Land of the Free, or Home on the Open Range?

Here in the Linux community, there’s never any shortage of opportunities to wax philosophical about the success of our favorite operating system. After all, the traditional (read: proprietary) model had nothing to do with it, strictly speaking, so FOSS fans can’t be blamed for wanting to extol the virtues of the free and open source model instead.

Recently, however, none other than our friends at Linux Voice brought the point into the limelight.

“It might seem like a pernickety argument, but ‘Free Software’ and ‘open source’ emphasize different things,” the mavens over at Linux Voice explained. “Free Software, as defined by the mighty Richard Stallman, stresses the importance of freedom for users and programmers to share things with their neighbors, for the betterment of society.

“Open source, meanwhile, was a term created to be more appealing to businesses, highlighting the practical benefits of having source code that anyone can look at,” they added.

“So we want to hear from you,” they wrote. “Which term do you use? Is it really important to you?”

Down at the blogosphere’s heavily air-conditioned Broken Windows Lounge, Linux Girl had scarcely read the words when a stampede threatened to overwhelm the capabilities of her Quick Quotes Quill.

‘Even Closed Binary Blobs’

Linux Girl

“I will go with free software when possible,” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien told Linux Girl. “Some things should be matters of principle, and for me this is one.”

Free software “respects my rights as a user, and it is the only kind that does so,” O’Brien added. “For me, things like open source and open core suggest the camel’s nose entering the tent and turning my freedom into a corporate opportunity.”

All other things being equal, “I prefer free software,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza agreed.

“I don’t like the idea of even my bug reports being used to help create software which can be taken to closed-source and used against me later,” Espinoza said. “But I will certainly use open source or — heck — even closed binary blobs when necessary.

“You get the job done however it gets done,” he said.

‘Sometimes, Rules Increase Freedom’

“I noticed a lot of people complaining in the comments of that thread that ‘free software’ is an inappropriate name due to the supposed viral nature of the GPL, but the situation is analogous to economics in that you cannot have a ‘free market’ without rules, either,” Espinoza noted.

“Sometimes, rules in fact increase freedom for the majority,” he suggested.

In this case, “the minority whose freedom is reduced is not only vanishingly small, but often actively works not just against the will of the majority but against its good,” Espinoza said.

‘A Tendency to Be Confused’

The term, “free and open source” — or FOSS — is preferable “if I’m writing it out,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack offered. “It makes what I am saying more exact.”

Indeed, “I think it is important to try to communicate clearly with labels that are understood,” agreed Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “This means one has to meet one’s target audience and let this determine which labels to use rather than ideology if you want to get a point across.”

Free software is “a label I mostly use when working with specific groups who know and use the label,” Travers added. “Otherwise, it has a tendency to be confused by many users with ad-laden freeware.”

‘That’s What People Know’

Most of the time “I use ‘open source’ when addressing potential users because that’s what people know,” Travers explained. “I also use the label to emphasize the capacity for peer review — this is especially important when contrasting with adware-based freeware.”

Travers’ next most commonly used label is “community-developed software,” he said.

“This is how I reach out to other software developers, and it’s a subset of open source and free software which is not dominated by a single vendor,” he noted. “MySQL may be open source and free software, but it is not community-developed in the way that PostgreSQL or MariaDB are.”

All free and open source software is a potential basis for community development, but “many projects are vendor-dominated,” Travers concluded. “To my mind the real promise is the freedom which comes with common ownership, and this is significantly broader than Stallman’s Four Freedoms.”

‘Stupid Religious Zealotry’

The argument is “stupid religious zealotry,” SoylentNews blogger hairyfeet told Linux Girl. “RMS does NOT care about software quality, does NOT care if something is actually useful to the masses — the fact that the OLPC wasn’t ‘free enough’ for his extremism unless you crippled it by killing the wireless shows he doesn’t care if a tool is even suitable for its purpose. Most importantly, he does NOT care if a programmer can pay his student loans, feed himself or even have a roof over his or her head.

“Nope, the ONLY thing RMS cares about is the pushing of his political agenda,” hairyfeet said.

“Frankly, the fact that actually having the source code in your hands isn’t ‘good enough’ should be all that needs to be said,” hairyfeet added. “I mean, why would ANY company want to spend a single cent supporting FOSS when they could be labeled as the bad guy in GPLv4 as RMS did to TiVo with GPLv3?

“RMS can use his doublespeak all he wants, but it won’t change the fact that by following his ‘doubleplusgood’ definitions, the FOSS landscape has been left with a pittance compared to the commercial world,” he said.

“Where is the medical transcription software? Where is the digital photo software that has the same features Photoshop had half a dozen releases ago?” hairyfeet concluded. “They don’t exist, because if your software can’t fall under the ‘blessed three’ — selling support contracts; selling hardware; or ‘e-begging’ — then you WILL end up on the street and the precious code can join all the failed projects on the equally dead Freshmeat.”

‘The Right Way to Do IT’

Last but not least, blogger Robert Pogson saw it differently.

“I use free software,” Pogson told Linux Girl. “It’s the right way to do IT because software is produced at the lowest possible cost — developers don’t have to pay licensing fees on dozens of software libraries and they can hire as many developers as they need for a lot or a little money.”

On the other hand, “one can have ‘open source’ but with all the restrictions hundreds of salesmen and lawyers can coalesce into one ‘licensing agreement,'” he noted. “Just read the EULA of M$. If they allowed the world to see the code, would it be any less abusive? How about the connection limits, permission ceded to M$ to romp all over your computers, only having one copy, and not being able to modify anything?

“Free software is a lot better for the user because the user actually gets to use the software instead of being used by it,” Pogson concluded. “Free software is a lot better for the developer because the user is not the enemy but a partner in development.”

In short, “we should celebrate the triumph of software everyone may use, examine, modify and distribute over that other stuff,” he said, “rather than arguing about which variety of free software or terminology is superior.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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