Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Second #FOSS2010 posting.

I was invited to a small conference at UCI this week with “FOSS” in the title, even though I have always called it “open source.” (The only exception was a book chapter on the irrelevance of the free software movement to Linux adoption — ironically for a 2005 conference here at UCI.)

One problem is that the term “FOSS” has always had the ideological baggage of Stallmanism. Those within the Reality Distortion Field of the Free Software Foundation will always say F/OSS, unless of course they say “Free Software” and ignore the open source types as heretics.

A related problem is the neutrality issue. Among academics, saying FOSS (or F/OSS) was a proxy marker for those who saw themselves as advocates for open source. My attitude has always been that I’m studying a phenomenon, not taking sides; I believe my research shows that, while my consulting has included both firms promoting open source and competing with it.

During the first two hours of the so-called “FOSS 2010” workshop it was gratifying to hear the industry people (including reps of GNOME and Apache) all say “open source” rather than “free software,” “free and open source software,” or any other variants. (I’m guessing we don’t have enough Europeans in the room to promote the F/L/OSS dogma).

So when I got the podium, I offered one slide about the use of the terminology.

“Free” and “Open Source” Software
  • Licenses:
    • OSI says “Free” ⊂ “Open Source”
  • Movements
    • “Free” is a movement, “Open Source” isn’t
  • Industry
    • “Free” is an ideology
    • “Open Source” is a business model (often with GPL dual-licensed code)
I didn’t even mention the issue of “open” projects that are open only in their IP, not in their organization.

Finally, aside from ideology there is the communication advantage. If we use words (“open source”) instead of TLAs and FLAs (OSS, FOSS, FLOSS) in our communication, there is less of an insider/outsider boundary as well as risk of misunderstanding.

NB: Later in my talk, I referred to hypothetical “gullible 19-year-olds” who join an OSS project for a year until they burn out — and had to concede that this intentionally provocative terminology was value laden as well.


Stormy said...

I think free software and open source software mean different things. I'm happy to use each term where appropriate. (I'll often use both in the same conversation or blog post.)

I disagree with your point that free software is a subset of open source. While not all open source software licenses are free software, free software means a lot more than just open source licensed products.

It's about more than licenses, it's a way to work, a community and, yes, an ideology. Which is not a bad thing. :)

Joel West said...

I agree that there are important differences, such as those cases where the “movement” is important. (Since “movement” is crucial to FS and essentially irrelevant to OSS.) That was the point of my 2008 paper.

That said, which is a clearer statement to make at a conference or cocktail party:
• “I study FOSS.”
• “I study open source.”

I vote for the latter.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

In my mind, the term "FOSS" (not to mention its even uglier cousins, "F/OSS" and "FLOSS") is really an attempt to avoid all this acrimonious debate. I agree with Stormy, that there are usable definitions and distinctions here, sometimes worth discussing. But I find that (in the circles I inhabit, anyway) saying merely "free" or "open" inevitably brings in some vehement advocate for some triabalism I really hadn't meant to poke. It means "leave me alone, I'm trying to make my point not yours."