Producing Open Source Software: “Free” versus “Open Source”

Karl Fogel
Free image via Shutterstock

In his book about the human side of open source development, Karl Fogel takes a closer look at what he calls the inescapable moral connotation between the terms “Free” and “Open Source”.

As the corporate world gave more and more attention to free software, programmers were faced with new issues of presentation. One was the word “free” itself. On first hearing the term “free software” many people mistakenly think it means just “zero-cost software.” It’s true that all free software is zero-cost,[1] but not all zero-cost software is free as in “freedom”—that is, the freedom to share and modify for any purpose.

For example, during the battle of the browsers in the 1990s, both Netscape and Microsoft gave away their competing web browsers at no charge, in a scramble to gain market share. Neither browser was free in the “free software” sense. You couldn’t get the source code, and even if you could, you didn’t have the right to modify or redistribute it.[2] The only thing you could do was download an executable and run it. The browsers were no more free than shrink-wrapped software bought in a store; they merely had a lower price.

The word “free”

This confusion over the word “free” is due entirely to an unfortunate ambiguity in the English language. Most other tongues distinguish low prices from liberty (the distinction between gratis and libre is immediately clear to speakers of Romance languages, for example). But English’s position as the de facto bridge language of the Internet means that a problem with English is, to some degree, a problem for everyone.

The misunderstanding around the word “free” was so prevalent that free software programmers eventually evolved a standard formula in response: “It’s free as in freedom—think free speech, not free beer.” Still, having to explain it over and over is tiring. Many programmers felt, with some justification, that the ambiguous word “free” was hampering the public’s understanding of this software.

But the problem went deeper than that. The word “free” carried with it an inescapable moral connotation: if freedom was an end in itself, it didn’t matter whether free software also happened to be better, or more profitable for certain businesses in certain circumstances. Those were merely pleasant side effects of a motive that was, at its root, neither technical nor mercantile, but moral. Furthermore, the “free as in freedom” position forced a glaring inconsistency on corporations who wanted to support particular free programs in one aspect of their business, but continue marketing proprietary software in others.

SEE ALSO: Why open source matters – JAX Award nominees on being open

These dilemmas came to a community that was already poised for an identity crisis. The programmers who actually write free software have never been of one mind about the overall goal, if any, of the free software movement. Even to say that opinions run from one extreme to the other would be misleading, in that it would falsely imply a linear range where there is instead a multidimensional scattering.

However, two broad categories of belief can be distinguished, if we are willing to ignore subtleties for the moment. One group takes Stallman’s view, that the freedom to share and modify is the most important thing, and that therefore if you stop talking about freedom, you’ve left out the core issue. Others feel that the software itself is the most important argument in its favor, and are uncomfortable with proclaiming proprietary software inherently bad. Some, but not all, free software programmers believe that the author (or employer, in the case of paid work) should have the right to control the terms of distribution, and that no moral judgement need be attached to the choice of particular terms. Others don’t believe this.

Introduction of the term “open source”

For a long time, these differences did not need to be carefully examined or articulated, but free software’s burgeoning success in the business world made the issue unavoidable. In 1998, the term open source was created as an alternative to “free”, by a coalition of programmers who eventually became The Open Source Initiative (OSI).[3] The OSI felt not only that “free software” was potentially confusing, but that the word “free” was just one symptom of a general problem: that the movement needed a marketing program to pitch it to the corporate world, and that talk of morals and the social benefits of sharing would never fly in corporate boardrooms. In their own words at the time:

The Open Source Initiative is a marketing program for free software. It’s a pitch for “free software” on solid pragmatic grounds rather than ideological tub-thumping. The winning substance has not changed, the losing attitude and symbolism have. …

The case that needs to be made to most techies isn’t about the concept of open source, but the name. Why not call it, as we traditionally have, free software?

One direct reason is that the term “free software” is easily misunderstood in ways that lead to conflict. …

But the real reason for the re-labeling is a marketing one. We’re trying to pitch our concept to the corporate world now. We have a winning product, but our positioning, in the past, has been awful. The term “free software” has been misunderstood by business persons, who mistake the desire to share with anti-commercialism, or worse, theft.

Mainstream corporate CEOs and CTOs will never buy “free software.” But if we take the very same tradition, the same people, and the same free-software licenses and change the label to “open source” — that, they’ll buy.

Some hackers find this hard to believe, but that’s because they’re techies who think in concrete, substantial terms and don’t understand how important image is when you’re selling something.

In marketing, appearance is reality. The appearance that we’re willing to climb down off the barricades and work with the corporate world counts for as much as the reality of our behavior, our convictions, and our software.

(From Or rather, formerly from that site — the OSI has apparently taken down the pages since then, although they can still be seen here and here).

The tips of many icebergs of controversy are visible in that text. It refers to “our convictions”, but smartly avoids spelling out exactly what those convictions are. For some, it might be the conviction that code developed according to an open process will be better code; for others, it might be the conviction that all information should be shared.

There’s the use of the word “theft” to refer (presumably) to illegal copying—a usage that many object to, on the grounds that it’s not theft if the original possessor still has the item afterwards. There’s the tantalizing hint that the free software movement might be mistakenly accused of anti-commercialism, but it leaves carefully unexamined the question of whether such an accusation would have any basis in fact.

None of which is to say that the OSI’s web site is inconsistent or misleading. It’s not. Rather, it is an example of exactly what the OSI claims had been missing from the free software movement: good marketing, where “good” means “viable in the business world.” The Open Source Initiative gave a lot of people exactly what they had been looking for—a vocabulary for talking about free software as a development methodology and business strategy, instead of as a moral crusade.

“You evaluate the contribution on technical grounds,
and respond on technical grounds”

The appearance of the Open Source Initiative changed the landscape of free software. It formalized a dichotomy that had long been unnamed, and in doing so forced the movement to acknowledge that it had internal politics as well as external. The effect today is that both sides have had to find common ground, since most projects include programmers from both camps, as well as participants who don’t fit any clear category.

This doesn’t mean people never talk about moral motivations—lapses in the traditional “hacker ethic” are sometimes called out, for example. But it is rare for a free software / open source developer to openly question the basic motivations of others in a project. The contribution trumps the contributor. If someone writes good code, you don’t ask them whether they do it for moral reasons, or because their employer paid them to, or because they’re building up their résumé, or whatever. You evaluate the contribution on technical grounds, and respond on technical grounds. Even explicitly political organizations like the Debian project, whose goal is to offer a 100% free (that is, “free as in freedom”) computing environment, are fairly relaxed about integrating with non-free code and cooperating with programmers who don’t share exactly the same goals.


[1] One may charge a fee for giving out copies of free software, but since one cannot stop the recipients from offering it at no charge afterwards, the price is effectively driven to zero immediately.

[2] The source code to Netscape Navigator was eventually released under an open source license, in 1998, and became the foundation for the Mozilla web browser. See

[3] OSI’s web home is

This excerpt is from Karl Fogel’s book Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project and is Copyright © 2005-2015 Karl Fogel, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (3.0) license. More information about the book can be found here.

Karl Fogel
Karl Fogel has been working in free software since 1993, as a programmer and later as a specialist in open source project management. He was one of the founders of the Subversion project at CollabNet and is the author of Producing Open Source Software. He is now a partner at Open Tech Strategies, LLC. Karl is also a former director at the Open Source Initiative and a member of the Apache Software Foundation.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments