Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different


There are two major terms connected to software you can freely use, study, share and improve: Free Software and Open Source. Based on them you can also find different combinations and translations like FOSS, Libre Software, FLOSS and so on. Reading articles about Free Software or listening to people involved in Free Software often raises the question: Why do they use one term or another and how they differ from each other?

Historical background

Historically, Free Software was the first term, created somewhere around 1984 together with the Free Software definition. In 1997 Debian, a project aiming to create a completely free and community based GNU/Linux distribution, defined the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) as a check-list to decide whether a program can be included in the distribution or not. In 1998 the Open Source Initiative was set up as a marketing campaign for Free Software and introduced the Open Source definition by copying the DFSG and replacing “Free Software” with “Open Source”. According to a public statement by Bruce Perens, one of the founders of the OSI and author of the DFSG and Open Source Definition, the Open Source term was introduced as a synonym for Free Software. Perens eventually decided to return to the roots of the movement and to speak about Free Software again. This historical development shows that both Open Source and Free Software describe the complete set of software licenses granting the right to use, study, share and improve the software.

In the course of time people came up with even more terms. Today, terms such as Libre Software, FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) or FLOSS (Free, Libre and Open Source Software) are often used to describe Free Software. In some cases people also use terms like “organic software” or “ethical software”. Often the motivation for these terms is to stay out of the terminology debate and to avoid confusion generated by words like “open” or “free”. At the end those terms create more confusion than they help because they virtually invite people to search for differences between the terms where actually no differences exist, regarding the software they describe.

In short, these different terms share the same historical root and describe the same set of software, although the choice of one term over the others highlight different aspects of Free Software.

Usage of the terms by different people and organisations within the movement

Today the Free Software movement is a large and diverse community. People have different interests in Free Software and different motivations to take part in this movement. But these differences are not necessarily related to the language they use. There are many people using the term Open Source and highlight the social and political dimensions of Free Software while on the other hand there are a people in our community who prefer the term Free Software but concentrate more on the practical benefits. This means that the terms Open Source and Free Software are not a good criterion to identify these different motivations.

Beside individuals there are also many well known organisations in the Free Software ecosystem. Many of them play an important role and emphasize different aspects of Free Software. For example, some organisations focus on the technical direction of Free Software projects, some on legal aspects, some on political, social and ethical aspects and some focus on license evaluation. These organisations typically have decided to use one or another term and sticked to it. But this should not lead to the conclusion that the term they use is the critical factor regarding their motivations. The critical factor are the people driving the organisation and the goals of the organisation as such. The practical experience with different organisations and people in the community shows that the line can’t be drawn along the language they use.

This diversity is good, as it reflects that Free Software provides many advantages in many different areas of our life. But we should not divide our community just by the term someone prefers. No matter what term someone uses and what his initial motivation is, at the end most of us work on the same set of software and on the enhancement of software freedom and any other aspect of Free Software.

License evaluation

There are three entities in the Free Software movement which people look to for evaluations of Free Software licenses: The Debian project, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Open Source Initiative (OSI). Most of the time they come to the same conclusion. In some corner cases they may disagree. In such cases the differences do not lie in different terms or different definitions, which as already shown have the same origin, but in the fact that it happens quite often that different people come to different conclusions for challenging legal questions. It would be a big mistake to use these cases to divide our community.

Protective and non-protective licenses

Looking at Free Software licenses there are two main categories, protective or Copyleft licenses and non-protective licenses. While Copyleft licenses are designed to protect the rights to use, study, share and improve the software non-protective licenses allow to distribute the software without those rights. Sometimes people think that the terms Free Software and Open Source are used to distinguish between protective and non-protective licenses. The lists of Free Software licenses by Debian, the FSF and the OSI show that both protective and non-protective licenses comply with the Free Software definition and the Open Source definition. This means that neither the terms Open Source and Free Software nor the different definitions are suitable to distinguish between protective and non-protective licenses.

This graphic should visualise the different software categories and their connection

Protective licenses and non-protective licenses are sub-classes of Free Software licenses recognized by the Open Source Initiative and the FSF. Copyleft or non-Copyleft is not a criteria suitable to distinguish between Open Source and Free Software, both terms describe the same set of software.

Development model

When looking at software we have to distinguish between the software model and the development model. While the software model describes the attributes of the software (e.g. free or proprietary) the development model describes different ways to develop software. As described at full length in “What makes a Free Software company?” the different development models are defined independently of the software models and work for both Free Software and proprietary software. Development models that leverage the advantage of an open and collaborative community can show their full strength in combination with the Free Software model. However this does not mean that an open, collaborative development process is a criterion for Free Software. There are Free Software projects developed by a single person or a company with little or no outside input. On the other hand developers of proprietary software have adapted collaborative development models to fit into their software model, e.g. SAP with its partnership program.

While the development model can be a crucial factor for the success of a software project it is not suitable to distinguish between proprietary software and Free Software or one of its synonyms.

Why do I still insist on calling it Free Software if it is all the same?

If all these terms describe the same software people may wonder why I insist on using the term Free Software. The easiest answer is that I simply have to choose a term if I want to talk about Free Software. As explained in the article all the terms describe the same set of software, therefore I don’t see any value in combining them (e.g. FOSS or FLOSS). Quite the contrary, this combinations often create more confusion than clarity. So the remaining terms are Free Software and Open Source and I decided to stick with Free Software.

Free Software is the oldest term. All other terms have their roots in the Free Software definition. It is a good tradition in science to use the first term and definition given by its author. Furthermore it is also advantageous if a term can be easily translated into different languages​​. This enables people to talk about Free Software in the most natural way, in their first language. In many cases Free Software even translates unambiguously into other languages, e.g. “logiciel libre” in French, “software libre” in Spanish, “software libero” in Italian or “Fri Software” in Danish which avoids the ambiguity between freedom and price of the English word “free”. I believe that it is important to use a clear terminology. I want to convey a strong message about freedom. Language is important because it frames how people think about a subject. Different terms focus on different aspects, even if they describe the same software and the language we use influences our thoughts about a subject. For me freedom is a core value of Free Software and I want that my language reflects this.

Free Software, which is easy to translate in different languages and emphasises the aspect of freedom for individuals, business and public institutions, together with the clear definition provides these values. All this makes Free Software the right choice for me and I invite you to follow me.

Conclusion

For historical reasons there are different terms to describe software that is free to use, study, share and improve. All terms, Open Source, Free Software or one of the combinations have the same roots and describe the same set of software. When it comes to people and groups within the Free Software movement we see a large diversity of motivations, different people or groups focus on different aspects of Free Software. But whatever the motivation may be it is not the doing of the software, it is the people. Neither is it possible to distinguish the people according to the term they use nor is it the business of the Free Software movement or part of the Free Software definition to find and define groups within our community. The Free Software movement identifies Free Software and works on the enhancement and adoption of it with all its positive aspects. Regarding licenses, different groups agree in their evaluation of Free Software licenses except for some corner cases which shows the complexity of legal documents but not a division between people, movements or software along the terms they use. Protective (Copyleft) and non-protective licenses are sub-classes of Free Software licenses and are recognised as such by all groups in the Free Software movement. These two categories are not suitable to separate Open Source and Free Software.

Even if all these terms describe the same set of software the terminology we use is still important because it frames how people think about a subject. Different terms focus on different aspects, even if they describe the same software. I want to put freedom first, for me freedom is a core value of Free Software and I want to respect the naming by the founder of the Free Software movement. These are the main reasons why I invite you to join me and speak about Free Software.

But no matter which term we use, we should not allow people to split our community just because of different terminology. At the end most of us work on the same set of software, improve it and foster software freedom no matter what our motivation or preferred term is. The community needs to stay together to have an impact on all levels of involvement and to improve Free Software in all aspects. Don’t let others use the strategy of “divide and conqueror” to harm our movement.

In this context you should also read “It’s time for the community to take charge of its brand”.

Edit: The Comment by Bob McConnell shows that maybe the point “copyleft vs non-copyleft” needs to be addressed more explicitly. Therefore I added the sub-section “Protective and non-protective licenses” which was initially planed but got lost somewhere in the process of writing the article

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43 Responses to “Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different”

  1. eMBee says:

    the last paragraph really nails it: “we should not allow people to split our community just because of different terminology”. i wish RMS would consider that too.

    and, while i too prefer the term “Free Software”, there is one issue that is in favor of the term “Open Source”: try to search for software using either term.

    greetings, eMBee.

  2. MJ Ray says:

    I sometimes use cooperatively-developed software but I’m clear that I mean the same as free software. People don’t search for either free software or open source anyway: they search in specialised repos, or for project or licence names.

  3. David Bruce says:

    “People don’t search for either free software or open source anyway”

    That’s true if you are referring to people actually trying to obtain software, but it may not be true for a layperson trying to understand what is meant by the terms “Free Software” or “Open Source Software”.

    I use the term Free Software, but in real life I find that it is *always* misunderstood at first by laypeople. They always assume it means “free of charge”, such as binary-only “shareware”, bundled proprietary programs like Internet Explorer, or ad-supported smartphone apps. “Open Source” is also subject to misunderstanding (or outright abuse), but not as drastically. People may assume it simply means that the source code can be viewed. That’s not the actual meaning, of course, but it conveys more about freedom than when people see “free” and think only of “gratis”.

    I do like the term “Software Freedom”, and try to phrase sentences that way when speaking of the social issues. Doing so rightly emphasizes that freedom is a higher value than then specific utility of a particular program.

  4. eMBee says:

    for linux desktop software that may be the case, (i usually incluse the word “linux” in the search term because chances are it will find me free software, and i can easely skip the odd non-free offer) but try to find any Free Software applications for android in one of the markets some time. very often the license is missing in the description, also with the many license choices that’s just painful until someone comes up with a specific search engine for that sort of stuff…

    greetings, eMBee.

    • Björn says:

      @eMBee: Do you know F-Droid? This is a catalogue of Free Software only applications for Android.

      • eMBee says:

        i know and use f-droid, it is not a cataloge but a separate repository. there is a lot more out there than what f-droid offers. hopefully that will change. but anyways, my point was about the unfortunate unsuitability of “Free Software” as a search term.

        greetings, eMBee.

  5. Bob McConnell says:

    You are missing one significant issue. There are two sets of licenses, and they are not compatible with each other. The open source crowd uses a BSD or MIT style license which allows the software to be used in proprietary applications without continuing to release the source code. Because of this, Microsoft was able to use the BSD network code for the TCP/IP drivers in MS-Windows for years(*). But the Free Software code uses either version 2 or 3 of the GPL, which requires all of the source code linked with it to continue to be freely distributed. That is why it is Free Software, it will always be free. It can not be hidden away in other people’s private stock.

    (*) Search the system drive on any version of MS-Windows between Win95 and Vista for the text “University of California”. They complied with the BSD license by including the copyright statement in each and every file that included code from the BSD Unix source tree. But they couldn’t do that with the drivers for Linux Virtual Machines. They were forced to publish that under the GPL or stop distributing it.

    • eMBee says:

      the whole point of the article is that this is not the issue. the open source definition includes the GPL, and Free software includes BSD or MIT style licenses. read http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html and especially see:
      http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/categories.html which shows software under lax permissive license is included in Free Software: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/categories.html#Non-CopyleftedFreeSoftware

      greetings, eMBee.

      • Bob McConnell says:

        I must vehemently disagree with this. The whole point is the difference in the licenses. Richard defined four freedoms that are required for software (see below). The open source licenses do not protect all four of them. Some of them barely even protect the first one. Therefore they are not sufficient to be called Free Software.

        There is one other point that needs to be made. If you are content donating your time and effort for free to enlarge Bill Gate’s wealth, or to profit a company that has been convicted of unlawful activity in 23 countries, go ahead and use the open source licenses. But don’t expect me to agree with your attempts to pretend you didn’t just do that.

        Bob McConnell

        RMS: The 4 Freedoms
        0 run the program for any purpose
        1 study the source code and change it
        2 make copies and distribute them
        3 publish modified versions

        • Hugo Roy says:

          “I must vehemently disagree with this. The whole point is the difference in the licenses. Richard defined four freedoms that are required for software (see below). The open source licenses do not protect all four of them. Some of them barely even protect the first one. Therefore they are not sufficient to be called Free Software.”

          You don’t understand. There are very different kinds of Free Software and Open Source litcenses. Some of them are copyleft (or “protective”) and some of them are not protective. The MIT and BSD licenses are not protective at all compared to the GPL. But they are ALL Free Software.

          If you want to know if a license qualifies for Free Software or Open Source (they are the SAME) you have to look at what type of *rights* are granted to the user. Look at what RMS wrote in the Free Software definition: “A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms” (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html) Moreover: “Freedom 3 includes the freedom to release your modified versions as free software. A free license _may_ also permit other ways of releasing them; in other words, _it does not have to be a copyleft license._”

          That is clear enough.

          People can have various reasons for choosing different licenses and different strategy. Choosing the BSD or Apache 2.0 licenses does not necessarily mean you are “donating your time” to Microsoft as you put it. In some cases, the FSF itself advises to use such non-copyleft licenses (they recommend the Apache 2.0 over the BSD/MIT because it has a better protection against software patents).

        • eMBee says:

          please read the links i posted!

          Free Software: any license that allows the 4 freedoms.
          Copyleft: any license that protects the 4 freedoms.
          Open Source: any license that allows the 4 freedoms (and a few more rules: http://opensource.org/docs/osd )

          therefore BSD and MIT licenses are Free Software in the eyes of the FSF. they are not Copyleft. GPL and similar licenses are Copyleft.

          greetings, eMBee.

          • Sam Tuke says:

            Thats true. We’re talking about facts here. Read the respective pages on the FSF and OSI websites.

    • Hugo says:

      ” There are two sets of licenses, and they are not compatible with each other”

      This is not true. The BSD/MIT and other similar old and short non-copyleft licenses are actually compatible with nearly everything. Compatible means that code licensed under these can be combined with code under another license B and distributed altogether under that license B.

      So BSD can be distributed with GPL for instance. Of course, that is not true the other way around because the set of obligations of the GPL is larger than that of the BSD.

      Anyway, the legal landscape, in terms of compatibility is way more complicated than just “two sets of licenses”. But of course that’s only a minor detail related to thjis article. Bjorn has already pointed out quite clearly that both copyleft and non-copyleft licenses are part of the same categories in terms of software freedom–whether you call it Open Source or Free Software, none of them designates exactly only one category of license.

  6. Access Space says:

    Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different http://t.co/VV1pL3z9

  7. readingComprehension says:

    In regards to your source article [https://fsfe.org/freesoftware/enterprise/chargeofitsbrand], you do know what the word “false” means, right?

  8. Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different – http://t.co/E7zdxNor http://t.co/E7zdxNor

  9. Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different http://t.co/sHkifbSC #freedom

  10. [...] Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different [...]

  11. Tim Kissane says:

    Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different: There are two major terms connected to… http://t.co/YX2s2o4z Pls RT

  12. ohdediku.com says:

    Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different: There are two major terms connected to softwa… http://t.co/WaPbZ5E8

  13. A relatively level headed approach to the differences in free, open, free-open, and free-libre-open. http://t.co/xjZathOK

  14. ovigia says:

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  15. Aron says:

    As I have understand things Free Software and Open Source it two different things. While all Free Software is Open Source all Open Source is not Free Software.

    We can be happy that a lot of the Open Source uses the GPL/BSD license and therefore also is Free Software.

    Your post only makes it more confusing.

    At the bottom of http://www.fsf.org/

    you have this link:
    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html

    I think thats FSF point of view on this subject.

    • Goyo says:

      I bet you won’t be able to show us a piece of open source software which is not free software.

    • Sam Tuke says:

      “As I have understand things Free Software and Open Source it two different things” – I think you have misunderstood things. This article is correct. It isn’t a simple thing to grasp unfortunately, which is why we still need articles like this, and speeches on the subject (which I give).

  16. tuxtrans says:

    Free Software, Open Source, FOSS, FLOSS – Same same but different – http://t.co/cYILAJQx http://t.co/cYILAJQx

  17. Clear cut article about Free Software, Open Source, Floss…by Björn Schießle @schiessle
    >>> http://t.co/8TPZcBAK #opensource #freesoftware

  18. #FreeSoftware , #OpenSource , #FOSS , #FLOSS – Same same but different – http://t.co/83kxFjm1 http://t.co/83kxFjm1 #fsfe

  19. Sam Tuke says:

    > If all these terms describe the same software people may wonder why I insist on using the term Free Software.

    I suggest you replace the period with a question mark at the end there.

  20. Brian (not the) Messiah says:

    Well this whole debate is summed up quite nicely here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gb_qHP7VaZE

    For this is exactly what you look like to the rest of the world.

    nb. Romans=microsoft
    Judea=software

  21. micu says:

    First of all: Thanks for this nice and well-written article!

    There are many people using the term Open Source and highlight the social and political dimensions of Free Software while on the other hand there are a people in our community who prefer the term Free Software but concentrate more on the practical benefits.

    Kudos for highlighting this IMO important aspect of the Free Software vs. Open Source debate. Because AFAICS this is something a lot of people (including RMS) did not realize yet: In the early days of the Open Source Initiative, it actually was the idea of the term Open Source to cut off the political, social, ethical, freedom etc. aspects of Free Software and emphasize the technical benefits a FOSS software and development model can give to you.

    But nowadays, a lot of people get to know Free Software as »Open Source software« and appreciate (also) the freedom aspects and not (only) the practical aspects of Open Source — as you already have mentioned. There is not two separate communities, an »Open Source community« and a »Free Software community«.

    If all these terms describe the same software people may wonder why I insist on using the term Free Software. The easiest answer is that I simply have to choose a term if I want to talk about Free Software. As explained in the article all the terms describe the same set of software, therefore I don’t see any value in combining them (e.g. FOSS or FLOSS).

    I actually do see some arguments that speak in favor of a combined term like FOSS and FLOSS:

    1. Both the terms Free Software and Open Source can be misleading. They feel so natural that they may invoke the wrong impression that their meaning is easy to grasp and that their definition can be deduced heuristically. I experienced that in several situations.
    a) Free Software can be confused with Freeware (which is indeed one of the things the OSI guys criticize(d) about the term »Free Software«),
    b) and the term Open Source might imply that it suffices to publish the source code of a software for it to become Open Source software (which is one of the things RMS criticizes about the term »Open Source«).

    Terms like »Free and open-source software«, »FOSS«, »FLOSS« or »Free/Libre Open Source Software« sound so much like a specific term (which they are, so are »Free Software« and »Open Source«) that people want to do a research first before they (wrongly) think that they know what you are talking about (»Ah yeah, Free Software, I know, that is that non-commercial software shareware stuff…«).

    2. Although it is not that important anymore as in the early days of the term Open Source and although I believe there has never really been an »Open Source community«, which somehow was an enemy to the Free Software community; I think it is a good thing about the mixed terms that they emphasize that you are »on both sides« and that you are about connecting people and not dividing and splitting them.

    Quite the contrary, this combinations often create more confusion than clarity.

    That clearly is an argument that speaks against these mixed terms.

    For these reasons and the reasons given by you in your blog post, I myself slightly prefer the term Free Software, but I use the terms Free Software, FOSS, FLOSS (and seldom Open Source) interchangeably.

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