Is Open Source Really Free

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is software that is both free software and open-source software[a] where anyone is freely licensed to use, copy, study, and change the software in any way, and the source code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve the design of the software.[3] This is in contrast to proprietary software, where the software is under restrictive copyright licensing and the source code is usually hidden from the users.

FOSS maintains the software user’s civil liberty rights (see the Four Essential Freedoms, below). Other benefits of using FOSS can include decreased software costs, increased security and stability (especially in regard to malware), protecting privacy, education, and giving users more control over their own hardware. Free and open-source operating systems such as Linux and descendants of BSD are widely utilized today, powering millions of serversdesktops, smartphones (e.g., Android), and other devices.[4][5] Free-software licenses and open-source licenses are used by many software packages. The free software movement and the open-source software movement are online social movements behind widespread production and adoption of FOSS, with the former preferring to use the terms FLOSS or free/libre.

Free software[edit]

Richard Stallman‘s Free Software Definition, adopted by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), defines free software as a matter of liberty not price,[8] and it upholds the Four Essential Freedoms. The earliest-known publication of the definition of his free-software idea was in the February 1986 edition[9] of the FSF’s now-discontinued GNU’s Bulletin publication. The canonical source for the document is in the philosophy section of the GNU Project website. As of August 2017, it is published in 40 languages.[10]

Four essential freedoms of Free Software[edit]

To meet the definition of “free software”, the FSF requires the software’s licensing respect the civil liberties / human rights of what the FSF calls the software user’s “Four Essential Freedoms“.[11]

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.[11]

Open source[edit]

The Open Source Definition is used by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to determine whether a software license qualifies for the organization’s insignia for open-source software. The definition was based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines, written and adapted primarily by Bruce Perens.[12][13] Perens did not base his writing on the Four Essential Freedoms of free software from the Free Software Foundation, which were only later available on the web.[14] Perens subsequently stated that he felt Eric Raymond‘s promotion of open-source unfairly overshadowed the Free Software Foundation’s efforts and reaffirmed his support for free software.[15] In the following 2000s, he spoke about open source again.[16]

Practical Differences between Free Software and Open Source

In practice, open source stands for criteria a little looser than those of free software. As far as we know, all existing released free software source code would qualify as open source. Nearly all open source software is free software, but there are exceptions.

First, some open source licenses are too restrictive, so they do not qualify as free licenses. For example, Open Watcom is nonfree because its license does not allow making a modified version and using it privately. Fortunately, few programs use such licenses.

Second, the criteria for open source are concerned solely with the licensing of the source code. However, people often describe an executable as “open source,” because its source code is available that way. That causes confusion in paradoxical situations where the source code is open source (and free) but the executable itself is nonfree.

The trivial case of this paradox is when a program’s source code carries a weak free license, one without copyleft, but its executables carry additional nonfree conditions. Supposing the executables correspond exactly to the released sources—which may or may not be so—users can compile the source code to make and distribute free executables. That’s why this case is trivial; it is no grave problem.

The nontrivial case is harmful and important. Many products containing computers check signatures on their executable programs to block users from effectively using different executables; only one privileged company can make executables that can run in the device and use its full capabilities. We call these devices “tyrants,” and the practice is called “tivoization” after the product (Tivo) where we first saw it. Even if the executable is made from free source code, and nominally carries a free license, the users cannot usefully run modified versions of it, so the executable is de-facto nonfree.

Many Android products contain nonfree tivoized executables of Linux, even though its source code is under GNU GPL version 2. (We designed GNU GPL version 3 to prohibit this practice; too bad Linux did not adopt it.) These executables, made from source code that is open source and free, are generally spoken of as “open source,” but they are not free software.

Practical Differences between Free Software and Open Source

In practice, open source stands for criteria a little looser than those of free software. As far as we know, all existing released free software source code would qualify as open source. Nearly all open source software is free software, but there are exceptions.

First, some open source licenses are too restrictive, so they do not qualify as free licenses. For example, Open Watcom is nonfree because its license does not allow making a modified version and using it privately. Fortunately, few programs use such licenses.

Second, the criteria for open source are concerned solely with the licensing of the source code. However, people often describe an executable as “open source,” because its source code is available that way. That causes confusion in paradoxical situations where the source code is open source (and free) but the executable itself is nonfree.

The trivial case of this paradox is when a program’s source code carries a weak free license, one without copyleft, but its executables carry additional nonfree conditions. Supposing the executables correspond exactly to the released sources—which may or may not be so—users can compile the source code to make and distribute free executables. That’s why this case is trivial; it is no grave problem.

The nontrivial case is harmful and important. Many products containing computers check signatures on their executable programs to block users from effectively using different executables; only one privileged company can make executables that can run in the device and use its full capabilities. We call these devices “tyrants,” and the practice is called “tivoization” after the product (Tivo) where we first saw it. Even if the executable is made from free source code, and nominally carries a free license, the users cannot usefully run modified versions of it, so the executable is de-facto nonfree.

Many Android products contain nonfree tivoized executables of Linux, even though its source code is under GNU GPL version 2. (We designed GNU GPL version 3 to prohibit this practice; too bad Linux did not adopt it.) These executables, made from source code that is open source and free, are generally spoken of as “open source,” but they are not free software.

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