Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software

Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage. Countless companies seek to offer such temptation, some even offering copies gratis. Why would users decline? Only if they have learned to value the freedom free software gives them, to value freedom as such rather than the technical and practical convenience of specific free software. To spread this idea, we have to talk about freedom. A certain amount of the “keep quiet” approach to business can be useful for the community, but it is dangerous if it becomes so common that the love of freedom comes to seem like an eccentricity.

That dangerous situation is exactly what we have. Most people involved with free software say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.” Software distributors especially show this pattern. Nearly all GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom.

Proprietary add-on software and partially non-free GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most of our community does not insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system by “open source” discussion which doesn’t say that freedom is a goal. The practices that don’t uphold freedom and the words that don’t talk about freedom go hand in hand, each promoting the other. To overcome this tendency, we need more, not less, talk about freedom.


As the advocates of open source draw new users into our community, we free software activists have to work even more to bring the issue of freedom to those new users’ attention. We have to say, “It’s free software and it gives you freedom!”—more and louder than ever. Every time you say “free software” rather than “open source,” you help our campaign.


Joe Barr wrote an article called Live and let license that gives his perspective on this issue.

Lakhani and Wolf’s paper on the motivation of free software developers says that a considerable fraction are motivated by the view that software should be free. This was despite the fact that they surveyed the developers on SourceForge, a site that does not support the view that this is an ethical issue.

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