DRAFT FAQ: Free vs. Open

Philippe Verdy verdy_p at wanadoo.fr
Thu Jan 10 01:30:48 UTC 2008

Someone on this list quoted (without saying who was quoted):
> > Hmm, maybe.  I added a link to the FSF's "copyleft" page:
> > > Philosophically, the term "free software" is often
> > > associated with an
> > > ideological position on how software should be available (cf.
> > > copyleft licensing), whereas "open source" more commonly reflects a
> > > pragmatic concern regarding how software should be developed.

My opinion is that a "ideological position" how how software should be
available, necessarily impacts the way software should be developed.
If software developments follows the "free software" conditions, it will
finally meet the conditions required by OSI for being "open source".

Well, this means that "open source" is a weakened definition of "free
software", but I'm not sure that this really applies in practice, because
most open source softwares are also free software (the reverse is not
necessarily true).

But are there cases where some "free" content that is considered by some as
not being "open source". A known example is the GNU FDL licence (used by
Wikimedia wiki projects) that is not directly compatible with GPL and open
source, but still qualified as being "free". This was discussed because of a
limitation about the acceptable support medias, but Stallman has sent public
comments that the criticized limitations were not expected; this probably
means that the defects in the terminology used may be revised (this could
start now that the revision process for the GPL, and LGPL is ended).

Let's stay away from the philosophic background of the FSF, this is their
opinion (possibly shared volantrily by others) and it does not bind legally
any of its supporters, outside of what is really written in the licence
(excluding also the "Preamble" which is not binding, even though it is
widely advertised, it is not a required part of the FSF licences, including
in "verbatim" copies of the licence, a Preamble that you can freely drop if
it does not reflect your opinion).

What really matters is then the text of the licence, and only that.
Compliance is generally explained elsewhere, but is still weak: the FSF or
any other author of a "open" or "free"/"copyleft" licence can still give
their own public comments about what they perceive as "compliant" with their
licences. The FSF summarized the conditions in the known 4 items defining
"freedom" under "copyleft".

Conditions are about the distribution only, and the FSF is certainly not
dictating "how the software should be developed". Also the FSF does not
restrict the way the software should be used. I think that the FSF is right
here: the licence applies only at the point of interaction between
developers, distributors and users (the only exception being in the GFDL
where there's a limitation of use not based on people interaction but
interaction of a user with a physical support even in the case where the
user does not interact directly with other users or distributors though this

I have also serious doubts that OSI is also dictating conditions about "how
the software should be developed", because it will also concentrate only on
the text, focusing mostly on the terms of distribution and the interaction
between users.

My opinion is that both philosophies, even if they are different at their
grounds, lead to the same objectives in terms of conditions, and both will
agree that the terms must be technology-neutral, and should treat all users,
authors and distributors equally, independently of their status (commercial
or not). Both entities define conditions in which a "fair" game (or
competition) can still occur, and they certainly won't limit the use, so
they certainly cannot legitimately apply, in a licence, their own initial
opinion or philosophy. So both entities support commerce.

The definition of commerce is, and has always been based on fair competition
rules accepted by all parties. Without those conditions, there would just be
the rule domination, the rule of jungle, legalized robberies, the rule of
firearms, slavery, and all sorts of abuses by the most powerful party;
evolution of economies would not have been possible, and progress would be
inexistent. We all depend on fair competition rules, and this includes the
markets, that also have their rules, or the government of nations and
countries, which is also ruled by balancing controls and share of power. I
recognize that a rule is not a limitation, but the way to balance the terms
of exchanges in a fair way so that competition becomes possible by as many
people as possible.

Free or open source software is exactly this: maximizing the number of
parties allowed to play the game. It is commerce by essence because it
involves fait interactions and balancing conditions so that no one can be
more powerful or get more rights than another. It is a reaction to the fact
that closed development schemes (with exclusive and non transerable rights)
have really compromized the fair competition, by making a few much more
powerful and get more rights than a very large majority. It restores the
initial conditions back to more balanced terms, i.e. back to what should be
fair commerce.

Demonstration has already been made that commerce with open or free software
is possible, and large businesses have developed despite of the freedom of
use of the software. The commercial value of these businesses is not based
on the software itself, but in the quality of their work with the software
and the level of their expertise to help manage the deployed software or
solve problems with it, or manage its versioning and security.

However, this recognized quality of service is not exclusive: others can
also permitted to do the same, and in fact they too are sollicitated in
order to offer the same level of excellence in service, because this level
is constantly needed (and seeked) on the market and it benefits to the
community in general and allows progress.

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