate all his time to this and to ensure that MIT would have no possibility of copyright or patent claims based on any of the work he did.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Richard and spent time discussing this exact point.

It was really about power in many ways. The power to know what the software on your machine is doing, and the power to change the software if you wanted to stop it from doing things you don't want or to add features to make it do what you need.

One of the great examples Stallmam uses regarding the value of free software today is 'spyware' -- code embedded in your systems that monitors and reports on your activities.

For example, if as a user you want to, he reasons, you should be able to modify Microsoft products to limit the amount of data that MS can collect on you and the applications you run. The central tenet is that this is a 'right' we should have -- a right that we as a user community have not claimed.

The goal of the Free Software movement is to provide free versions of software that does *everything* you need. Free operating systems, free utilities, free productivity applications, etc. Many even believe that software inside your cars, in your cell phones, in voting machines, in your Tivo box, in your entertainment systems, etc should all be free. We have the right, it is reasoned, to know what this software does.

[Look for the interview of Stallman to appear in an upcoming issue of LinuxWorld Magazine.]

Open Source

The Open Source movement, on the other hand, is based on sharing source for more pragmatic reasons. While user control of the software is certainly part of the reason for Open Source, it is not necessarily the primary one.

The reasons software is developed as open source have to do with the fact that it in many ways is a superior model for developing software. It allows the users themselves to fix bugs in the software, allows greatly expanded testing ('many eyes on the code'), and can speed innovation because it facilitates the adopting of new ideas from so many different sources.

The principle method by which software is considered 'open source' is if it is licensed under terms that meet those specified by the Open Source Institute (http://www.opensource.org/ ). The terms software must meet to be considered 'Open Source' are located at http://www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php. These terms were developed by Bruce Perens along with Eric Raymond and a few others. [Bruce is on the advisory board of LinuxWorld Magazine and we have reprinted a recent speech on 'the state of Open Source' in this month's issue. We also featured an interview with Eric Raymond in our October, 2003 issue.]

LinuxWorld Magazine will continue to provide information on both these communities. Our February, 2004 issue, for example, is planned to focus on nothing bu profiles of free and open source software projects and applications.

More Stories By Kevin Bedell

Kevin Bedell, one of the founding editors of Linux.SYS-CON.com, writes and speaks frequently on Linux and open source. He is the director of consulting and training for Black Duck Software.

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Most Recent Comments
DEaBla 10/29/03 09:36:51 AM EST

In response to, "THIS IS A WAR OF COPYRIGHT, NOT TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE", I think that this is one of the differentiating attitudes between the GNU and Linus Torvalds. I don't think that Linus sees a need for the war at all. If your freedoms are protected by the GPL, which has been doing a good job so far, then why fight? Your project will continue to enjoy technical excellence as long as there are technically capable people interested in contributing.

If it is a war you want, you can always find someone who will fight. If it is free software that you want (both kinds), then make it easy to get, and better to use, and soon you will find that you have no one to fight, because everyone is on your side anyway.

alex 10/24/03 10:27:02 AM EDT

Most of the comments so far are a little loose. Yes if it's FS it's OSS but OSS does not mean FS. FS means you have 4 specific freedoms protected with regard to the software (go see gnu.org).

The GPL does not mean you must release to the public if you distribute your product only that you must include source with the distribution. This is much more restrictive than requiring release to the public or wold at large.

Is it a good thing to have FS or OSS in things like engine controllers. I would say no. Under consumer and product liability laws if your car has funny behviour such as if you stall your diesel in the rain the window winds itself down ( a real flaw on some Fords) or something more serious. You can get them. If every hacker can remap his engine, bipass the fuel injector protection, allow it to run hotter than it should. They have modified the vehicle. You take the vehicle from them and any claim you have regarding the vehicle now lies with them (I think). You really going to get the money to live a reasonable life from the tinkerer?

On the other hand. Having the source available for scrutiny by those who wish to look and hence able to submit error reports might improve quality. It might also slam up the price of cars for a while as all those recalls get paid for.

So visible source yes, everyone able to take it and rework their vehicle no.

I R A Darth Aggie 10/22/03 11:06:37 AM EDT

"yes, yes, I know. free software -- as in software libre is different from open source. What nobody has explained to me yet is how you can have one without the other."

I'll take a run at this. Just because you have open source does not mean you're free to use it, modify it, or redistribute it. No, seriously.

The first Apple public license was judge non-free by FSF because you where required to submit all modifications back to Apple. GPL only requires making the modifications public *if and only if* you distribute your modified code in binaries.

The rather nice BSD packet filter is also non-free, even if you can download and inspect and compile the code. The OpenBSD folks went ahead and rewrote their own code under a BSD license.

One could even argue that Microsoft's Shared Source is a form of open source. For certain values of "open", of course. And there's no libre involved.

Niels Larsen 10/22/03 09:58:40 AM EDT

The only free software is that which can never become
non-free. With open source on the other hand, someone
may enhance it and distribute under a closed license,
thus making the "open" source closed again. Avoid this
fragmentation by using GPL.

jerry sharp 10/22/03 09:16:53 AM EDT

Without the GPL, Linux would be just another OS.
The reason for Linux popularity must be the GPL. FreeBSD
has the technical excellence, but does not have the GPL.
As far as technical excellence goes, Beos, Solaris, Sun,
Macintosh have all had a period of excellence. But the
excellence of Linux is due the continuing support of both
users, administrators and programmers supporting it because

Steve Martin 10/21/03 09:49:23 PM EDT

A small correction, if I may, to the summary at the top of your article:
"Just because a project uses the GPL as its license does not mean it is or is not 'open source, 'says Linuxworld Magazine editor-in-chief Kevin Bedell.". I beg to differ with this statement. A program licensed under the GPL is, by definition, 'open source'. (In fact, the GPL is on opensource.org's list of "Approved" Open-Source licenses.) The inverse, however, is not true; just because a project is open-source does not necessarily mean it is GPL.

Tyrone Beckman 10/21/03 07:02:15 PM EDT

An obvious but unstated point is, both sides of a penny are about the same thing, namely Lincoln. I totally agree they are different and they are not inseparable in any way. One difference worth noting is Lincoln would have and did exist without the memorial, but without Lincoln there could be no memorial. I see free software and open source software as the "memorial" and the GPL as Lincoln. Neither is much good, nor would either last long without the GPL. It is kind of like politics, the two parties would be irrelevant without the constitution. The pen is truly mightier than the sword!

layton davis 10/20/03 07:00:16 PM EDT

yes, yes, I know. free software -- as in software libre is different from open source. What nobody has explained to me yet is how you can have one without the other. So - Even though they are different concepts they are the same. just like the front of a US penny has Abraham Lincoln pictured and the back has the Lincoln Memorial pictured. They are two seperate pictures - or more properly - engravings. and they are very different. but they are still two sides of the same penny. If somehow you managed to get rid of one side of the penny, the other side would also be gone. I know that RMS wants to make the distinction between the front and the back of the software libre coin very distinct, and somebody has to do that or else the penny would loose its identity. But for most of us a penny is a penny and what counts is what we can do with it.

Another way to describe this is to talk about freedom versus responsibility. you cannot have the freedom(libre) to change software unless you also have the responsibility(open source) to live with its consequenses. The inverse is also true. You cannot take on the responsibility of changing the code without the freedom to do it. There is no issue of what comes first and what follows, because if one does not exist, then the other one can not exist. RMS is right, they are different. But those who claim that they are the same are also right because they understand that they are inseperable.

I believe that we need both software libre and open source. They protect eachother and each gives the other the gift of life. I believe that what I have explained here is the foundation of the reason why both parties can and do use the GPL. This is, in fact, the genious of the GPL in that it creates a balance between freedom and responsibility in contrast to, for example the BSD license, which does grant freedom without also enjoining any responsibility to speak of.