Understanding Free and Open Source Software

FOSS by opensourceway (CC BY-SA 2.0)

FOSS by opensourceway (CC BY-SA 2.0)

After publishing a post about Egyptian demonstrations calling for the government to adopt free software, Global Voices Advocacy (GVA) received an email from software freedom activist Richard M. Stallman (rms). We were honored to learn that a figure as important as rms reads our work!

In his email, rms was more than pleased with the movement taking place in Egypt, but he also noted that some of our points regarding free software were misleading. We were glad to receive his comments — we recognize that, as he pointed out, our post did not do enough to explain to readers what free software is and what it means in the broader context of open Internet advocacy. Therefore, we have decided to write this follow-up post in which we'll break one of the main rules of the Global Voices (GV) model. We normally aim to quote social and citizen media rather than main stream media, yet in this case we've chosen to override this rule for two reasons:

  • First: Much of what we quote here falls in a grey area between mainstream and social media. Take Eric's Random Writings as an example; it is not a blog per-se, as many posts on the site predate blogs and blogging, but it can be seen as the blog of that time.
  • Second, and more importantly: Although most of the information we mention here has been available for decades, we want to make use of the huge network of translators in GV Lingua and our readerbase to spread the message about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), especially given that many of the values of the FOSS movement coincide with those of GVO. Both aim to defend user rights to seek, receive and impart information online. The FOSS movement defends users’ rights to create and have control over the software they use, while GVO – among others – defends users’ right to be the media, rather than just being a consumer of the media.

What is Free Software?

Thankfully, in my language, there are two different words for free: gratis and libre. The fact that there is one English word for the two concepts, and that people do not typically pay money for free software, leads many to assume that the term “free software” simply denotes software that is available free of monetary charge, yet the intended meaning is the latter definition (libre or “liberated”). The website of GNU, the free software-based computer operating system project, puts it this way:

…“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 site offers further elaboration on this definition:

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

GNU summarizes the concept by identifying four essential freedoms a software user should have:

  1. The freedom to run a program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how a program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Free software developers do have the choice to sell their software if they want to, provided that they adhere to the four freedoms mentioned above. Mac's NeoOffice is a strong example of this. Yet if software developers decide to release their software for free, but do not respect the Free Software essential freedoms, then their software cannot be called Free Software. Many closed-source Shareware and Adware programs can serve as examples here. In those cases, users cannot access the programs’ source code, hence they cannot modify it or study how it works. As long as you don't know how software works and have access to its code yourself, you cannot blindly trust it. It may have the capacity to track your activities, modify your computer, and do a range of other things that you do not want it to do.

Source code can be distributed with software. As one Stack Exchange user wrote:

Making source available does not mean download. It might be that you must get a written request and you send a photocopy of a listing. You are allowed to charge a “reasonable” handling/copying charge. But you can not escape the obligation to make your own source code available.

Should we call it “Free” or “Open Source” Software?

So far, we have been using the terms Free Software and Open Source Software interchangeably. It's true that the two terms are very close to each other, and being Free implies that it should be Open Source, however since 1998, the two terms sometimes have been used to refer to two slightly different things.

Eric S. Raymond (ESR), another advocate for Open Source Software, has argued that for Free or Open Source Software to be adopted by the masses, larger technology companies may have to get involved. It's hard to convince people to install GNU/Linux on their laptops, as it can be difficult to configure with certain hardware. ESR has said that hardware vendors should release special drivers for GNU/Linux, or else open source developers will have no option but to reverse-engineer those drivers, an approach that does not always succeed. ESR writes:

The term “free software” is older, and is reflected in the name of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), an organisation founded in 1985 to protect and promote free software. The term “open source” was coined in 1998 by a group of people — the founders of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) — who also supported the development and distribution of free software, but who disagreed with the FSF about how to promote it, and who felt that software freedom was primarily a practical matter rather than an ideological one.

ESR has emphasized that their practical approach makes it possible for people to accept what they call for without being obliged to change their position on whether intellectual property is good or evil. He has also notes that the term Free Software seems to leave corporate entities reluctant to be involved:

The term makes a lot of corporate types nervous. While this does not intrinsically bother me in the least, we now have a pragmatic interest in converting these people rather than thumbing our noses at them. There's now a chance we can make serious gains in the mainstream business world without compromising our ideals and commitment to technical excellence — so it's time to reposition. We need a new and better label.

ESR suspects that rms's approach would not appeal to corporate entities:

RMS's manifesto attacked closed source code on moral grounds; he asserted a right of computer users to access and modify the code they depend upon, declared a crusade against the ownership of software, and proposed a program of building an entire production-quality environment of ”free software” modeled on the powerful Unix operating system … On the other hand, RMS's general attack on intellectual property and the quasi-Marxist flavor of much of his propaganda turned off many hackers and utterly alienated most software producers and customers outside the hacker culture itself.

In a response to ESR, rms explains that he decided to stick to his approach because he believes that the presence of non-free software is a moral rather than practical issue:

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, essential respect for 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 … In practice, open source stands for criteria a little weaker than those of free software.

McGill University professor Gabriella Coleman writes in her book, Coding Freedom, that the two concepts often travel on the same path, despite their distinct motivations. (Readers should know that Coleman's book is published under a Creative Commons copyright license, which enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge, and is inspired in part by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public License.)

They designate the same alternative licenses and collaborative methodologies, but they differ in their moral orientation: the term free software foremost emphasizes the right to learn and access knowledge, while open source tends to flag practical benefits.

It's more than software

GNU/Linux is probably the most famous open source project in the world. The GNU project began in 1983 with the goal of creating a free operating system. Later on, Linus Torvalds built the Linux kernel and the combination of the two with many other open source software programs resulted in what we have today: a fully functional operating system competing with the likes of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS. Mozilla Firefox, Apache Webserver Server, and Android provide more examples of programs that have been more widely adopted and trusted than their non-free alternatives.

Nevertheless, the movement does not stop at software only:

Software manuals must be free, for the same reasons that software must be free, and because the manuals are in effect part of the software. The same arguments also make sense for other kinds of works of practical use — that is to say, works that embody useful knowledge, such as educational works and reference works. Wikipedia is the best-known example.


Gabriella Coleman writes:

I argue that F/OSS draws from and also rearticulates elements of the liberal tradition. Rather than designating only a set of explicitly held political, economic, or legal views, I treat liberalism in its cultural registers. Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities— for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions. Indeed, the ethical philosophy of F/OSS focuses on the importance of knowledge, self- cultivation, and self- expression as the vital locus of freedom.

Watch George Osborne MP – Open Source Politics:

Ideas and projects related to online freedom and openness can be seen today everywhere from Wikipedia, to projects tracking government financial transactions across the world, to initiatives that promote sharing educational material and research papers.

See “Egypt: Why Open Source Software?” for ideas on why Egypt (as well as almost any other country) should adopt Free Software.


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