Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software
When we call software "free," we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of "free speech," not "free beer."
These freedoms are vitally important. They are essential, not just for the individual users' sake, but for society as a whole because they promote social solidarity—that is, sharing and cooperation. They become even more important as our culture and life activities are increasingly digitized. In a world of digital sounds, images, and words, free software becomes increasingly essential for freedom in general.
Tens of millions of people around the world now use free software; the public schools of some regions of India and Spain now teach all students to use the free GNU/Linux operating system. Most of these users, however, have never heard of the ethical reasons for which we developed this system and built the free software community, because nowadays this system and community are more often spoken of as "open source", attributing them to a different philosophy in which these freedoms are hardly mentioned.
The free software movement has campaigned for computer users' freedom since 1983. In 1984 we launched the development of the free operating system GNU, so that we could avoid the nonfree operating systems that deny freedom to their users. During the 1980s, we developed most of the essential components of the system and designed the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) to release them under—a license designed specifically to protect freedom for all users of a program.
Not all of the users and developers of free software agreed with the goals of the free software movement. In 1998, a part of the free software community splintered off and began campaigning in the name of "open source." The term was originally proposed to avoid a possible misunderstanding of the term "free software," but it soon became associated with philosophical views quite different from those of the free software movement.
Some of the supporters of open source considered the term a "marketing campaign for free software," which would appeal to business executives by highlighting the software's practical benefits, while not raising issues of right and wrong that they might not like to hear. Other supporters flatly rejected the free software movement's ethical and social values. Whichever their views, when campaigning for open source, they neither cited nor advocated those values. The term "open source" quickly became associated with ideas and arguments based only on practical values, such as making or having powerful, reliable software. Most of the supporters of open source have come to it since then, and they make the same association.
Nearly all open source software is free software. The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users' freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software "better"—in a practical sense only. It says that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the practical problem at hand. For the free software movement, however, nonfree software is a social problem, and the solution is to stop using it and move to free software.
"Free software." "Open source." If it's the same software, does it matter which name you use? Yes, because different words convey different ideas. While a free program by any other name would give you the same freedom today, establishing freedom in a lasting way depends above all on teaching people to value freedom. If you want to help do this, it is essential to speak of "free software."
We in the free software movement don't think of the open source camp as an enemy; the enemy is proprietary (nonfree) software. But we want people to know we stand for freedom, so we do not accept being mislabeled as open source supporters.
Common Misunderstandings of "Free Software" and "Open Source"
The term "free software" is prone to misinterpretation: an unintended meaning, "software you can get for zero price," fits the term just as well as the intended meaning, "software which gives the user certain freedoms." We address this problem by publishing the definition of free software, and by saying "Think of 'free speech,' not 'free beer.'" This is not a perfect solution; it cannot completely eliminate the problem. An unambiguous and correct term would be better, if it didn't present other problems.
Unfortunately, all the alternatives in English have problems of their own. We've looked at many that people have suggested, but none is so clearly "right" that switching to it would be a good idea. (For instance, in some contexts the French and Spanish word "libre" works well, but people in India do not recognize it at all.) Every proposed replacement for "free software" has some kind of semantic problem—and this includes "open source software."
The official definition of "open source software" (which is published by the Open Source Initiative and is too long to include here) was derived indirectly from our criteria for free software. It is not the same; it is a little looser in some respects, so the open source people have accepted a few licenses that we consider unacceptably restrictive. Also, they judge solely by the license of the source code, whereas our criterion also considers whether a device will let you run your modified version of the program. Nonetheless, their definition agrees with our definition in most cases.
However, the obvious meaning for the expression "open source software"—and the one most people seem to think it means—is "You can look at the source code." That criterion is much weaker than the free software definition, much weaker also than the official definition of open source. It includes many programs that are neither free nor open source.
Since that obvious meaning for "open source" is not the meaning that its advocates intend, the result is that most people misunderstand the term. According to writer Neal Stephenson, "Linux is 'open source' software meaning, simply, that anyone can get copies of its source code files." I don't think he deliberately sought to reject or dispute the "official" definition. I think he simply applied the conventions of the English language to come up with a meaning for the term. The state of Kansas published a similar definition: "Make use of open-source software (OSS). OSS is software for which the source code is freely and publicly available, though the specific licensing agreements vary as to what one is allowed to do with that code."
The New York Times has run an article that stretches the meaning of the term to refer to user beta testing—letting a few users try an early version and give confidential feedback—which proprietary software developers have practiced for decades.
Open source supporters try to deal with this by pointing to their official definition, but that corrective approach is less effective for them than it is for us. The term "free software" has two natural meanings, one of which is the intended meaning, so a person who has grasped the idea of "free speech, not free beer" will not get it wrong again. But the term "open source" has only one natural meaning, which is different from the meaning its supporters intend. So there is no succinct way to explain and justify its official definition. That makes for worse confusion.
Another misunderstanding of "open source" is the idea that it means "not using the GNU GPL." This tends to accompany another misunderstanding that "free software" means "GPL-covered software." These are both mistaken, since the GNU GPL qualifies as an open source license and most of the open source licenses qualify as free software licenses.The term "open source" has been further stretched by its application to other activities, such as government, education, and science, where there is no such thing as source code, and where criteria for software licensing are simply not pertinent. The only thing these activities have in common is that they somehow invite people to participate. They stretch the term so far that it only means "participatory"