The free software movement and the open source software movement have many things in common. Both value sharing the source code of programs, for example. It is not rare that software considered free is also open source, although that is not always the case. Many people are sympathetic towards both and participate in the activities of the two. But if there is so much in common between them, what is it that separates one from the other?
Today’s post explores the differences and the connections between the free software movement and the open source movement. And to understand that, it is necessary to go back to the origins of both movements.
From a culture of collaboration to a context of restricted access
When the first modern computers were being developed during the 1950s, there was much demand for fast progress and short labour supply. In addition, many programmers were formed in a scientific tradition in which intellectual cooperation and peer review practices were valued. These factors favored a culture of collaboration which marked historical projects such as the Unix operating system.
This collaborative environment started to change due to the growth of the software industry during the 1970s. A milestone of this transition was an open letter from Bill Gates to “hobbysts” programmers in 1976. In the letter, he criticized the sharing of Microsoft’s Altair BASIC software amongst them and accused them of stealing software. Another milestone was the segmentation of the source-code of Unix as different commercial projects based on it started to compete with each other.
According to the researchers Maria Carlotto and Pablo Ortellado, this period shows a transition from a “public/scientific” regime towards a “private/business” regime of software development. The new regime was characterized by the adoption of tougher measures in relation to software distribution and by restricting access to its source-code on the part of the companies.
“Open letter to Hobbysts”
Free Software, Copyleft e and the emergence of GNU/Linux
Some programmers that watched such change happening wanted to preserve the culture of collaboration and user freedom to read and change the source code. One of those was an MIT programmer called Richard Stallman, who started a collaborative operating system project based on these values in 1983: the GNU. The sigle meant GNU’s Not Unix because the system would run Unix programs, but would be a distinct system protected against the splintering of the source code that Unix had suffered.
In 1985, Stallman started the Free Software Foundation and published the GNU Manifesto, a document presenting the ideals behind the project and inviting others to participate. In order to assure that those ideals would have legal protection, all of GNU’s tools were produced under a special license called General Public License (GPL). It allowed for the program to be used, modified, copied and distributed (both in original and modified versions) as long as the same freedoms were preserved in every copy.
This rule worked as a method to block access restriction to the source code and it became known as copyleft, in a wordplay with copyright. During the 1980s, many tools associated with GNU were developed under GPL, but the system still lacked a kernel (the part of the system that does the communication between software and hardware). This was resolved in 1992, when a Finnish engineer called Linus Torvalds made a license of a kernel that he was developing compatible with GNU. That kernel was called Linux and so it was born the GNU/Linux system, which became know for its efficiency and stability during the 1990s.
GNU and Linux symbols
The Birth of Open Source
GNU/Linux success attracted business sector interest towards the way by which the system was developed. A milestone in the increase of such interest was a speech given by programmer Eric Raymond during a free software event of 1997, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. His argument was that the Linux kernel development model was inherently more efficient than the model that prevailed both in commercial software production and in the GNU project.
In the GNU development, even though the program’s source code was released at every version release, changes made between versions were restricted to a few programmers. Each version, said Raymond, was like a cathedral slowly built by a centralized and isolated group. In the creation of the Linux kernel, on the other hand, all of the changes were published online instantly e anyone could use them and suggest new changes, as in a chaotic bazaar. To him, the “Bazaar model” was technically superior because it made easier to detect and quickly correct errors and problems.
Amongst the speech’s impacts, one of the most relevant was influencing Netscape, Microsoft’s greatest competitor in the browser field back then, to disclose its browser source code in 1998. Days after the announcement, some of the leading members of the free software movement had a meeting and decided to replace the term free software with Open Source Software. The new movement had a discourse that focused on technical efficiency and sought a closer relationship with the industry. Its main representative, the Open Source Initiative (OSI), would be created a month later.
This was done because the ambiguity of the term free software made businessmen uneasy. The misunderstanding revolving around “free” persisted despite Stallman’s insistence on the meaning of the term as being free as in free speech, not free beer. Besides, the political and moral emphasis of free software in users freedom pushed the industry away. Such posture was seen as excessively political and combative.
So in the end, what’s the difference?
Based on what was previously exposed, we can conclude that the differences between the free software and the open source movements are historical and ideological. This is the position of anthropologist Rafael Evangelista, to whom both distinguish themselves due to the strategies, discourses and organizations that each mobilizes in order to pursue its goals. Free software has a political and moral focus on freedom, not rarely favors using only free software and it is very associated with FSF. Open Source, on the other hand, admits coexisting with proprietary software, focuses on the technical quality of its productive model and is often connected to OSI.
It is important to also understand that these movements are not homogeneous nor stagnant and that they assume different connotations in different contexts. In this sense, anthropologist Gabriela Coleman notes a “political agnosticism” prevailing in open source and free software movements in the USA. In Brazil, a country that hosts the International Free Software Forum since 2000, Evangelista finds that the free software movement was connected to other ideas of social change.
Now that you understood what is free software and what is open source, find out more about the technical implications of disclosing the source code or not in our post about transparency in process distribution algorithms.