Free Software


Software whose source code is liberated from the shackles of restrictive copyright and licensing. The Free Software isn't about price; you may still have to pay for it (although you usually don't).

If you've got the knowledge of all things computerised, it's a hell of a good idea. Copylefted software could be debugged by its own users. Brilliant! --TL

The Free Software is indeed very like a good idea. The fundamental idea, that software should be malleable by its users, is a good one in principle. However, there are a couple of practical hitches; the first is that the vast majority of users don't have the skills necessary to do it (although they may know someone who does, so it's not that bad) and the second is that the vast corporations which produce most software really, really don't want you to see their code (for various unconvincing reasons). There is a more moderate alternative to Free Software, known as Open Source, which phrases its licenses so that, although its followers release the source code to their software, they don't force others to do the same. This doesn't lead to the us-and-them division between the rebels and the corps that is generated by the Free Software movement.


It is a mildly interesting ethical question as to which of the Free Software and Open Source camps are right. The Free Software people argue that with Open Source licenses, it is possible for a company to take your free code and use it as part of their own product, for which they can then charge money and not release source; thus, they're taking advantage of you. The Open Source people counter that the realistic alternative, if the software was under a Free Software license, the company wouldn't use it at all; thus, the choice is simply between the company making the software or not making the software, of which the former is preferable (it's probably more a case of the options being proprietary software enhanced by stolen Open Source code or not, in which case the choice is even clearer - good software or bad).

What it comes down to is that Free Software is idealistic; Open Source is pragmatic.

Political Analogy

The Free Software movement is like the Soviet communists (in the 1950s at least), with commercial sofware playing the role of the evil capitalists. They have an radical alternative vision, based on common ownership, which is entirely incompatible with that of their opponents; the only possible end result is the extermination of proprietary software by the inevitable historical dialectic of Free Software. The movement is helmed by the idealogues of the FSF (much like the communist party), and most of its work carried out under the auspices of the GNU project (analogous to the state).

The Open Source movement is more like the European socialists, who tried to win power democratically, essentially playing by the rules set by the capitalists. Open Source doesn't impose its views on others by coercion, but simply works to make good software. They envision a world where most software needs can be met by Open Source software, but where proprietary software can still exist; the end result they will acheive will be a general improvement in the availability of good software. A shining (if obscure) example of this is the BSD TCP/IP stack: this is the software which handled networking in BSD (a venerable Open Source unix, progenitor of Free BSD), and it has been copied and modified by countless operating systems since, including linux and windows; without BSD, these O Ss would not have networking anywhere as good as that which they have now. Unlike the Free Software movement, Open Source has no central command; the closest thing is the Open Source Institute?, a relatively new and entirely powerless body. Instead, there are many separate groups, each working on their own software, swapping code where they can, and each using a different license (although they all say more or less the same thing).


If you wanted to dramatise the Free Software/Open Source story, you'd need characters. The big two would doubtless be Richard Stallman?, the messiah of Free Software, and Eric Raymond, the guru of Open Source. Both are fat old American men with substantial facial hair.

Richard M. Stallman

Eric S. Raymond

For a general guide to the celebrities of the Free Software/Open Source world, see <>. Oh yeah, it's in dutch.

Other great hairy software folk heroes include Larry Wall? (who wrote perl) and James Gosling? (who wrote emacs).

Category Geekery

Fri, 06 Jun 2003 21:26:42 GMT Front Page Recent Changes Message Of The Day