The Open Source Definition is clear enough, and it is quite clear that
the typical non-free program does not qualify. So you
would think that ``Open Source company'' would mean one whose products
are free software, right? Alas, many companies
are trying to give it a different meaning.
At the ``Open Source Developers Day'' meeting in August 1998, several
of the commercial developers invited said they
intend to make only a part of their work free software (or ``open
source''). The focus of their business is on developing
proprietary add-ons (software or manuals) to sell to the users of
this free software. They ask us to regard this as legitimate, as
part of our community, because some of the money is donated to free
In effect, these companies seek to gain the favorable cachet of ``open
source'' for their proprietary software products-even
though those are not ``open source software''-because they have some
relationship to free software or because the same
company also maintains some free software. (One was quite explicit
about trying to make that part of their work as small as
they could get away with.)
Over the years, many companies have contributed to free software
development. Some of these companies primarily
developed non-free software, but the two activities were separate; so
we could put their non-free products aside, work with
them on free software projects, and honestly thank them afterward for
their free software contributions.
What is different here is that these companies aim to blur the
distinction; they want us to regard their non-free software as a
contribution when in fact it is not. They present themselves as ``open
source companies'', hoping that we will get a warm
fuzzy feeling about them, and that we will be too fuzzy-minded to be
selective in how we apply it.
This manipulative practice would be no less deceptive if they did it
using the term ``free software''. But companies do not
seem to use the term ``free software'' that way; perhaps its
association with idealism makes it unsuitable for such misuse. The
term ``open source'' opened the door for it.
At a trade show in late 1998, dedicated to the operating system often
referred to as ``Linux'', the featured speaker was
an executive from a prominent software company. He was probably invited
on account of his company's decision to ``support''
that system. Unfortunately, their form of ``support'' consists of
releasing non-free software that works with the system-in
other words, using our community as a market but not contributing to
He said, ``There is no way we will make our product open source, but
perhaps we will make it `internal' open source. If we
allow our customer support staff to have access to the source code,
they could fix bugs for the customers, and we could
provide a better product and better service.'' (This is not an exact
quote, as I did not write his words down, but it gets the jist.)
People in the audience afterward told me, ``He just doesn't get the
point.'' But which point didn't he get?
It wasn't the point of the term ``open source''. That term says
nothing about freedom. It says only that allowing more people
to look at the source code and help improve it will make for faster
advance of technology. This executive grasped that point
completely; unwilling for other reasons to carry out this approach in
full, users included, he is considering implementing it in
part, within the company.
The point that he missed is the point that ``open source'' was
designed not to convey: the point that users deserve freedom.
Spreading the idea of freedom is a big job-it needs your help. The
GNU project will stick to the term ``free software'', and I
hope that you will too.
Up: Why ``Free Software'' is
Previous: Fear of Freedom
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Open Resources (www.openresources.com) Last updated: 1999-06-17
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