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Voice of the Masses: Free Software vs open source – what do you use?

It might seem like a pernickety argument, but “Free Software” and “open source” emphasise different things. Free Software, as defined by the mighty Richard Stallman (RMS), stresses the importance of freedom for users and programmers to share things with their neighbours, for the betterment of society. Open source, meanwhile, was a term created to be more appealing to businesses, highlighting the practical benefits of having source code that anyone can look at.

RMS argues that “open source” misses the point, but a counter argument is that the name “Free Software” can sound like “free as in beer” – like malware-ridden Windows freeware. So we want to hear from you: which term do you use? Is it really important to you? Do you think RMS should have chosen a better word than “Free” originally, such as “Libre”?

Let us know your musings and we’ll read out the best in our next podcast!

34 thoughts on “Voice of the Masses: Free Software vs open source – what do you use?

  1. Joe Ressington

    I find it funny that Stallman and co. call GPL software “free” when it has usage restrictions. Only software that’s in the public domain is truly free.

    That said, being able to see the source code of a project doesn’t mean that you are free to do anything with it. Just look at Truecrypt. In that sense it’s far better to have the relative freedom of the GPL.

  2. I use the term “free software” as I support the positions taken by the FSF but I do accept that “Libre Software” might have been a better, and less prone to misinterpretation, name. “Open Source” software does indeed miss the point and doesn’t do anything to protect users rights or to further an aim of having less need for proprietary software.

  3. Free software does indeed sound like free beer. When I was but a wee one, that was how I had assumed it was. “Open source” however bring to mind images of people opening programs in an editor and checking to see what’s under the hood. The word free really does mean a lot of different things and we English speaking people will always look for the simplest and most advantageous way of interpreting the word.

  4. None. And both. I usually say free open source software because I don’t want to involve others and myself in that argument. To the non-programming users the terms make very little difference. Also, free software is misleading and somewhat confusing. I had a friend who wanted to discuss this, he didn’t know much about Linux or open source/free software, so he said he didn’t understand how the argument made sense. And I tried to explain rms wasn’t talking about free of charge but free as free as in openess but not open source. It was really hard to explain and it was unclear which was being talked about.

    And yes: Libre would be such a better term as it would have fewer definitions and is not associated with free — worthless, free — lack of value, free — we’re actually selling you and free — the poor mans choice (e.g lack of quality).

    I don’t consider GPL technically free, though. As it has a few constrictions to how the code is redistributed. Like: still being “free”.

    Have a nice beer!


  5. Andrew Bowden

    I always use Open Source. And as for the reason? Well I guess there’s going to be a few people like me out there with this answer… I haven’t really got any reason at all other than that I heard the term “open source” first and it’s been lodged in my mind ever since!

  6. polyamorous penguin

    FLOSS -> FOSS -> OSS -> UPS* in that order.

    *UPS = useless proprietary sh…ugar.

  7. Stephen Wheeler

    I used to use both terms, FLOSS, a bit of a mouthful but I thought it was worth it to represent both approaches to what is usually the same software.
    However, a recent event has put me very firmly in the “Free Software” camp.
    A recent update of a proprietary Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) with accompanying new licenses led to a cohort of my students being denied access to their marks and feedback. This incident brought home to me just how important the protection of our software freedom is and that it’s not just a superior software development model.
    If “Open Source” is more business friendly and businesses start using it for practical and cost reasons, they will probably go back to proprietary software when proprietary vendors offer better practical and cost reasons to do so. RMS makes the point that Open Source advocates have little more in way of argument to fall back on because it is pragmatic without underlying principles other than it’s a superior software development model. Free Software advocates, however, have the values and principles of Freedom to back them up as the right way to produce software.
    My personal experience has led me to only use the term “Free Software”. It is a principle I believe in and principles really do matter.

  8. I use Linux because of the Free Software philosophy. I agree with Stallman’s position that sharing and cooperating are morally preferable modes of human interaction. That it’s better for our societies and better in terms of human progress.

    I wish they’d chosen a different word, though. ‘Copyleft’ was good, it better described what’s actually at the core of this. The parts I care about, at least.

    “Freedom” just sends people down the wrong path. Obviously there’s the “Free of cost?” problem but, more insidiously, it leads people down the road of trying to define some silly abstract notion of ‘freedom’, forgetting that the *only* freedom ‘Free Software’ aims to delineate is ‘Software Freedom’, as circumscribed by the FSF’s ‘Four Freedoms’.

    So, yeah, I end up saying “Open Source” for convenience most of the time, despite not really feeling any affinity for the Open Source ideology.

  9. I never really know these days what the difference is, and quite frankly, don’t really care.

    I use what works. If there is a choice, I’ll use something with as free a licence as possible, but only if it costs nothing.

    I use nVidia drivers because my machine works better with them. If the nouveau drivers worked better, I’d use them. It’s the same with pretty much every piece of software I own.

  10. The term used is based on context and audience of course. If I was explaining to my money conscious, non IT, parent-in-laws, I would use “free”. When I am discussing clients, or fellow professionals I use Open Source. Do I use them interchangeably? No, not really. The aim of any term is to communicate an idea…the context is more important, much the same as “Thank you” and “Thanks a heap” mean two different things. Obsession with wording rather than context leads to arguments that are as circular as they are pointless.

  11. How about looking at Wikipedia, the article ‘Free Software’ in particular. Doesn’t that need fixing? Or is ‘Free Software’ adequete (or perfectly suitable) naming?

  12. Eric Duhamel

    I’ve used the terms interchangeably, depending on context. I was using “free software” more often, but in many cases “open source” is more descriptive and prompts more of the right questions.

  13. I don’t have that naming issue, I say `software libre’, obviously english is my second languageā€¦ I consider the GPL a free license, for instance I live in a free country but that doesn’t mean a I have the freedom to steal stuff or to kill people: being free doesn’t mean not having any kind of restriction. Having said that I don’t share all the ideas of RMS.
    BTW I drink 7up Free and I pay for it.

  14. I’m with heiowge on this one. One of the reasons I swapped to Linux is because it was more reliable than Windows, i.e. it works.
    I occasionally look at the licence for a piece of software, especially if it’s one I’ve not run across before. However, apart from the Nvidia drivers and Vuescan, I’ve not come across anything in the proprietary world that works better than the FLOSS alternatives.

  15. Kevin O'Brien

    I will use Free Software when possible, then Open Source. I tihnk the license is important. The GPL is the only license that tries to protect my freedom as a user, that is why it is my first choice.

  16. I don’t see the point of using a term (‘free’) which requires a 15 minute explanation in order to prevent the other party completely misunderstanding what I meant. I use the term ‘free and open-source software’ – and if they want further explanation then I’ll gladly explain how they forfeit some important rights when they buy some software – but to be honest, most of my colleagues have little interest – although I do try occasionally to make them aware.

  17. Jon The Nice Guy

    It depends. In speech I use Free Software if I’m taking to someone I know understands the difference or Open Source if they don’t. In presentations, I use FLOSS and then explain it once. In documents it’s always Open Source, because people don’t read footnotes.

    On a side note, I once suggested to Matt Lee (the FSF Campaigns Manager at the time) that perhaps they should have gone with ‘FreedomWare’ (a la ShareWare) and his response … “It’s a bit late for that.”

  18. Depends who I’m talking to. With Linux and free software usersI say ‘free software’ but it’s confusing to non-users and usually too much hassle to explain so I say ‘open source’ and explain only if they show an interest.

  19. Free is rapidly becoming a four letter word for the pedant. Ummmm, actually it always has been. But is valuable in a way that something without a price tag can be priceless. I use “free” exclusively…and when anyone asks I yawn, scribble on their shirt sleeve, and go back to drinking my not so free, alcohol-free beer.

  20. It’s about clarity. If we think of a name as a label that helps us understand something then this “free/open” thing is a fail, the words have to many inferences. We all have our workarounds as to how to explain it depending on who we’re talking to. It could be also that its actually less clear the better one knows English because you can pick up on more of the inferences.

    I’m not at all religious but I recall that one of the first things Adam did was wander around naming things. The idea of names was important enough that it made the edit. I wonder what Jon would think about this?

    What follows is a rant:
    I remember being confused by reduction being an increase of negative charge (an atom gaining electrons) or the positive pole of a battery being a surplus of negative charge, but it flows the other way around. I think this is correct. And what is up with oxidation? “Oxi” is so obviously the opposite of “red”. Maybe “in” as in increase would have been clearer. I remember realizing that my own confusion was in the names, the idea is simple, if someone had told me early on that it’s because of the names it would have been way easier to get. The property in question maybe would have been better named blue or something, but we’re stuck with negative and this will probably never change.

    Takes a deep breath, calm now:
    I personally have to think about the free as in beer/speech clarification thing every time I hear it and I always get the daylight savings time thing wrong because I can spring and fall in any direction. Perhaps for the sake of clarity we should start calling it “Libre”.

  21. ChloeWolfieGirl

    I think RMS shouldn’t go around saying free software because you do think free as in beer, but rather should have gone with Freedom Software or Freedomware!

    I do like Freedom but as you say free and open are different, I’d rather have freedom but open will do, but if I’m advatising linux I beleive most linux distros are Freedom software so I do call it freedom, its much more free then windows or mac so what ever, and freedom means different things to different people!

  22. So Lucifer has 7-Up Free, Saif has alcohol free beer, but both pay for it. To live in a Free society, we are obliged to pay taxes. Really the term “Free” contains inherent ambiguity, and the only things going for it is that it is short and in everybody’s vocabulary and , at a certain level, is attractive. Terms like “Libre” and “Open Source”, “public domain”, etc don’t feature in the consciousness of the vast majority of people. The term “free” causes instant cerebral activity…even though ordering that free sample of beautifying emollient comes with hefty p&p.

  23. Sultan of Swing

    I first came across the term “free software” in an ethical living journal, and as a then Windows user, thought they were giving away free software, at no cost. Turns out I was wrong. I recently had a debate with my girlfriend about why open source is safer (in principle) to closed-source software because of the transparency. I probably prefer Open Source when arguing for software development and security issues, although I am keen for the Free Software term to be used when I am describing legal issues (such as patents) etc. FLOSS is a good phrase, but i agree that Libre is probably a better word than free.

  24. I feel that “free software” is an unfortunately misleading name. The language that I choose to explain FOSS to other people includes only “open-source” and “DRM-free.” I use these two phrases in conjunction with examples that most people understand.

    —End answer. Queue examples.—

    For example, to argue for “open-source,” I will say a program has a line of code that says “print hello,” and ask them what they think it does. Then I will ask what they think “[((( etc,” does. I then explain that the first prints “hello” and the second is a virus. Finally I will ask what “0100101 cont.” does. After they guess, I explain… it could say hello… it could be a virus… you can never know with proprietary software, but you could with open-source software.

    For “DRM-Free,” I bring up how in order to look at online textbooks, one must first get onto the internet and log into an account. I then label the annoyance as “due to Digital Rights Management or DRM” and bring up the point that music used to be sold like that.

  25. I try to use open source software as much as I can, but I don’t force myself to use open source alternatives when they don’t make sense. Windows or Linux, Linux, sure, but gameing for example, my choice is clear, Guild Wars 2 (even being a paid product) or OpenShift? The answer is obvious.
    Actually, videogames and web services, like wunderlist or evernote, are my only non open source choices, but they make my life easier.

  26. As someone who has English as a second language, I can tell you that the term “free software” causes a lot of misconceptions. Specially because they idea of “free” meaning “gratis” stuck here.

    When I was on college, on some classes, my nickname was “Penguin Guy” because I was the only one who would use and advocate FS/OS and Linux in general. And *many* people would say FS is bollocks because they aren’t plants and don’t feed themselves with sun light. And that including a teacher.

    So, some of them (and people from work too) usually got surprised when they checked Red Hat and other Linux consultants prices. I even remember a fellow saying “oh, those Linux guys make money selling their service, which isnt cheap!!!” – as if they were all doing every work at no charge.

    The term in portuguese causes no confusion (software livre), but since it is derived from the english and people tend to use english terms to sound more important/significant than they usually are, “free software” is used a lot.

  27. I call it “Open Source Free Software” in full, but “Open Source” software in general.

    RMS and proponents of the “Free Software” label do not seem realize that when titling articles and emails, “Free Software” is easily dismissed, and an opportunity to talk about software users’ freedom is nearly always jeopardized because of this.

    The “Open Source” label on the other hand draws people in much more readily, at which point you can talk about software users’ freedom.

    I say “software users’ freedom” in full because, as you can see in the comments above, the idea is often misunderstood to mean “developers’ freedom” (and then argue that since the GPL restricts certain use cases it’s not truly free).

    RMS is a lawyer, a programmer and an activist – but he’s not a writer. Which, alas, is important when trying to get a message across beyond interviews and discussions.

  28. Danny DeVito

    I tend to use open source, I don’t know why, I suppose it just seems most natural to me. However, I do think that open source, that is being able to see source code, is the root of freedom in software

  29. Brian Hunter

    I tend to use the term Free Software. I think it’s a good point when people say that Open Source refers particularly to programmers, who make up a minority of software users. I think Free Software is a more inclusive descriptor in terms of people who can benefit and contribute.

  30. Burgess Meredith

    Digging around the internet at some software history I found that by the time Stallman coined the term “free software,” both “shareware” and “freeware” were already in use, so those were not options. In order to clearly differentiate his notion of “free software” from software that was negative in the freedom dimension, I agree with a couple of previous posters that the term “freedomware” would have been a better descriptor. I also suggest that “community software” or “openware” would have been good alternatives at the time. I hate the term “Libre” because it sounds silly or pretentious coming from an English speaker (this libre software is tres bueno.)

  31. Orange Dolphin

    I like “libre software” because it sounds like Cuba Libre which is much better than Mojito. And although I would not like to use software that is “free as in Cuba”, I like the political and philosophical context that to me is much more strongly expressed in “libre” than in “free”.
    Another reason to prefer “libre” is that “free” is ambiguous and “open source” doesn’t always mean “free as in freedom”. I also like the international sound to “libre software” (it doesn’t sound pretentious to me at all).

  32. I know this is probably what you mean, but the GPL doesn’t actually have *usage* restrictions, but *redistribution* restrictions. The GPL section 2 specifically disclaims restrictions on using GPL-covered software:

    “This License explicitly affirms your unlimited permission to run the unmodified Program.”

    It’s only when you redistribute GPL-covered software that any of the restrictions come into place.

    (This is without respect to the nature of those restrictions, which I think are quite minor. They are basically limited to maintaining the same license conditions under which you received the software, and not using software patents or DRM to victimise users. They also do not limit a copyright holder’s rights over the software, since as the copyright holder you can relicense the software as you see fit and use it in proprietary code if you want to.)

  33. I prefer using FOSS or open-source when talking to most people. Often I am explaining to them that open source means one has the right to a copy of the source and authority to modify it if desired.


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