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Open Source Software Up the Stack

Dennis Byron

Free Software vs. Open Source Software: Update

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It is common to use the terms free software and open source software (OSS) interchangeably, a mistake I often make even though I have written about the subtle difference extensively in my own research (see My Work Elsewhere link to the right). I was corresponding with johns at the Free Software Foundation (FSF) recently about another subject and he asked me to reinforce the distinction between free software and OSS. So here goes.

First the well known FSF mantra: FSF is talking about free software as in "free speech, not free beer." Free software by FSF's rules does not include the Quicken software I got for free from former First National Bank of Boston because I was a customer (and which Intuit nicely upgraded for me at no charge right through multiple bank mergers and the OFX transition) or the free Office Live software as a service I get from Microsoft. And it does not include a lot of open source software either.

"Free" to the FSF means the software meets four criteria (numbered 0-3 for some reason I used to know): the freedom to run the software for any purpose, the freedom to study and adapt the software (means source code access is mandatory), the freedom to redistribute the software, and the freedom to modify the software and distribute the modifications (also means source code access is mandatory).

More philosophically, the FSF is an ethics-based movement based on a socialistic/communistic credo (I do not mean that as a criticism or a political analogy. I simply want to characterize the group accurately. For example, my cousin Susan also belongs to a communistic group; she is a nun.). The FSF is not any kind of industry consortium such as the Linux Foundation. I had written on my web site some time back that I felt the FSF's founder Richard Stallman was probably less into the ethical/socialistic/communistic dimensions than some of his followers. I based that conclusion on reading some of his earliest works (he is a prolific author and speaker). But johns points out that Stallman has updated his seminal writings on the free vs open-source subject recently and either I misread the originals or Stallman is making sure the movement he started doesn't leave him behind.

As someone that writes a lot, I admire Stallman for believing that words mean something. That is what his essay "Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software" is really all about. Specifically,
-- The frequent use of the words and phrases "social solidarity," "social problem," "social movement," and so forth in this newly updated essay makes my point about the socialistic nature of the FSF movement (I sense a new stridency on these points but do not pretend that I have analyzed old and new word for word, phrase by phrase.)
-- Stallman considers anyone who is not FSF (most of the OSS movement) as having splintered off from FSF, which he feels discovered the idea of unfettered code sharing. In his opinion, they "left" for philosophical reasons or disagreement with one of the four "free" criteria (I contend OSS has been around since long before the FSF, since COMMON and DECUS, in other words, since the beginning, and that OSS folks that followed a different path probably simply had never heard of FSF.)
-- Still, he says it is "proprietary software" that is the enemy, not OSS. (That is, Microsoft is the enemy but he is not strident about that the way some followers are.) He says the broader OSS community wants the same thing as the FSF inner circle, but for the wrong reasons. In the end, if proprietary software does something useful and non-true-believers may choose to use it. (Open choice, not open source, is my mantra. it appears to me that FSF's big fear is competition. Somehow, my choosing software freely is unethical in FSF thinking.)
-- In the latest iterations of the FSF philosophical underpinnings, Digital Rights Management gets treatment similar to that accorded proprietary software. The FSF insists on calling it Digital Restrictions Management, a reprise of the free software vs OSS wording battle.

What does this mean for the OSS user base, particularly open-source integration software users? In terms of integration software, the distinction is less of an issue because the leading open-source integration software projects do not follow the FSF philosophy. Apache and its siblings (Tomcat, Geronimo, ActiveMQ, ServiceMix, and so forth) as well as JBoss are not part of the FSF orbit. Gluecode (Websphere's open source application server base) is following Geronimo. Celtix is hooked up with Apache's ActiveMQ even though it is competing with Apache's ServiceMix (according to the Apache guys; I am trying to talk to Iona/Celtix to discuss what appears to be friendly coopetition among the projects as explained in Brenda Michelson's comment on my blog here).

As for the rest of the LAMP stack,
-- Linux is part of the FSF orbit primarily because it uses the GNU General Public License Version 2. A new GPL version is due out momentarily and there is some question whether Linux adherents will follow its lead. Of course that connection has implications for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and most importantly Novell vis a vis SUSE Linux. The FSF has said it is relooking at the upcoming draft of the GPL V3 license in light of the November 2006 Microsoft-Novell arrangement (but Richard Stallman has also clearly said according to press reports that the Microsoft-Novell agreement did not violate GPL V2)
-- MySQL also uses GPL V2 and but has already modified its licensing terms so that it will not automatically "roll over" into GPL V3 when it comes out
-- There is always a question what the "P" in LAMP stands for but
--------- PHP is considered free software by the FSF although it does not use the GPL V2 (PHP is backed by Zend Technologies in the way that JBoss is backed by Red Hat)
--------- Perl does use the GPL V2 (as well as the "Artistic License")
--------- Python has its own license (and its own Foundation modeled after the Apache Foundation)
--------- (My source for the P information is wikipedia; I'm a deployment software guy, not a development software guy)

So are you an FSFer or a more conservative open sourcer? Reply using the comments box.

Dennis Byron’s blog on open source software: A longtime market research analyst follows what “the movement? means to business integration—in applications, infrastructure, as services, as architecture and as functionality.

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