Saturday, January 7, 2012

Free as in Speech

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There's a lot of terms in the world of software that can sound like the same thing to someone not well versed in all of this.  And a lot of these terms have a lot more in common than they have different. adding to the confusion.  So exactly what is Open Source Software (OSS), Free Software, Freeware, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) or even Shared Source Software? And more importantly, how are they different?  And exactly what is the whole free as in speech vs. free as in beer thing?

Open Source Software (OSS here on) is software where the source code is made available to the users of the software. There are a number of licenses that this software is released under, such as the BSD LicenseThe GPL, and others. I'll skip the pros and cons of all of these different open source licenses and how they differ because that's more of a philosophical debate.  What is important is that you as the user are free to use the software as you wish as well as being able to examine or even modify the source code.  Different open source licenses place different restrictions on redistributing the source code or software which makes use of some or all of the source code.  But any truly open source license does not restrict my use of the software in any way, only how I am permitted to redistribute it, despite a lot of FUD against the GPL that is out there.  I can modify the source code in any way I wish and keep the changes to myself as long as I am not distributing anything containing the original source code or my modifications. If you care to compare and contrast software licenses and your rights and responsibilities as a user or a distributor, visit the Free Software Foudation's website at

The FSF builds on this principle with their term Free Software.  The FSF states that "'Free Software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in free speech, not as in 'free beer.'"  To put it simply, when you enjoy free beer, you are free to drink and enjoy the beer, but you're not getting the recipe so you can go home and brew you up another batch tomorrow.  With free as in speech, you are getting that recipe, and you are allowed to make your own any time you wish.  Free as in speech is free software (such as a utility like The Gimp), free as in beer is freeware (such as Paint.NET).

So what is the difference between Free Software and Open Source Software?  That lies mainly with the developers of the software.  Free Software is as much as philosophy as a license.  Proponents of Free Software want all software to be free (within their definition of free) with an almost religious devotion.  Proponents of Open Source Software either just want to share their work or cite the open source model as a superior way of developing software.  Most of us fall somewhere in between and use the term Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) which is fine since both camps use the same licenses.

There is one more category related to this discussion.  Some commercial software vendors provide what what is referred to as Shared Source Software.  This is where the vendor provides the source code for a product to a customer for review, but the customer usually has no rights to anything other than a review.  Therefore shared source is not really related to free and open source software despite the providers attempting to make the case that it is.



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