What the Heck Do I Call Free Software?


I’m researching and writing on potential uses of “free software” in our work, as I often do, and I always have a hard time deciding what to call it, mainly to avoid confusion but also to present it elegantly (because it’s a beautiful idea). “Free Software” is generally software available under a license that encourages sharing the source code with others and prohibits making it solely available under a proprietary license. This is its primary characteristic. This is usually expressed as: “free software is free as in freedom, not necessarily free as in beer.”

Like almost everything in the software world, “free software” came to be, at least in its initial form, largely by the efforts of a small group, in this case led by a man named Richard Stallman, a true genius and idealist of the first rank. He’s an interesting guy and worth reading about, along with the history of the free software movement. There’s plenty of information on the internet about both.

Stallman is also a crazy person, in the sense of being a prophet and idealist, and he’s uncompromising in his ideals. He called his ideal of software “free” as in freedom – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Free_Software_Definition. Once the movement was becoming more broadly public and beginning to change the world in small ways, other bright lights in the movement wanted to adopt a less confrontational and moralizing term to help advance the ideal and make it more likely to be implemented in the business world. They held a conference to come up with a more acceptable name for “free software” and didn’t invite Stallman. They came up with the term “open source”, which is what many of your call this type of software license.

From there, it was just a matter of time until the participation of many bright and individualistic people created several other names, because neither of the first two names was exactly right: to include “Free Open Source Software” (FOSS), “Free/Libre Open Source Software” (FOSS), “Software Libre”, and perhaps others.

Being a crazy person myself, I understand Stallman’s drive and goals, and I used to be something of an idealist, preferring not to own things and to study philosophy and work for charities over making serious money, but I’ve learned to be pragmatic, partially due to marrying and having kids, the responsibility of which can weigh heavily on your idealism. Stallman is unquestionably a genius and his contributions to the software world are unmatched, but his refusal to be pragmatic relegates him to the status of partisan rather than active promoter of the ideal he popularized.

So the question is what should I call this software? I actually like FLOSS, because it covers all the bases and is short and easy to write. I think “free software” is deficient because it appears to many people to have a definite meaning that’s different than the intended meaning. “Open Source” is also deficient in that it doesn’t imply the full meaning of the license.

I’m interested to hear what you think.

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