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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why Open-Source Does Not Protect Your Freedom: Richard Stallman Explains Why Free Software Is The Only Answer

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Open-source misses the point of defending users freedom and assimilating open-source with Free Software only plays against the original Free Software movement ideals and goals. The necessities of commercial business have somehow eroded the original Free Software ideals and the operational advantages have rapidly gained key attention over the core "ethical" issues on which free software was born.

Photo credit: (c) O'Reilly - Oscon 2002

This is what Richard Stallman writes in his latest essay on the Free Software Foundation web site, advocating more responsible use of words, when their meaning can affect such profoundly valuable assets of our lives as our personal freedoms.

Simply reminding people that Freedom Matters is not "good enough" anymore.

As a guilty, ignorant sinner of this very superficial understanding of what Free Software and Open-Source really stand for, I have myself fallen prey of superficial evaluations only because I had had no clear, comprehensive understanding of what and how Free Software and Open-Source deeply differ when it comes to promote individual freedoms as such.

And while good friend and "commercial open-source" advocate Roberto Galoppini attempts to counter Richard Stallman's attack on open-source, he cites as major defense the inextricable values of sharing and inter-enterprise collaboration, which Open-Source enthusiasts bring into the equation.

But is it really so?

"Collaboration is an emerging pattern, and firms approaching software production in terms of sharing and cooperation are Free Software's good friend. Commercial Open Source, as far as based on participation and fostering communities, is aimed at promoting just the same idea of freedom, no less."

In reality, as Stallman points out very clearly in the essay here below, open-source advocates have long stopped promoting the fundamental issues of freedom that are the roots of the Free Software movement in favour of peddling a more commercial and pragmatical approach which looks more at issues like costs, reliability, security, innovation, and at the ability to have access and modify the source code of any software.

As an outsider viewer, I think he is right.

This is why while Open-Source may indeed have a lot of good stuff going for it, Open-Source does nothing to protect your fundamental freedoms. Worst. By increasingly assimilating open-source to Free Software we lose sight of the original reasons for which Free Software first, and Open-Source later came about.

Free software advocates and open-source enthusiasts have made great progress but they have gradually forgotten what they had come here for.

This is why what it appears to me as fundamentally important to provide a better and more complete understanding of what Free Software stands for, without having to wage consequently a war against open-source and its many benefits.

It is true indeed, that many of those not directly involved with either the movement or the software methodology assimilate the two together and have little or no understanding of the history, motives, ideals and objectives behind each of these two terms, and how it came about that free software advocates coined one day the open-source term.

Most people I talk to in fact I have never heard about Free Software, outside of the kind that is in the form of software programs freely downloadable from the Internet.

"Every time you say "free software" rather than "open source," you help our campaign" says proudly Richard Stallman in the closing statement of his last published essay on why open-source misses the point of free software. Stallman says that open-source misses the point because it does not address nor promote the key goal of free software: not sharing and cooperation as some would have it, by defending ethical values, and the final freedom of the user.

I leave it to you to judge and evaluate whether this is just useless philosophical rethoric or if the issues that Mr Stallman raises are indeed worth, as I think, more time and attention.

Making a clear distinction between open-source and free software is not a silly request in my view, and I am honored to take up this invitation by Richard Stallman and in inviting you to do the same.

Photo credit: Labor Liber


Why "Open Source" Misses the Point of Free Software

by Richard Stallman

When we call software "free," we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of "free speech," not "free beer."

These freedoms are vitally important. They are essential, not just for the individual users' sake, but because they promote social solidarity--that is, sharing and cooperation. They become even more important as more and more of our culture and life activities are digitized. In a world of digital sounds, images and words, free software comes increasingly to equate with freedom in general.

Tens of millions of people around the world now use free software; the schools of regions of India and Spain now teach all students to use the free GNU/Linux operating system. But most of these users have never heard of the ethical reasons for which we developed this system and built the free software community, because today this system and community are more often described as "open source," and attributed to a different philosophy in which these freedoms are hardly mentioned.

The free software movement has campaigned for computer users' freedom since 1983. In 1984 we launched the development of the free operating system GNU, so we could avoid the non-free operating systems that deny freedom to their users. During the 80s, we developed most of the essential components of such a system, as well as the GNU General Public License, a license designed specifically to protect freedom for all users of a program.

However, not all of the users and developers of free software agreed with the goals of the free software movement.

In 1998, a part of the free software community splintered off and began campaigning in the name of "open source." The term was originally proposed to avoid a possible misunderstanding of the term "free software," but it soon became associated with philosophical views quite different from those of the free software movement.

Some of the proponents of "open source" considered it a "marketing campaign for free software," which would appeal to business executives by citing practical benefits, while avoiding ideas of right and wrong that they might not like to hear. Other proponents flatly rejected the free software movement's ethical and social values. Whichever their views, when campaigning for "open source" they did not cite or advocate those values.

The term "open source" quickly became associated with the practice of citing only practical values, such as making powerful, reliable software. Most of the supporters of "open source" have come to it since then, and that practice is what they take it to mean.

Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software. But they stand for views based on fundamentally different values.

Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.

For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users' freedom.

By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software "better"--in a practical sense only. It says that non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the free software movement, however, non-free software is a social problem, and moving to free software is the solution.

Free software. Open source. If it's the same software, does it matter which name you use?

Yes, because different words convey different ideas.

While a free program by any other name would give you the same freedom today, establishing freedom in a lasting way depends above all on teaching people to value freedom. If you want to help do this, it is essential to speak about "free software."

We in the free software movement don't think of the open source camp as an enemy; the enemy is proprietary (non-free) software. But we want people to know we stand for freedom, so we do not accept being misidentified as open-source supporters.

Common Misunderstandings of "Free Software" and "Open Source"

Photo credit: Ashwin KA

The term "free software" has a problem of misinterpretation: an unintended meaning, "software you can get for zero price," fits the term just as well as the intended meaning, "software which gives the user certain freedoms."

We address this problem by publishing the definition of free software, and by saying "Think of free speech, not free beer." This is not a perfect solution; it cannot completely eliminate the problem.

An unambiguous, correct term would be better, if it didn't have other problems.

Unfortunately, all the alternatives in English have problems of their own. We've looked at many alternatives that people have suggested, but none is so clearly "right" that switching to it would be a good idea.

Every proposed replacement for "free software" has some kind of semantic problem--and this includes "open source software."

The official definition of "open source software" (which is published by the Open Source Initiative and too long to cite here) was derived indirectly from our criteria for free software. It is not the same; it is a little looser in some respects, so open source supporters have accepted a few licenses that we consider unacceptably restrictive of the users. Nonetheless, it is fairly close to our definition in practice.

However, the obvious meaning for the expression "open source software" is "You can look at the source code," and most people seem to think that's what it means. That is a much weaker criterion than free software, and much weaker than the official definition of open source. It includes many programs that are neither free nor open source.

Since that obvious meaning for "open source" is not the meaning that its advocates intend, the result is that most people misunderstand the term. Here is how writer Neal Stephenson defined "open source":

Linux is "open source" software meaning, simply, that anyone can get copies of its source code files.

I don't think he deliberately sought to reject or dispute the "official" definition. I think he simply applied the conventions of the English language to come up with a meaning for the term. The state of Kansas published a similar definition:

Make use of open-source software (OSS). OSS is software for which the source code is freely and publicly available, though the specific licensing agreements vary as to what one is allowed to do with that code.

The open source people try to deal with this by pointing to their official definition, but that corrective approach is less effective for them than it is for us.

The term "free software" has two natural meanings, one of which is the intended meaning, so a person who has grasped the idea of "free speech, not free beer" will not get it wrong again.

But "open source" has only one natural meaning, which is different from the meaning its supporters intend. So there is no succinct way to explain and justify the official definition of "open source." That makes for worse confusion.

Different Values Can Lead to Similar Conclusions...But Not Always

Photo credit: Yuri Arcurs

Radical groups in the 1960s had a reputation for factionalism: some organizations split because of disagreements on details of strategy, and the two daughter groups treated each other as enemies despite having similar basic goals and values. The right-wing made much of this, and used it to criticize the entire left.

Some try to disparage the free software movement by comparing our disagreement with open source to the disagreements of those radical groups. They have it backwards. We disagree with the open source camp on the basic goals and values, but their views and ours lead in many cases to the same practical behavior--such as developing free software.

As a result, people from the free software movement and the open source camp often work together on practical projects such as software development.

It is remarkable that such different philosophical views can so often motivate different people to participate in the same projects. Nonetheless, these views are very different, and there are situations where they lead to very different actions.

The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed.

Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program which is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users' freedom. How will free software activists and open source enthusiasts react to that?

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, "I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?" This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, "Your program is very attractive, but not at the price of my freedom. So I have to do without it. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement."

If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.

Powerful, Reliable Software Can Be Bad

Photo credit: DavisFreeberg

The idea that we want software to be powerful and reliable comes from the supposition that the software is designed to serve its users. If it is powerful and reliable, that means it serves them better.

But software can only be said to serve its users if it respects their freedom.

What if the software is designed to put chains on its users? Then powerfulness only means the chains are more constricting, and reliability that they are harder to remove.

Malicious features, such as spying on the users, restricting the users, back doors, and imposed upgrades are common in proprietary software, and some open source supporters want to do likewise.

Under the pressure of the movie and record companies, software for individuals to use is increasingly designed specifically to restrict them.

This malicious feature is known as DRM, or Digital Restrictions Management (see, and it is the antithesis in spirit of the freedom that free software aims to provide. And not just in spirit: since the goal of DRM is to trample your freedom, DRM developers try to make it hard, impossible, or even illegal for you to change the software that implements the DRM.

Yet some open source supporters have proposed "open source DRM" software. Their idea is that by publishing the source code of programs designed to restrict your access to encrypted media, and allowing others to change it, they will produce more powerful and reliable software for restricting users like you. Then it will be delivered to you in devices that do not allow you to change it.

This software might be "open source," and use the open source development model; but it won't be free software, since it won't respect the freedom of the users that actually run it.

If the open source development model succeeds in making this software more powerful and reliable for restricting you, that will make it even worse.

Fear of Freedom

Photo credit: Kirill Zdorov

The main initial motivation for the term "open source software" is that the ethical ideas of "free software" make some people uneasy. That's true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might prefer to ignore, such as whether their conduct is ethical. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may simply close their minds to it. It does not follow that we ought to stop talking about these things.

However, that is what the leaders of "open source" decided to do. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics and freedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to "sell" the software more effectively to certain users, especially business.

This approach has proved effective, in its own terms.

The rhetoric of open source has convinced many businesses and individuals to use, and even develop, free software, which has extended our community--but only at the superficial, practical level.

The philosophy of open source, with its purely practical values, impedes understanding of the deeper ideas of free software; it brings many people into our community, but does not teach them to defend it.

That is good, as far as it goes, but it is not enough to make freedom secure. Attracting users to free software takes them just part of the way to becoming defenders of their own freedom.

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.


Photo credit: Puigpe

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.

Copyright © 2007 Richard Stallman - Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

Richard Stallman -
Reference: Free Software Foundation [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2010-07-16 05:43:03


I wanted to say that Scott's comments bother me, for the implication that it is "government effort" that threatens freedom (when corporate-business effort is, almost all of the time, the motivator behind government efforts along these lines - DRM being almost a textbook example), and for the comment that freedom has something to do with the notion that "Every developer is free to license her software under any terms she likes".

Unfortunately you see naive politics like this often in the IT industry - i think it has something to do with the large number of independant, highly trained, well-paid and sought-after skilled workers. It makes for a population inclined to blame "government" for restrictions on freedom (when business plays such a massive role - something that would be more obvious to the people who assemble the hardware than to the people who write the software!), and to confuse and conflate genuine freedom with "market" freedom. I don't particularly care if a developer has the right to "license something however she wants", and most people in the world wouldn't - her licensing powers don't have anything to do with either "free as in software" or "free as in speech."

Scott, you say you're embarrassed to support free software because of the Stallman association - i suspect the embarassment should go the other way. Free software is related to cultural, creative, and community freedom. I'll also throw my lot in with the other commenter who said that, not being a professional software developer, the difference between "open source" and "free software" is actually really very obvious.

People need the "it's not free beer" analogy to avoid confusing free software with unpaid-for software. I think we might need a new catchphrase to stop people from confusing "free software" with the naive politics of a very, very small and very, very privileged segment of the global population - perhaps:

"It's free as in speech, not free as in markets"?

2007-10-25 17:26:40


Stallman is very fond of words and of using them in unusual ways calculated to sell his message (while perhaps distorting others' intentions and motivations). Hence he wraps his movement in the flag of "freedom" and draws analogies to "free speech" while promoting a notion that is radically different. The importance of "free speech" is that it fights attempts to suppress speech and limit opportunities to share and promote ideas. Free software faces no such threat. Every developer is free to license her software under any terms she likes. There is no government effort to suppress free software.

There ARE attempts to suppress certain kinds of software, but Stallman's notion of "free software" is no way an attempt to fight such suppression - it says nothing about being free to write arbitrary software, but only about user's ability to use software in certain ways. The freedoms he considers important, I consider trivial, the ones I consider important, he ignores.

I do believe in free software, but I find Stallman so irritating that I'm embarrassed to admit it.

2007-10-24 08:54:38


Sorry RMS... you are wrong. Not so much at the core of what you are saying but about what "open source" implies. "Open Source" does not merely imply that you can look at the software, it intrinsically carries the notion that you are free to edit it and change it however you like for your own purposes (you may or more not be free to distribute those changes without some caveats, however). Software with source code that you were only able to view but not allowed to change would be far more likely to be tagged with "available source code" than termed "open source". Any such software that used the latter term is really missing the boat in what "open" means to most people.

2007-10-15 08:40:14

Roberto Galoppini

I didn't really want to
counter attack Richard Stallman's attack on open-source. I was trying to say is that also open source advocates are contributing to software freedom. It is a matter of perspective: while Richard takes care of users' freedom, (some) open source firms also take care of software freedom.

I disagree with Richard when he points out that open-source advocates have long stopped promoting the fundamental issues of freedom. He infers from the behavior of some of them a general statement. A the some extent I might say that "free software" is not consistent term because half of "free software" google-alerts are just about freeware and other no Free Software items.

What I believe is important to say here is that a commercial and pragmatical approach can also take into great consideration software freedom. The importance of share and more to keep sharing-alike software (copyleft) for open source firms is synergic with free software advocacy, as it insist on the same values (but for a different reason).

Are all firms interested in Open Source willing to stress the importance of software freedom? Of course not, some of them don't care, while some end up licensing their products with proprietary licenses.

Open Source firms (may be) are created equal, but some are more equal than others.. let's keep them as Free Software's good friends, as they are.

2007-10-14 04:19:02


An interesting argument, to be sure.

From the viewpoint of a user who isn't able to study how a program works and who for sure cannot modify a program to better suit his or his neighbor's needs, the distinction between "free" (as in respecting my freedom) and "open source" (as in respecting a software developer's freedom) becomes a point of great importance.

Open source DRM is where the problem - and the distinction between free and open source - becomes obvious.

So yes - thanks to Richard Stallmann for standing up for the original idea of "free as in free speech" (and free exchange of ideas).

posted by Robin Good on Saturday, October 13 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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