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Up: Why ``Free Software'' is Previous: Fear of Freedom

Misunderstandings(?) of ``Open Source''

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 software development.

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 it.

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.

next up previous
Up: Why ``Free Software'' is Previous: Fear of Freedom

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Last updated: 1999-06-17

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