28th March 2017
There are two terms for software that gives users access to the code and the freedom to study, modify & redistribute: “Free Software” and “Open Source”.
Whilst technically they mean the same thing, people who use these terms have different attitudes. Users of the term “Open Source” are people who enjoy programming collaboratively. Users of the term “Free Software” do too, but also consider proprietary software to be a violation of user’s rights and bad for society, as it gives mega-corporations power over us.
“Open Source” is a descriptive, technical term, and the virtues of Open Source are implied by it’s name. Someone hearing the term for the first time can already imagine that someone might want to study and modify the code.
The term “Free Software” is a political term which requires extensive explanation. The Free Software community thinks that everyone should use only Free Software so that we as a society can be in control of our computing. It’s not really about Freedom at all, because >99% of computer users are non-programmers, making the freedoms to study, modify & redistribute not directly relevant. Irrespective whether a non-programmer uses Free Software or Proprietary, they give control of their computer to someone else. It’s just a choice between giving control to a sharing community or a greedy mega-corporation.
I have always used the term “Free Software”, as I believe in everything it stands for (and still do). However, today I have reached an enlightenment and am changing my favourite term to “Open Source”. This is because I think “Free Software” is a bad term, shoe-horning a technical meaning and an ethical ideology into one term.
However I still think the ethical ideas of Free Software are important, so I also need terminology to speak about that. Well terminology already exists. “Proprietary Software” is a derogatory term which describes software which is under the creator’s control. The name implies the meaning, because someone hearing it may assume that this control is illegitimate.
So to explain my feelings about Software in the future, I will say that I love Open Source software because it allows community software development, and I distrust Proprietary Software because I don’t trust the proprietor with control over my computer, and it's bad for society.
I want to be clear that I have a lot of respect for Richard Stallman’s Free Software movement. It has inspired many and created much. However, I sincerely feel that the Free Software movement’s terminology is gravely problematic and changes need to be made to facilitate better communicating the message.
If you want proof that “Free Software” shoe-horns a technical definition and a philosophy into one, just look at The Free Software Definition, published by the GNU project. In the same article we see a technical definition, “The four essential freedoms”, and also political stuff such as “everyone deserves them” and proprietary software described as “an instrument of unjust power”.
And the FSFE (European Free Software Foundation) says that the source code is the ingredients of your freedom and the four freedoms are the recipe. Again, technical definition and philosophy are combined.
A notable difference between the Free Software and Open Source communities is that the Free Software community thinks it’s essential to use 100% Free, whereas the Open Source communities tend to use both Free and Proprietary.
I actually agree with the Open Source view that it’s OK to use some proprietary software, as long as you know which bits are proprietary and you are OK with that. In fact I said this before in this article.
My attitude is that if the software is prominent enough that the user might want to customise it, talk about it, or choose one option over another, then it should be Open Source. If it’s under-the-hood stuff that the user doesn’t care about then it’s less important. Some examples:
Operating system:I think this is the most important thing to be Open Source because it's central to the function of the computer.
Programs, apps:These often handle the user’s data and I think it’s important for them to be Open Source. One or two proprietary programs/apps is not the end-of-the-world, but it’s important that the users knows which are proprietary.
BIOS in a desktop:Mostly under-the-hood, but people do tweak settings (fan-control, over-clocking, boot settings). It’s nice for it to be Open Source.
Drivers, firmware, CPU microcode:No-one cares about these things. Doesn’t matter too much if it’s Open Source or not because it might as well be part of the hardware. Yes there could be a “back-door”, but what difference does it make if the back-door is hard-wired in the silicone or hard-coded in the microcode?
DRM (Digital Restrictions Management):DRM is great because it stops people pirating movies.
Free Software people have actually shamed me for having one proprietary app on my phone, even though I made the special effort of buying a phone that could run as Free as possible. Sure it would be good to run 100% Free (Open Source), but a Free Software enthusiast who has made a huge effort should not be shamed for running only 99%. Jan Corazza wrote a good article about this actually.
I really think that Open Source and Free Software people believe in most of the same things. The biggest difference is that the Free Software community is organised like a religion. Richard Stallman is like the Pope and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is like the Church.
In the Free Software community, anyone who tries to contribute their own point of view to the Free Software debate is treated like a heretic. I know this better than anyone, having written many articles on Free Software. Free Software enthusiasts hate my blog and tell me FSF knows best, or treat me like a child who doesn't know what I'm talking about. The stuff the FSF says is treated like Gospel that must not be challenged.
This suppression of discussion is the real thing that makes the Free Software community not work for me. I feel like the FSF might as well publish all Stallman's essays into bible that Free Software enthusiasts can carry around. In fact it's quite probable that a Free Software enthusiast will respond to this blog post (without reading it through) by emailing me a link to Stallman's essay Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software.
I don't want to sound like I am attacking the Free Software community. However I think it is a bit mad and I cannot call myself a Free Software enthusiast anymore. I will continue to advocate the principles of Free Software, but by saying that Open Source is good for collaborative software development and Proprietary Software is bad for society.
Here's an interesting article about this subject from 19 years ago: Goodbye, "free software"; hello, "open source".
Regard this entry in the Open Source Initiative's FAQ: What is "free software" and is it the same as "open source"?.
A month after writing this post I realised that everything in it is wrong and wrote a counter-article to disagree with everything I just said.