This week, in CS889, I am charged with leading the discussion on Open Source and the Open Source Definition. So what is “Open Source”? And, how does it differ from “Free Software”?

Compared to “free software” (circa. 1984), the term “open source” is relatively new. The term came out of a 1998 meeting at the offices of VA Research as part of a strategy to market free software to the business world:

“(This strategy was) conceived as a program to market the free software concept to people who wore ties.” — Bruce Perens

This meeting was in response to Netscape releasing its web browser as free software — a decision largely influenced by Eric Raymond’s essay ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’. ¬†Recognizing that Netscape Navigator would be the first case study of commercial free software, Raymond posited that the community could not afford to let Netscape fail. Additionally, Netscape would also be setting an example for other businesses to follow. Hence, the VA Research meeting was called in order to devise strategies to leverage these recent events and to make free software more appealing to businesses. The main part of this strategy was to rebrand free software as ‘open source’ (in part, to distance themselves from the Free Software Foundation, whose philosophies were not considered conducive to business).

Notably absent from this meeting was Bruce Perens. At the time, Bruce Perens was the community leader of the Debian project. One day after the meeting Raymond recruited Perens, and the pair founded the Open Source Initiative. One of the first orders of business was to establish the open source definition. This definition was based on the Debian Social Contract, and includes statements on the following 10 topics (which I do not discuss here in any detail):

  1. Free distribution
  2. Access to source code
  3. Distribution of derived works
  4. Option to maintain integrity of author’s source code
  5. No discrimination against persons
  6. No discrimination against fields or endeavours
  7. Distribution of license (I don’t quite fully understand this point)
  8. Licence must not be specific to a product
  9. Licence must not restrict other software
  10. License must be technology neutral

Importantly, the open source marketing campaign was highly successful. The mass media was frequently discussing open source in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Moreover, many businesses (e.g., IBM) embraced open source.

However, almost immediately after establishing the Open Source Initiative, the movement was controversial. Advocates of free software felt that the open source movement was abandoning the principles established by the free software foundation. Moreover, by marketing with the term ‘open source’, newcomers would not fully appreciate the freedoms that free software has granted. As such, they would not know how to fight to protect those freedoms. On this topic, Stallman writes:

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.

He also writes:

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.

This latter sentiment is reflected almost exactly in Bruce Perens’ essay ‘It’s Time to Talk about Free Software Again‘. Bruce Perens left the Open Source Initiative only a year after founding it with Raymond. Here, I get the feeling that Perens has some regret about those early years. In one of his essays, he notes that the dialog between Stallman and Raymond become so heated, and the community so divided, that he asked Raymond to tone down the rhetoric.

Sadly, open source and free software cover almost exactly the same body of work. The open source definition is slightly more permissive than the free software definition, but most software in this area qualifies as both free software and as open source software. As such, the conflict is largely unnecessary.


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