Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Free Software versus Open Source Software

The free software movement is one of the bright lights in the darkness of modern copyrights and patents. For an outsider (I actually write and distribute software under the GPL, so I'm not strictly speaking an outsider), the movement often seems caught up in making distinctions that seem almost trivial - "open source" versus "free software" or "intellectual property" versus "copyright and patent." Richard Stallman, one of the leaders of the movement, especially prefers that we be precise in our terminology. Anyway I'm not posting to complain - I'm posting to remind us all that they are right and seemingly subtle distinctions matter.

I was reminded of this in a long email from Chris Anderson (as usual I am horribly slow to actually get around to posting - the email is from September 20) pointing out some imprecision in our book. In particular he raises the issue of whether the Solaris operating system is actually open source. But I thought especially interesting his discussion of star office:

like the open solaris project, the open office project is an open source version of a proprietary product from sun micro systems. sun opened up the source code that star office is built on, but the star office product contains fonts, clip art, and other stuff that is owned and licensed by sun. so, sun still sells star office and solaris, and sun donated most of the source for those products to the community, and subsequent proprietary versions of both products are based on those open source codebases, but star office is not open source in the way that gnome office or Koffice are in that you can just download the working version fully branded. you can download open office free in an easily installed format for a number of operating systems for free and are free to distribute it as you like.

The point is an important one: you can download open office for free and make changes to it and redistribute it. You can download star office for free, but you cannot make changes to it or redistribute it. This is not a trivial difference.


As you've brought it up again, I can't resist talking about this once more.

Free Software proponents usually take "open source" literally, in that the source is available but not Free Software's four freedoms* - and the Open Source proponents deliberately misunderstand "Free Software" to mean that the software is distributed for free, without either source or freedoms.

Both groups, however, advocate making software that is both open source and has the four freedoms. "Open Source Software" and "Free Software" refer to essentially the same kind of software. Their principal proponents have simply never accepted the other as a valid term for it.

The battle is about more than just a name. The main difference between these two groups is underlying philosophy. Open Source originally rose to replace "Free Software" because both this term and the rhetoric of its proponents was thought to be hostile to the corporate world. The originators of the term were trying to draw businesses into the world of Free Software, and so they modified both the term and the rhetoric to be more business-friendly.

This means, among other things, that Open Source advocates are tolerant of proprietary software, they merely think "Open Source" is better. Free Software advocates, on the other hand think that proprietary software is the problem and Free Software the solution. It is obvious that a software vendor does not want to be called "the problem" just because they have some products that are proprietary.

"Open Source" seems to have won the battle. Over the name, and also over the attitude. The number of people that thinks software should never be owned in the Intellectual Privilege sense is far outnumbered by the people that think software can and should be owned at least in some cases, even among people that agree we should be making Free/Open Source Software in many cases.

Some that, like me, agree with the original Free Software ideology stubbornly keep using the original term, even at the risk of being misunderstood. We want to make it clear that Open Source's milder version is not good enough. I don't want to coexist peacefully with proprietary software, I want to see proprietary software eliminated.

Some that, like Microsoft, and apparently Sun, do not agree with the ideology of either the Free Software movement or the Open Source movement, try to free-ride on Open Source's popularity by making software that is "open source" in the literal sense, but not in the sense of the Open Source movement.

If all of us were still using the term "Free Software," this would be impossible, as the emphasis would not be on source code availability but on the four freedoms.

* The freedom to use it, for any purpose (freedom 0)
* The freedom to study it, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1)
* The freedom to redistribute copies (freedom 2)
* The freedom to publish a derived work (freedom 3)

It might be useful to note that these are precisely the liberties suspended by Intellectual Privilege regulation.

An interesting comment, Kid. In your view, would the elimination of patent and copyright laws (or at least suspending their application to proprietary software) eliminate proprietary software, or would another step be required?

I ask this because, as you are probably aware, Google hasn't patented some of its key algorithms, relying instead on trade secrecy to, in effect, keep them under virtual lock and key. I assume other firms have done this also.

This is how some software can remain proprietary even though it's not protected by the monopoly formerly known as intellectual property.

You state that you want to see proprietary software eliminated. How does your position square with that of Google (and firms with similar non-"IP"-protected software)? Do they have a right to maintain proprietary software with trade secrecy, or is this not proprietary software in the way you use this term?

By definition, software could no longer be proprietary if you abolish ownership rights in software. It might still be closed source. I think, though, that the abolition of copyright and patent law in software would heavily bias the market in favor of (in the literal sense) open source software, or, if you prefer, unbias. I would be satisfied.

As to Google, I'm not sure what software you are talking about here. If it's their search engine, the sole owners of the software have both the source and the freedom to modify it as they please. In that sense it is Free Software. They have, of course, not provided me with software - they are providing me with a service. Such arrangements could still exist without copyright and patent, since they do not rely on them, but I'm not sure if I should object.

While we're trying to be precise in our language, perhaps you'd care to modify your opening sentence. "The free software movement is one of the bright lights in the darkness of modern copyrights and patents." Given what you mean by this, you can hardly hold out the GPL as a bright light in the dark world of copyright--since it relies extraordinarily-heavily on copyright. I guess free ain't so cheap, after all.
There is a misconception that copyleft is about the source code, perhaps inspired by the term "Open Source". Certainly the GPL relies on copyright to force availability of the source code. It's not about the source code. It is about the freedom to modify, share, and fork. With these liberties returned to the public it will pay a software vendor little to restrict his customers.

Yes, GPL relies on copyright. True, but useless, and perhaps misleading.

Wow, did I write this? ^^

Whatever happened to Bill Stepp? I have not seen him around lately.

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