[techtalk] KDE license?
tami at bronze.lcs.mit.edu
Sat Feb 12 07:29:46 EST 2000
I think rms' explanation of the differences between Free Software and 'open
source' software is apropos here. ALL FSF software is GPL. (See www.gnu.org)
Why ``Free Software'' is better than ``Open Source''
by Richard Stallman
Some free software developers have started to use the term ``open
source software'' instead of ``free software''. While free software by
any other name would give you the same freedom, it makes a big
difference which name we use: different words convey different
This article describes why using the term ``open source'' does not
solve any problems, and in fact creates some. These are the reasons
why it is better to stick with ``free software.''
``Open source software'' describes a category of software licenses,
almost but not quite the same as ``free software.'' The people who
decide the meaning of ``open source software'' have accepted a license
which has unacceptable restrictions: the Apple APSL .
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, software which gives the user certain
freedoms. We address this problem by publishing a more precise
definition of free software, but this is not a perfect 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 languages, such as French, Spanish, and
Japanese, have obvious ways to do this.) Every proposed replacement
for ``free software'' has a similar kind of semantic problem, or
worse--and this includes ``open source software.'' ``Free software''
has multiple meanings, not just the intended one; ``open source
software'' has a single natural meaning, but it is not the intended
The obvious meaning for ``open source software'' is ``You can look at
the source code.'' This is a much weaker criterion than ``free
software''; it includes free software, but also includes semi-free
programs such as Xv, and even some proprietary programs, including Qt
under its former license.
That obvious meaning for ``open source'' is not the meaning that its
advocates intend. (Their ``official'' definition is much closer to
``free software.'') The result is that people often misunderstand
them. Of course, this can be addressed by publishing a precise
definition for the term. The people using ``open source software''
have done this, just as we have done for ``free software.'' But this
approach is only partially effective in either case. For free
software, we have to teach people that we intend 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 really fit at
Fear of Freedom
The main argument for the term ``open source software'' is that ``free
software'' makes some people uneasy. That's true: talking about
freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as
convenience, is asking people to think about things they might rather
ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject the
idea for that. 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, in its own terms. Today many
people are switching to free software for purely practical reasons.
That is good, as far as it goes, but that isn't all we need to do!
Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first
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 free software gives them, 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 to business can be 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. Some
GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to
the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an
advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom.
We are failing to keep up with the influx of free software users,
failing to teach people about freedom and our community as fast as
they enter it. This is why non-free software such as Qt was, and
partially non-free operating system distributions, find such fertile
ground. To stop using the word ``free'' now would be a mistake; we
need more, not less, talk about freedom.
Let's hope that those using the term ``open source'' will indeed draw
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, ``It's free software and it gives you
freedom!''--more and louder than ever before.
Would a Trademark Help?
The advocates of ``open source software'' tried to make it a
trademark, saying this would enable them to prevent misuse. The
attempt went awry when the application was allowed to lapse in 1999;
thus, the legal status of ``open source'' is the same as that of
``free software'': there is no legal constraint on using it.
But would it have made a big difference to use a term that is a
trademark? I am not convinced. I heard reports of a number of
companies' calling software packages ``open source'' even though they
did not fit the official definition; I observed some instances myself.
Companies also made announcements that give the impression that a
program is ``open source software'' without explicitly saying so. For
example, one IBM announcement, about a program that did not fit the
official definition, said this: As is common in the open source
community, users of the ... technology will also be able to
collaborate with IBM ...
This did not actually say that the program was ``open source'', but
many readers did not notice that detail. (I should note that IBM was
sincerely trying to make this program free software, and later adopted
a new license which does make it free software and ``open source'';
but when the announcement was made, the program did not qualify as
And here is how Cygnus Solutions, which was formed to be a free
software company and subsequently branched out (so to speak) into
proprietary software, advertised some proprietary software products:
Cygnus Solutions is a leader in the open source market and has just
launched two products into the Linux marketplace.
Unlike IBM, Cygnus was not trying to make these packages free
software, and the packages did not come close to qualifying. But
Cygnus didn't actually say that these are ``open source software'',
they just made a vague statement to try to obtain the favorable
attitude that comes with that term.
Individuals also frequently misunderstand the term. Here is how writer
Neal Stephenson defined ``open source'': Linux is "open source"
software meaning, simply, that anyone can get copies of its source
I don't think he deliberately sought to reject or argue with the
``official'' definition. He simply applied the conventions of the
English language, and reached the natural conclusion.
These observations suggest that a trademark would not have truly
solved the problems with the term ``open source''.
Misunderstandings(?) of ``Open Source''
The Open Source Definition is clear enough, and it is quite clear that
the typical non-free program does not qualify. So you would think that
``Open Source company'' would mean one whose products are free
software, right? Alas, many companies are trying to give it a
At the ``Open Source Developers Day'' meeting in August 1998, several
of the commercial developers invited said they intend to make only a
part of their work free software (or ``open source''). The focus of
their business is on developing proprietary add-ons (software or
manuals) to sell to the users of this free software. They ask us to
regard this as legitimate, as part of our community, because some of
the money is donated to free software development.
In effect, these companies seek to gain the favorable cachet of ``open
source'' for their proprietary software products--even though those
are not ``open source software''--because they have some relationship
to free software or because the same company also maintains some free
software. (One company founder said quite explicitly that they would
put, into the free package they support, as little of their work as
the community would stand for.)
Over the years, many companies have contributed to free software
development. Some of these companies primarily developed non-free
software, but the two activities were separate; thus, we could ignore
their non-free products, and work with them on free software projects.
Then we could honestly thank them afterward for their free software
contributions, without talking about the rest of what they did.
We cannot do the same with these new companies, because they won't go
along with it. These companies actively try to lead the public to lump
all their activities together; they want us to regard their non-free
software as favorably as we would regard a real contribution, although
it is not one. They present themselves as ``open source companies,''
hoping that we will get a warm fuzzy feeling about them, and that we
will be fuzzy-minded in applying it.
This manipulative practice would be no less harmful if it were done
using the term ``free software.'' But companies do not seem to use the
term ``free software'' that way; perhaps its association with idealism
makes it seem unsuitable. The term ``open source'' opened the door for
At a trade show in late 1998, dedicated to the operating system often
referred to as ``Linux'', the featured speaker was an executive from a
prominent software company. He was probably invited on account of his
company's decision to ``support'' that system. Unfortunately, their
form of ``support'' consists of releasing non-free software that works
with the system--in other words, using our community as a market but
not contributing to it.
He said, ``There is no way we will make our product open source, but
perhaps we will make it `internal' open source. If we allow our
customer support staff to have access to the source code, they could
fix bugs for the customers, and we could provide a better product and
better service.'' (This is not an exact quote, as I did not write his
words down, but it gets the gist.)
People in the audience afterward told me, ``He just doesn't get the
point.'' But is that so? Which point did he not get?
He did not miss the usual point associated with the term ``open
source.'' That point says nothing about freedom, it says only that
allowing more people to look at the source code and help improve it
will make for faster and better development. The executive grasped
that point completely; unwilling for other reasons to carry out this
approach in full, users included, he was considering implementing it
partially, within the company.
The point that he missed is the point that ``open source'' was
designed not to raise: the point that users deserve freedom.
Spreading the idea of freedom is a big job--it needs your help. The
GNU project will stick to the term ``free software''. If you feel that
freedom and community are important for their own sake--not just for
the convenience they bring--please join us in using the term ``free
Relationship between the Free Software movement and Open Source movement
The Free Software movement and the Open Source movement are like two
political parties within our community.
Radical groups are known for factionalism: organizations split because
of disagreements on details of strategy, and then hate each other.
They agree on the basic principles, and disagree only on practical
recommendations; but they consider each other enemies, and fight each
other tooth and nail.
For the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement, it is
just the opposite on every point. We disagree on the basic principles,
but agree on most practical recommendations. We work together on many
In the Free Software movement, we don't think of the Open Source
movement as an enemy. The enemy is proprietary software. But we do
want people in our community to know that we are not the same as them!
So please mention the Free Software movement when you talk about the
work we have done, and the software we have developed--such as the
GNU/Linux operating system.
Copyright (C) 1998, 1999 Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple
Place - Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted
in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.
Updated: 6 Nov 1999 jonas
> #if Ji Lee
>> On Thursday, February 10, 2000 6:56 PM, Noah L. Meyerhans wrote:
>> > GPL states that GPL code can only link against closed-source libraries
>> > *if* those closed source libraries are distributed as a standard part of
>> > "the system". That's why we never saw this problem when linking GPL code
>> Does that mean that no GPLed programs can be linked to commecial libraries
>> such as Oracle because Oracle library doesn't ship as a part of "the
>> I saw a few programs that will let you access Oracle which (I think) are
>> under GPL.
>> Maybe you could define exacly what "the system" means?
> Good question.
> And what does 'commercial' mean ? Does it mean that these things
> sell for money ? Linux distributors sell LGPL libraries as a part
> of the system, so are they commercial ? Or does 'commercial' mean
> closed source ? If so, no problem. Qt is Open Source, and declared
> to be so by all the major Open Source experts.
> > > has been certified as open source by groups like OSI and SPI. However,
> > > the QPL is not 100% compatible with the GPL, so a small exception has to
> > > be made in the GPL so it can be linked with QPL code. The problem here is
> > What are those small exceptions?
> > just-curious-;)-ly y'rs
> Just stuff that's been bandied about without any real basis I think.
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