Back in December, John Mark Walker wrote an article on the relation between Free Software and Open Source. In his view, conflating Free Software and Open Source "is to undermine beliefs that are fundamental to free software and associated movement." The comments on his article revealed a different thinking from some: that Free Software and Open Source are inherently the same, and indeed, the FSFE has often made the point of treating the two as synonyms.
In this post, I will attempt to untangle the situation a bit more, and elaborate on why I believe talking about Open Source makes absolute sense, why you should do it with Free Software in mind, and why we still need people to talk about Free Software.
"Open" has entrenched itself as a term for transparency and processes where multiple authors' combined efforts lead to a result. There are fundamental differences between Open Innovation and Open Source. Between Open Data and Open Educational Resources. Between Open Research and Open Hardware. Between Open Access and Open Government.
But within each of their fields, these terms have taken on a meaning of their own and using them is a pre-requisite to being able to have a useful dialogue in those areas. An important part of any education is to learn the terminology used in a field. Words has the power to include and exclude. When a lawyer talks about habeas corpus, a craftsman talks about the need for a "2 by 4" or your plumber talks about a tank cross, they are excluding those who are not familiar with the terminology used in the trade.
In the computing industry today, Open Source has become the de-facto used term for Free Software. Many who've come into our movement in the last couple of years don't even know the term Free Software. Speaking about Free Software, even if we mean it as a synonym for Open Source, directly puts us at odds with parts of the community.
Talking about Open Source makes sense.
But there's something missing. Ever since the first days when the term Open Source was coined, Richard Stallman has made the point that Open Source misses the point of Free Software. I believe he's right. There are certainly parts of the Open Source ecosystem I'm not terribly happy about.
I do believe we could do more about end user freedoms and I believe locking end users out from the ability to use the four freedoms in the hardware and software they're using is damaging. I believe we need to push the borders of freedom, to challenge ourselves to adapt more copyleft software, and to tell people why society as a whole benefits.
In essence, even when talking about Open Source, we need to push the borders. We need to make sure to include the thinking that went into this from the very first days of the movement, long before the term Open Source was coined.
We need to keep the ideals of the Free Software movement in mind, even when talking about Open Source.
But doing this is tricky if you don't actually know what the goals are. When I'm learning something new, I need my teacher to approach me at the level where I currently am in my studies. Not with the idea of stopping at that level, but to be able to bring me up to where I need to be. And I need someone to show me where that is.
In Open Source, we need someone to remind us about the ideals of the Free Software movement. About the philosophy that helped found this movement in the early 1980s.
That is, beyond a doubt, the role of the Free Software Foundation. To show us what we should be aiming for in our work. And in that role, it makes perfect sense to talk about Free Software.
We need people to talk about Free Software.
Where does this leave us in terms of Open Source and Free Software? Are they synonyms? Are they antonyms? Are there different philosophies behind them? You would probably get as many answers as there are people.
We haven't seen an end of this debate in the last 18 years and I doubt we ever will. But I do believe we've seen the debate become less important. As more individuals, governments and organisations adopt free and open source software, it becomes less important how they refer to it, and more important how they act as members of the community. Organisations like the FSF, embodying the philosophy of the Free Software movement, have an important role to play in this.