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Merging "Open Source" and "Free Software"

Due to the increased diffusion of "Open Source" as a term this article suggests its gradual phase out in favor of the original "Free Software" term and renaming of the "Open Source Initiative" into "Free Software Business Initiative" (no matter how controversial the proposal may be).

There are three ways we could look at Microsoft's recent approaches to the "Open Source" phenomenon.

  • 1. They are in a process towards genuinely embracing Free Software or Open Source.
  • 2. They are pretending to be embracing it while trying to diffuse and weaken its image.
  • 3. Both. They are still trying to defeat it somehow, but in trying to do so they are increasingly finding their old culture defeated.

I believe third to be most viable. They cannot be trusted nor should we be overly joyful about them submitting their licenses to OSI, opening an "Open Source" site and making deals (sic) with "Open Source" companies. It is quite obvious by now what their patent related deals are, a patent racket allowing them to fuel the anti-GNU/Linux FUD. It is also quite clear that this hasn't been going to their benefit all that much, due to GPLv3, community outrage and sufficient intelligence in the media to see these deals and patent claims for what they are.

Now they are trying to get their "Shared Source" licenses approved as "Open Source" just as they are trying to get their barely open XML format approved as an open standard (despite OpenDocument already being standardized). Considering their previous strategies it is hard not to be suspicious. If they get their few Shared Source licenses approved as Open Source they could claim to be Open Source supporters while giving themselves the liberty to completely blur the lines between "Open Source" and "Shared Source" in public perception. The Shared Source licenses they submit to OSI may very well fit the Open Source Definition which is actually giving them that little bit of basis for the claim that Open Source and Shared Source are in fact the same.

Of course, they are not. Other Shared Source licenses may very well be too restrictive to be considered Open Source. But, Microsoft may conveniently divert the attention from this little detail to the fact that some of Shared Source licenses are Open Source.

And as if recent troubles with Open Source term being used for software which is actually distributed under terms that do not fit its definition weren't enough, it would get even further separated from its supposed meaning by now being further mixed up with Shared Source. The "Open Source" is becoming everybody's whore. If you want to be trendy, label yourself as Open Source and you're done. What it actually means doesn't matter.

from Open Source...

Now it may be worth remembering what was the goal behind the Open Source Initiative in the first place - to attract businesses. They thought that the Free Software Foundation just wasn't effective enough in doing it, that the notion of "Free Software" and freedom related ethical principles just scared businesses away. They may have been right about that, to a point, but today it isn't too hard to imagine companies advertising themselves as getting behind certain ethical principles, in order to attract customer sympathy. Open Source founders like Eric Raymond made an assumption which may have not been entirely correct (that businesses always run away from ethical concerns). They went overboard with alienation of the "freedom" talk by the FSF and ended up with a term which tells only half of the story. It attracted businesses, but also set itself up for a disaster in the future.

That future came. The Open Source is, indeed, in risk of losing its meaning because they failed to tell the businesses that Open Source isn't just about better software and an alternative business model, that it is also about a world changing social attitude, the respect of users freedom. Microsoft and some other companies knew how to use this shallowness and indeed, they are on it as we speak.

It may be true that FSF failed to animate businesses. In their overwhelming focus on the message of freedom they may have, perhaps unknowingly, neglected to mention that this freedom in fact restores a better free market with a world of opportunities for fair business.

But even so, I simply don't believe the Open Source solution was an optimal one. What should have happened instead is a founding of a Free Software Business Initiative, which would keep the term "Free Software" and emphasis on freedom, but would act specifically to further emphasize the business aspect of Free Software, or what users freedom means for the business world. It would focus on the notion that Free Software equals true Free Market. It would not hide the ideology of freedom. It would merely provide a business friendly face to this freedom.

What Open Source did instead was provide a business friendly face to the mere practical outcomes of this freedom, completely omitting to talk about freedom itself and its direct positive implications on business. Free Software

In recent years the Free Software Foundation itself has been more open towards the business world, largely offsetting the importance of the Open Source Initiative. Now that the Open Source term is being increasingly compromised it may be a good idea to start phasing it out in favor of an original term, "Free Software", which can be easily explained by an already well known slogans such as "free as in freedom" and "free speech, not free beer" which very efficiently resolve the ambiguity of the word "free". Writing the term with big "F" and "S" helps to differentiate it from "free software" as a description of gratis, "zero price" software such as freeware. An alternative term could be coined, but I have doubts that any would contain sufficient value to replace "Free Software" considering that it already has quite a long history (longer than even "Open Source") and widely accepted ways of defining it (including the mentioned slogans).

The Open Source Initiative could be renamed into a "Free Software Business Initiative" and continue operating as such, but with a revised policy of accepting licenses for approval as Free Software licenses as to more closely fit with the original Free Software Definition. This would among other things certainly defeat Microsoft's plan of getting under and diffusing Open Source, because we would decide that "Open Source" no longer matters to us. It's "Free Software".

I believe that the phase out movement, at least subtly, might be already happening. Perhaps one of the positive signs of that may be the choice of words by certain company leaders including Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth and Sun Microsystem's Jonathan Schwartz (among other Sun's officials) who are already using the term "Free Software" and talking about the freedom aspect more often than we would have expected them before.

Freedom in software is no longer an undesirable subject. After all, aren't we all tired of unnecessary restrictions and subsequent screw-ups by the now old proprietary software industry? We are taking back control of our computers, not so much because we are making better software (which Open Source over-focused on), but because we have freedom.


Danijel Orsolic

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Danijel --

Thanks for a very thoughtful, well-rounded article. You certainly have covered all the points regarding the dilution of the term "open source" and make an excellent case for recapturing and reframing the terminology.

Larry Cafiero

Thanks Larry for a positive

Thanks Larry for a positive comment. I've just written what is essentially a follow up, further suggesting the creation of this "FSBI" (Free Software Business Initiative) by people from the Free Software movement itself, as an alternative representation of Free Software to the business world. Here is it: "Time for a Free Software Business Initiative".

And.. although at this point I don't think we will be founding such an organization ourselves one planned Libervis project will work in the same direction.

Another interesting article

Another interesting article Danijel Smiling

When people mention that "Free Software" is an unwieldy title which easily gets mixed up with freeware I tend to think of them as people who have English as their first language. In other languages such Welsh, French an German the term 'Free Software' does not get confused with 'gratis' software as 'Free as in Freedom' and 'Free as in sausages' are different words. When people decide to think of renaming things they should have i18n in mind Smiling I think the fact both kinds of 'free' are different has helped in places such as Spain where adoption of GNU/Linux is quite high in government/education.

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