Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software - GNU Project Free Software Foundation (2024)

by Richard Stallman

The terms “free software” and “opensource” stand for almost the same range of programs. However,they say deeply different things about those programs, based ondifferent values. The free software movement campaigns for freedomfor the users of computing; it is a movement for freedom and justice.By contrast, the open source idea values mainly practical advantageand does not campaign for principles. This is why we do not agreewith open source, and do not use that term.

When we call software “free,” we mean that it respectsthe users' essential freedoms:the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistributecopies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, notprice, so think of “free speech,” not “freebeer.”

These freedoms are vitally important. They are essential, not justfor the individual users' sake, but for society as a whole because they promote social solidarity—that is, sharing and cooperation. They become even more important as our culture and life activities are increasingly digitized. In a world of digital sounds, images, and words, free software becomes increasingly essential for freedom in general.

Tens of millions of people around the world now use free software;the public schools of some regions of India and Spain now teach all students to use the free GNU/Linux operating system. Most of these users, however, have never heard of the ethical reasons for which we developed this system and built the free software community, because nowadays this system and community are more often spoken of as “open source,” attributing them to a different philosophy in which these freedoms are hardly mentioned.

The free software movement has campaigned for computer users'freedom since 1983. In 1984 we launched the development of the freeoperating system GNU, so that we could avoid the nonfree operating systems that deny freedom to their users. During the 1980s, we developed mostof the essential components of the system and designedthe GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) to release them under—a license designed specifically to protect freedom for all users of a program.

Not all of the users and developers of free softwareagreed with the goals of the free software movement. In 1998, a partof the free software community splintered off and began campaigning inthe name of “open source.” The term was originallyproposed to avoid a possible misunderstanding of the term “freesoftware,” but it soon became associated with philosophicalviews quite different from those of the free software movement.

Some of the supporters of open source considered the term a“marketing campaign for free software,” which would appealto business executives by highlighting the software's practicalbenefits, while not raising issues of right and wrong that they mightnot like to hear. Other supporters flatly rejected the free softwaremovement's ethical and social values. Whichever their views, whencampaigning for open source, they neither cited nor advocated thosevalues. The term “open source” quickly became associatedwith ideas and arguments based only on practical values, such asmaking or having powerful, reliable software. Most of the supportersof open source have come to it since then, and they make the sameassociation. Most discussion of “open source” pays noattention to right and wrong, only to popularity and success; here'sa typical example. A minority of supporters of open source donowadays say freedom is part of the issue, but they are not very visibleamong the many that don't.

The two nowdescribe almost the same category of software, but they stand forviews based on fundamentally different values. For thefree software movement, free software is an ethical imperative,essential respect for the users' freedom. By contrast,the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to makesoftware “better”—in a practical sense only. Itsays that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the practicalproblem at hand.

For the free software movement, however, nonfree software is asocial problem, and the solution is to stop using it and move to freesoftware.

“Free software.” “Open source.” If it's the same software (or nearly so), does it matter which name you use? Yes, because different words convey different ideas. While a free program by any other name would give you the same freedom today, establishing freedom in a lasting way depends above all on teaching people to value freedom. If you want to help do this, it is essential to speak of “free software.”

We in the free software movement don't think of the open sourcecamp as an enemy; the enemy is proprietary (nonfree) software. But wewant people to know we stand for freedom, so we do not accept beingmislabeled as open source supporters. What we advocate is not“open source,” and what we oppose is not “closedsource.” To make this clear, we avoid using those terms.

Practical Differences between Free Software and Open Source

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

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

Second, trademark requirements added on top of the code's copyrightlicense can make a program nonfree. For instance, the Rust compilermay be nonfree, because the trademark conditions forbid selling copiesor distributing modified versions, unless you fully removeall uses of the trademark. Just what that requires inpractice is not clear.

Third, the criteria for open source are concerned solely with theuse of the source code. Indeed, almost all the items inthe Open Source Definitionare formulated as conditions on the software's source licenserather than on what users are free to do. However, peopleoften describe an executable as “open source,” because itssource code is available that way. That causes confusion inparadoxical 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 codecarries a weak free license, one without copyleft, but its executablescarry additional nonfree conditions. Supposing the executablescorrespond exactly to the released sources—which may or may notbe so—users can compile the source code to make and distributefree executables. That's why this case is trivial; it is no graveproblem.

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

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

Common Misunderstandings of “Free Software” and“Open Source”

The term “free software” is prone to misinterpretation:an unintended meaning, “software you can getfor zero price,” fits the term just as well as the intendedmeaning, “software which gives the user certain freedoms.”We address this problem by publishing the definition of free software,and by saying “Think of ‘free speech,’ not ‘free beer.’” This is not a perfect solution; it cannot completely eliminate the problem. An unambiguous and correct term would be better, if it didn't present other problems.

Unfortunately, all the alternatives in English have problems oftheir own. We've looked at many that people havesuggested, but none is so clearly “right” that switchingto it would be a good idea. (For instance, in some contexts theFrench and Spanish word “libre” works well, but people in India do not recognize it at all.) Every proposed replacement for“free software” has some kind of semantic problem—and this includes “open source software.”

The official definition ofopen source software (which is published by the OpenSource Initiative and is too long to include here) was derivedindirectly from our criteria for free software. It is not the same;it is a little looser in some respects. Nonetheless, their definitionagrees with our definition in most cases.

However, the obvious meaning for the expression “open sourcesoftware” is “You can look at the source code.”Indeed, most people seem to misunderstand “open sourcesoftware” that way. (The clear term for that meaning is“source available.”) That criterion is much weaker thanthe free software definition, much weaker also than the officialdefinition of open source. It includes many programs that are neitherfree nor open source.

Why do people misunderstand it that way? Because that is thenatural meaning of the words “open source.” But theconcept for which the open source advocates sought another name wasa variant of that of free software.

Since the obvious meaning for “open source” is not themeaning that its advocates intend, the result is that most peoplemisunderstand the term. According to writer Neal Stephenson,“Linux is ‘open source’ software meaning, simply,that anyone can get copies of its source code files.” I don'tthink he deliberately sought to reject or dispute the officialdefinition. I think he simply applied the conventions of the Englishlanguage to come up with a meaning for the term. The stateof Kansas published a similar definition: “Make use ofopen-source software (OSS). OSS is software for which the source codeis freely and publicly available, though the specific licensingagreements vary as to what one is allowed to do with thatcode.”

The New York Times ran an article that stretched the meaning of the term to refer touser beta testing—letting a few users try an early version andgive confidential feedback—which proprietary software developershave practiced for decades.

The term has even been stretched to include designs for equipmentthatare publishedwithout a patent. Patent-free equipment designs can be laudablecontributions to society, but the term “source code” doesnot pertain to them.

Open source supporters try to deal with this by pointing to theirofficial definition, but that corrective approach is less effectivefor them than it is for us. The term “free software” hastwo natural meanings, one of which is the intended meaning, so aperson who has grasped the idea of “free speech, not freebeer” will not get it wrong again. But the term “opensource” has only one natural meaning, which is different fromthe meaning its supporters intend. So there is no succinct way toexplain and justify its official definition. That makes for worse confusion.

Another misunderstanding of “open source” is the ideathat it means “not using the GNU GPL.” This tends toaccompany another misunderstanding that “free software”means “GPL-covered software.” These are both mistaken,since the GNU GPL qualifies as an open source license and most of theopen source licenses qualify as free software licenses. Thereare many free softwarelicenses aside from the GNU GPL.

The term “open source” has been further stretched byits application to other activities, such as government, education,and science, where there is no such thing as source code, and wherecriteria for software licensing are simply not pertinent. The onlything these activities have in common is that they somehow invitepeople to participate. They stretch the term so far that it onlymeans “participatory” or “transparent,” orless than that. At worst, ithas become a vacuous buzzword.

Different Values Can Lead to Similar Conclusions—but Not Always

Radical groups in the 1960s had a reputation for factionalism: someorganizations split because of disagreements on details of strategy,and the two daughter groups treated each other as enemies despitehaving similar basic goals and values. The right wing made much ofthis and used it to criticize the entire left.

Some try to disparage the free software movement by comparing ourdisagreement with open source to the disagreements of those radicalgroups. They have it backwards. We disagree with the open sourcecamp on the basic goals and values, but their views and ours lead inmany cases to the same practical behavior—such as developingfree software.

As a result, people from the free software movement and the opensource camp often work together on practical projects such as softwaredevelopment. It is remarkable that such different philosophical viewscan so often motivate different people to participate in the sameprojects. Nonetheless, there are situations where these fundamentallydifferent views lead to very different actions.

The idea of open source is that allowing users to change andredistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable.But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software arenot necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program thatis powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users'freedom. Free software activists and open source enthusiasts willreact very differently to that.

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced bythe ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were ableto make the program work so well without using our development model,but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will rewardschemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is veryattractive, but I value my freedom more. So I reject your program. Iwill get my work done some other way, and support a project to developa free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act tomaintain and defend it.

Powerful, Reliable Software Can Be Bad

The idea that we want software to be powerful and reliable comesfrom the supposition that the software is designed to serve its users.If it is powerful and reliable, that means it serves them better.

But software can be said to serve its users only if it respectstheir freedom. What if the software is designed to put chains on itsusers? Then powerfulness means the chains are more constricting,and reliability that they are harder to remove. Malicious features,such as spying on the users, restricting the users, back doors, andimposed upgrades are common in proprietary software, and some opensource supporters want to implement them in open source programs.

Under pressure from the movie and record companies, software forindividuals to use is increasingly designed specifically to restrictthem. This malicious feature is known as Digital RestrictionsManagement (DRM) (see DefectiveByDesign.org) and isthe antithesis in spirit of the freedom that free software aimsto provide. And not just in spirit: since the goal of DRM is totrample your freedom, DRM developers try to make it hard, impossible,or even illegal for you to change the software that implements the DRM.

Yet some open source supporters have proposed “open sourceDRM” software. Their idea is that, by publishing the source codeof programs designed to restrict your access to encrypted media and byallowing others to change it, they will produce more powerful andreliable software for restricting users like you. The software would then be delivered to you in devices that do not allow you to change it.

This software might be open source and use the opensource development model, but it won't be free software since itwon't respect the freedom of the users that actually run it. If theopen source development model succeeds in making this software morepowerful and reliable for restricting you, that will make it evenworse.

Fear of Freedom

The main initial motivation of those who split off the open sourcecamp from the free software movement was that the ethical ideas offree software made some people uneasy. That's true: raising ethical issues such as freedom, talking about responsibilities as well asconvenience, is asking people to think about things they might preferto ignore, such as whether their conduct is ethical. This can triggerdiscomfort, and some people may simply close their minds to it. Itdoes not follow that we ought to stop talking about these issues.

That is, however, what the leaders of open sourcedecided to do. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics andfreedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits ofcertain free software, they might be able to “sell” thesoftware more effectively to certain users, especially business.

When open source proponents talk about anything deeper than that,it is usually the idea of making a “gift” of source codeto humanity. Presenting this as a special good deed, beyond what ismorally required, presumes that distributing proprietary softwarewithout source code is morally legitimate.

This approach has proved effective, in its own terms. The rhetoricof open source has convinced many businesses and individuals to use,and even develop, free software, which has extended ourcommunity—but only at the superficial, practical level. Thephilosophy of open source, with its purely practical values, impedesunderstanding of the deeper ideas of free software; it brings manypeople into our community, but does not teach them to defend it. Thatis good, as far as it goes, but it is not enough to make freedomsecure. Attracting users to free software takes them just part of theway to becoming defenders of their own freedom.

Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back toproprietary software for some practical advantage. Countlesscompanies seek to offer such temptation, some even offering copiesgratis. Why would users decline? Only if they have learned to valuethe freedom free software gives them, to value freedom in and of itself rather than the technical and practical convenience of specific freesoftware. To spread this idea, we have to talk about freedom. Acertain amount of the “keep quiet” approach to business can beuseful for the community, but it is dangerous if it becomes so commonthat the love of freedom comes to seem like an eccentricity.

That dangerous situation is exactly what we have. Most peopleinvolved with free software, especially its distributors, say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.” Nearly all 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 flaw.

Proprietary add-on software and partially nonfree GNU/Linuxdistributions find fertile ground because most of our community doesnot insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence.Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system through “opensource” discussion, which doesn't say that freedom is a goal.The practices that don't uphold freedom and the words that don't talkabout freedom go hand in hand, each promoting the other. To overcomethis tendency, we need more, not less, talk about freedom.

“FLOSS” and “FOSS”

The terms “FLOSS” and “FOSS” are used tobe neutral between freesoftware and open source. If neutrality is your goal,“FLOSS” is the better of the two, since it really isneutral. But if you want to stand up for freedom, using a neutralterm isn't the way. Standing up for freedom entails showing peopleyour support for freedom.

Rivals for Mindshare

“Free” and “open” are rivals for mindshare.Free software and open source aredifferent ideas but, in most people's way of looking at software, theycompete for the same conceptual slot. When people become habituatedto saying and thinking “open source,” that is an obstacleto their grasping the free software movement's philosophy and thinkingabout it. If they have already come to associate us and our softwarewith the word “open,” we may need to shock them intellectuallybefore they recognize that we stand for something else.Any activity that promotes the word “open” tends toextend the curtain that hides the ideas of the free softwaremovement.

Thus, free software activists are well advised to decline to workon an activity that calls itself “open.” Even if theactivity is good in and of itself, each contribution you make does alittle harm on the side by promoting the open source idea. There areplenty of other good activities which call themselves“free” or “libre.” Each contribution to thoseprojects does a little extra good on the side. With so many usefulprojects to choose from, why not choose one which does extra good?


As the advocates of open source draw new users into our community,we free software activists must shoulder the task of bringing the issueof freedom to their attention. We have to say, “It'sfree software and it gives you freedom!”—more and louderthan ever. Every time you say “free software” rather than“open source,” you help our cause.


  • Joe Barr wrote an article calledLive and let license that gives his perspective on this issue.
  • Lakhani and Wolf's paper on the motivation of free software developers says that a considerable fraction are motivated by the view that software should be free. This is despite the fact that they surveyed the developers on SourceForge, a site that does not support the view that this is an ethical issue.

As an expert in the field of free and open source software (FOSS), I have an in-depth understanding of the concepts and principles discussed in the article by Richard Stallman. Stallman is a renowned figure in the FOSS community, and his views have significantly influenced the development and philosophy of free software.

The article primarily focuses on the distinction between "free software" and "open source" and the underlying values associated with each term. I'll break down the key concepts and provide additional information related to each:

  1. Free Software Movement:

    • Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1983 and initiated the free software movement.
    • Free software emphasizes the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run, study, change, and redistribute the software.
    • The movement advocates for ethical and social values, promoting freedom and justice in computing.
  2. Open Source Idea:

    • Stallman contrasts the free software movement with the open source idea, which mainly values practical advantages and does not campaign for ethical principles.
    • Open source is often seen as a way to highlight the practical benefits of software without addressing the ethical and social values advocated by the free software movement.
  3. GNU Project and GNU General Public License (GPL):

    • The article mentions the development of the GNU operating system and the creation of the GNU GPL, a license designed to protect freedom for all users of a program.
    • The GPL is a copyleft license, ensuring that modified versions of a program remain free and open.
  4. Splintering into Open Source:

    • In 1998, a part of the free software community splintered off and began advocating in the name of "open source."
    • Some saw it as a marketing campaign to appeal to business executives by focusing on practical benefits rather than ethical and social values.
  5. Practical Differences:

    • The article discusses practical differences between free software and open source, noting that open source criteria are slightly looser than those of free software.
    • Some open source licenses may be too restrictive or include trademark requirements that make the software nonfree.
  6. Misunderstandings:

    • Stallman addresses common misunderstandings of the terms "free software" and "open source," including the misconception that "free" refers to zero price.
    • The article highlights the importance of conveying the idea of freedom associated with free software.
  7. Powerful, Reliable Software and DRM:

    • Stallman argues that the open source concept of making software more powerful and reliable does not guarantee ethical considerations.
    • The article criticizes the idea of "open source DRM," which may produce powerful and reliable software for restricting users, contrary to the principles of free software.
  8. Fear of Freedom:

    • Stallman discusses the motivation behind the split between the free software movement and open source, emphasizing the discomfort some individuals feel when ethical issues like freedom are raised.
    • Open source leaders chose to downplay ethical concerns to make free software more acceptable to businesses.
  9. Rivals for Mindshare:

    • The article concludes by discussing the rivalry between "free" and "open" for mindshare, emphasizing the need to promote the term "free software" to convey the philosophy behind the movement.

In summary, the article provides a comprehensive overview of the philosophical differences between the free software movement and the open source concept, shedding light on the importance of ethical considerations in the development and use of software.

Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software - GNU Project 
Free Software Foundation (2024)
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