Date: Mon, 16 Feb 1998 01:40:19 -0700
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Richard Stallman)
Subject: It's Still Free Software
It's Still Free Software There is a move to switch to the term "open source software" instead of "free software". While free software by any other name would give you the same freedom, it does make a difference which name we use. This article describes the two reasons that have been offered for the change, and explains why in both respects it is better to stick with "free software". * Ambiguity The term "free software" has an ambiguity problem: an unintended meaning, "Software you can get for zero price," fits the term just as well as the intended meaning of software which gives the user certain freedoms. We address this problem by publishing a more complete definition (see http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html), but this is only a partial solution; it cannot completely eliminate the problem. An unambiguously correct term would be better. But nobody has found an unambiguously correct alternative for "free software" in English. (Some langauges, such as French and Spanish, provide obvious clear terms.) Every proposed replacement for "free software" has the same kind of semantic problem, or worse--and this includes "open source". Where "free software" has multiple meanings, not just the intended one, "open source" has just one natural meaning, and it is not the intended one. The obvious meaning for "open source" is "You can get the source code." This category is distinctly not the same as free software. It includes free software, but also includes semi-free programs such as Xv, and even non-free programs such as Qt. Of course, it is possible to address this by publishing a precise definition for the term, just as we do now for "free software." The people using "open source" plan to do just that. But this partial solution is only partially effective no matter which term we apply it to. For free software, we have to teach people to use one meaning rather than another which fits the words equally well. For open source, we would have to teach them to use a meaning which does not fit at all. The semantic problem is real, but switching to "open source" makes it bigger, not smaller. * Fear of Freedom The main argument for the term "open source" is that "free software" makes some people uneasy. That's true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, can trigger discomfort. This asks people to think about things they might rather keep out of mind. It does not follow that society would be better off if we stop talking about these things. Years ago, free software developers noticed this discomfort reaction, and some started exploring an approach for avoiding it. 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. The term "open source" is offered as a way of doing more of this--a way to be "more acceptable to business". This approach has proved effective, as far as it goes. Today many people are switching to free software for purely practical reasons. But that isn't all we need to do! Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first step. 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, and why would users decline? Only if they have learned to value the freedom in free software for its own sake. It is up to us to spread this idea--and in order to do that, we have to talk about freedom. A certain amount of the "keep quiet" approach is useful for the community, but we must have plenty of freedom talk too. At present, we have plenty of "keep quiet", but not enough freedom talk. 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. Several operating system distributions are based on free systems with proprietary programs added; one of them, SuSe Linux, is chock full of proprietary software, and is carefully designed to make it hard to see the difference. We are failing to keep up with the influx of free software users--failing to teach them about freedom and our community as fast as they enter it. This is why non-free software such as Qt and SuSe finds such fertile ground. To stop using the word "free" is the opposite of what we need. We need more, not less, talk about freedom. Let's hope that those using the term "open source" will succeed in bringing more users into our community; but if they do, the rest of us will have to work even harder to bring the issue of freedom to those users' attention. We have to say, "Free software gives you freedom!"--more and louder than ever before. Spreading the idea of freedom is a big job--it needs your help. The GNU project will stick to the term "free software", and I hope that most of you will too.