Softwares are a integral part of our lifestyle right now. Some of them are proprietary and some of them are not. The one’s which are not proprietary are generally associated with FOSS i.e. Free and Open Source Software. Let’s dig a bit deeper into the non proprietary world.
What is FOSS?
FOSS i.e Free and Open Source Software, is any piece of software that is freely licenced to use,study,copy and modify and the source-code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily contribute to it.
So the terms Free and Open Source are often used together. But they have a fundamental difference between them. That’s what I will be focusing on this blog.
Free Software is a piece of software which respects the user’s freedom i.e the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. Free Software shouldn’t be associated with Freeware, which is a category of proprietary software that does not require payment for basic use. The Free Software Foundation says “Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer”. The term free software had been around for a while but Richard Stallman is credited for formally establishing it and starting the Free Software Movement. If you are interested in learning more about the Free Software Movement, I will link to an amazing article at the end of this blog post.
The term open source refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible. Open source software is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. It essentially sounds the same as Free Software? But it isn’t.
The Free Software movement was progressing but companies were scared to use Free Software. Free Software was more of an ethical and political movement and the majority didn’t understand the benefits of it to the commercial software industry. When Netscape released its source code under its own license this changed. Eric Raymond and others realised from this, that FSF’s social activism was not appealing to companies like Netscape, and looked for a way to rebrand the free software movement to emphasize the business potential of sharing and collaborating on software source code. Thus the term Open Source was coined. Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond founded Open Source Initiative (OSI).
So Open Source has evolved from Free Software. Though both the terms refer to mostly the same set of software and licences , but they imply different underlying values. Open source is a development methodology, free software is a social movement. Open Source focuses on the practical aspects of a software while Free Software focuses on ethical aspects. The term Open Source is much more widely used , though it intended to highlight FSF’s social activism but it has evolved to only mentioning the practical benefits and being quiet about the ethical ideas. This approach has proved effective, in its own terms since people tend to get uneasy and tend to ignore when they are asked to think about ethical issues such as freedom and talking about responsibilities.
Do the differences matter?
The differences are unlikely to matter broadly. They present different values but they are not mutually exclusive. Many people find many of the underlying values in sync with each other. If you want to refer to this type of software without specifying the underlying values the closest used is “FOSS”. It is used as a neutral between “free” and “open source”. But as pointed out by Stallman “If you want to stand up for freedom, using a neutral term isn’t the way. Standing up for freedom entails showing people your support for freedom.”
If you are interested in diving deeper into this topic, here are some resources