Ethics and Law in New Media/The Uneasy Alliance: Free Software vs Open Source

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Same idea, different ways[edit]

People who are introduced to the free software world often ask: are free software and open-source software the same thing? The seemingly simple question is not so easy to answer. On practical, user level these are the same thing in most cases. After all, about 70% of all free/open-source software (for which umbrella terms like FLOSS, FOSS and F/OSS have come into use to cover both schools) use the same license, the GNU GPL.

Simply put: while the outcome is largely the same, the two schools of thought have got remarkably different starting points as well as goals. As Richard Stallman puts it: Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. While the methodology is shared by both schools, the free software school adds the social and ethical dimension.

The crusade for freedom[edit]

As seen from previous chapters, the MIT hacker community fell apart in the beginning of 80s due to the AI Lab dividing between two competing companies. This destroyed the team spirit, many people left and one of the most promising young hackers, Richard Stallman, was one of the last to witness the disappearance of the hacker dream. Perhaps these memories are the root of his later extreme hostility towards 'intellectual property' in all its forms. However, it needs to be stressed that Stallman has never been against business as such - after all, he lived for several years on selling his Emacs (and later GCC) software on tapes.

In 1983 he started his ambitious project to create a new incarnation of the Unix operating system and deliver it in totally different terms than the proprietary software of the days. In his 1985 GNU Manifesto he outlined the foundation principles of his new methods (as well as some business cases) for making software and in 1989 came the first version of its main legal tool, the GPL. In 1991, the version 2 followed which has been the main free license since then (the version 3 of 2007 is still a bit controversial, but is gaining users).

The pragmatists: open source[edit]

In January 1998, a group of leading enthusiasts of (to-be) open source software (including Larry Augustin and Eric Raymond) gathered to discuss Netscape's move to publish its browser's source code. The Open Source Initiative was formed in February 1998 by Eric S. Raymond and Bruce Perens; the idea was to present the "open source" case to commercial businesses. They sought to bring a higher profile to the practical benefits of freely available source code, and they wanted to bring major software businesses and other high-tech industries into open source. Bruce Perens adapted Debian Free Software Guidelines (that later developed into the larger Debian Social Contract) to make the Open Source Definition (another example of a bridging case between the schools - the Debian Guidelines stemmed from the original Free Software background).

In April, publisher Tim O'Reilly organised a meeting titled Freeware Summit (later renamed to Open Source Summit) which included a lot of luminaries: Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, Brian Behlendorf, Eric Allman, Guido van Rossum, Michael Tiemann, Paul Vixie, Jamie Zawinski and Eric S. Raymond. At that meeting, the confusion caused by the name "free software" was brought up. At first, Michael Tiemann argued for "sourceware" as a new term, but later Raymond's suggestion won by vote.

Richard Stallman was not invited and perhaps the grudge between persons added further to the emerging separation. Open source enthusiasts accused Stallman for hippie-minded idealism, political undertones and frightening businesspeople ( "it was time to dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with "free software" in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape.") while Stallman responded with accusations for selling out and watering down the hacker ideals ( "Some of the proponents of "open source" considered it a "marketing campaign for free software," which would appeal to business executives by citing practical benefits, while avoiding ideas of right and wrong that they might not like to hear. Other proponents flatly rejected the free software movement's ethical and social values.").

The problems with both terms[edit]

One of the main reasons for starting open-source movement is also the ambiguity of "free" in English language (however, in most languages the words for "freedom" and "no price" are clearly different). As part of the "closer to business" strategy, the new term attempted to alleviate the "no price = worthless" allegations by business people. The problem is also recognised by Stallman camp, who try to address the problem by presenting a clear definition of free software and also using the phrase "Free as in freedom, not as in free beer".

However, as Stallman points out, "open source" has also a problem in ambiguity. Misinterpretations have occurred both intentionally and unintentionally, and there is a danger of shifting the focus of the model by legal interpretations. An example is Microsoft's Shared Source, which has been confused with the Open Source - but possibly never with the much stricter definition of Free Software.

GPL v3[edit]

[The long-waited new version] was finally released in July 2007 and brought along a new clash of pragmatism and idealism. The "liberty or death" clause - author can (but do not have to) use the clause to prevent their software used in countries with DRM and software patents. Critics in turn cite discrimination as GPL has historically forbidden limiting the software's use by purpose. But Stallman and FSF see it as a new level of "bee defense" - bees have almost no natural enemies, as they attack painfully, will die after that and are generally small and not very nutritious. Likewise, a well-designed free license will result in attacker getting nothing but legal expenses.

A major motive in the actions by FSF is further prevention of what Stallman has called "tivoization". TiVo is a Linux-based media player which has its source code available as prescribed by Linux GPL license and it can be modified at will. But due to DRM, the modified source will not run on TiVo anymore.

What comes to the controversial DRM, then the point of FSF is: DRM may be used, but people must have a chance to fork the project and create a non-DRM version (well, it is quite likely that people will prefer the non-DRM version). FSF also strives towards license superiority to software patents - i.e. the freedoms prescribed by license will be valid despite any patents in the field.

Linux and Linus[edit]

Linus Torvalds, while generally considered to be an easy-going persona, has clearly sided with the open-source camp - perhaps also due to the GNU/Linux vs Linux naming controversy. Linus sees no problem in TiVo and has up to recently been against using the proposed GPLv3, promising to stick with the older version 2 instead (the recent news have it that he has reviewed the new developments of v3 and does not rule out the change). But the majority of GPL-ed free software is licensed "GPL 2 or newer" - meaning that the user (not the licensor!) can choose which version to follow (still, he/she must obey one).


The two schools have different values and assumptions which does not prevent them from cooperating on practical level. Still more controversies are predicted when the GPL v3 matures - it will allow for more active defense for the free software school while drawing criticisms from pragmatists.


To Do[edit]

  • Analyse both free software and open source approach in your blog. If you prefer one, provide your arguments.