Free/libre/open source Software

Free and open source software

Free and open-source software (F/OSS, FOSS) or free/libre/open-source software (FLOSS) is software that is liberally licensed to grant users the right to use, study, change, and improve its design through the availability of its source code. This approach has gained both momentum and acceptance as the potential benefits have been increasingly recognized by both individuals and corporations.

In the context of free and open-source software, free refers to the freedom to copy and re-use the software, rather than to the price of the software. The Free Software Foundation, an organization that advocates the free software model, suggests that, to understand the concept, one should "think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer".

FOSS is an inclusive term that covers both free software and open source software, which despite describing similar development models, have differing cultures and philosophies. Free software focuses on the philosophical freedoms it gives to users, whereas open source software focuses on the perceived strengths of its peer-to-peer development model. FOSS is a term that can be used without particular bias towards either political approach.

Software which is both gratis and free software may be called gratis/libre/open-source software (GLOSS).

Free software licences and open source licenses are used by many software packages. While the licenses themselves are in most cases the same, the two terms grew out of different philosophies and are often used to signify different distribution methodologies.



Free software

The Free Software Definition, written by Richard Stallman and published by Free Software Foundation (FSF), defines free software as a matter of liberty, not price. The earliest known publication of the definition was in the February 1986 edition of the now-discontinued GNU's Bulletin publication of FSF. The canonical source for the document is in the philosophy section of the GNU Project website. As of April 2008, it is published there in 39 languages.

Open source

The Open Source Definition is used by the Open Source Initiative to determine whether a software license can be considered open source. The definition was based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines, written and adapted primarily by Bruce Perens. Perens did not base his writing on the four freedoms of free software from the Free Software Foundation, which were only widely available later.


The first known use of the phrase free open source software on Usenet was in a posting on 18 March 1998, just a month after the term open source itself was coined. In February 2002, F/OSS appeared on a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to Amiga computer games. In early 2002, MITRE used the term FOSS in what would later be their 2003 report Use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in the U.S. Department of Defense.


The acronym FLOSS was coined in 2001 by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh for free/libre/open source software. Later that year, the European Commission (EC) used the phrase when they funded a study on the topic.

Unlike libre software, which aimed to solve the ambiguity problem, FLOSS aimed to avoid taking sides in the debate over whether it was better to say "free software" or to say "open source software".

Proponents of the term point out that parts of the FLOSS acronym can be translated into other languages, with for example the F representing free (English) or frei (German), and the L representing libre (Spanish or French), livre (Portuguese), or libero (Italian), liber (Romanian) and so on. However, this term is not often used in official, non-English, documents, since the words in these languages for free as in freedom do not have the ambiguity problem of free in English.

By the end of 2004, the FLOSS acronym had been used in official English documents issued by South Africa, Spain, and Brazil.

The terms "FLOSS" and "FOSS" have come under some criticism for being counterproductive and sounding silly. For instance, Eric Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, has stated:

Dualism of FOSS

While the Open Source Initiative includes free software licenses as part of its broader category of approved open source licenses, the Free Software Foundation sees free software as distinct from open source. The key differences between the two are their approach to copyright and appropriation in the context of usage.

The primary obligation of users of traditional open source licenses such as BSD is limited to appropriation that clearly identifies the copyright owner of the software. Such a license is focused on providing developers who wish to redistribute the software the greatest level flexibility. Users who do not wish to redistribute the software in any form are under no obligation. Developers can modify the software and redistribute it either as source or as part of a larger, possibly proprietary, derived work, provided the original appropriation is intact. These appropriations throughout the distribution chain ensure the owners' copyrights are maintained.

The primary obligation of users of free software licenses such as the GPL is to preserve the rights of other users under the terms of the license. Such a license is focused on ensuring that users' rights to access and modify the software cannot be denied by developers who redistribute the software. The only way to accomplish this is by restricting the rights of developers to include free software in larger, derived works unless those works share the same free software license. Free software uses copyright to enforce compliance with the software license. To strengthen its legal position, the Free Software Foundation asks developers to assign copyright to the Foundation when using the GPL license.

From a user's (non-distributor's) perspective, both free software and open source can be treated as effectively the same thing and referred to with the inclusive term FOSS. From a developer's (distributor's) perspective, free and open source software are distinct concepts with much different legal implications.

Beyond copyright

While copyright is the primary legal mechanism that FOSS authors use to control usage and distribution of their software, other mechanisms such as legislation, patents, and trademarks have implications as well. In response to legal issues with patents and the DMCA, the Free Software Foundation released version 3 of its GNU Public License in 2007 that explicitly addressed the DMCA and patent rights.

As author of the GCC compiler software, the FSF also exercised its copyright and changed the GCC license to GPLv3. As a user of GCC, and a heavy user of both DRM and patents, it is speculated that this change caused Apple, Inc. to switch the compiler in its Xcode IDE from GCC to the open source Clang compiler. The Samba project also switched to the GPLv3 in a recent version of its free Windows-compatible network software. In this case, Apple replaced Samba with closed-source, proprietary software - a net loss for the FOSS movement as a whole.

Some of the most popular FOSS projects are owned by corporations that, unlike the FSF, use both patents and trademarks to enforce their rights. In August, 2010, Oracle sued Google claiming that its use of the open source Java infringed on Oracle's patents. Oracle acquired those patents with its acquisition of Sun Microsystems in January, 2010. Sun had, itself, acquired MySQL in 2008. This made Oracle the owner of the most popular proprietary database and the most popular open source database. Oracle's attempts to commercialize the open source MySQL database have raised concerns in the FOSS community. In response to uncertainty about the future of MySQL, the FOSS community used MySQL's GPL license to fork the project into a new database outside of Oracle's control. This new database, however, will never be MySQL because Oracle owns the trademark for that term.

Future economics of FOSS

According to Yochai Benkler, Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, free software is the most visible part of a new economy of commons-based peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. As examples, he cites a variety of FOSS projects, including both free software and open source.

This new economy is already under development. In order to commercialize FOSS, many companies, Google being the most successful, are moving towards an economic model of advertising-supported software. In such a model, the only way to increase revenue is to make the advertising more valuable. Facebook has recently come under fire for using novel user tracking methods to accomplish this.

This new economy is not without alternatives. Apple's App Stores have proven very popular with both users and developers. The Free Software Foundation considers Apple's App Stores to be incompatible with its GPL and complained that Apple was infringing on the GPL with its iTunes terms of use. Rather than change those terms to comply with the GPL, Apple removed the GPL-licensed products from its App Stores. The authors of VLC, one of the GPL-licensed programs at the center of those complaints, recently began the process to switch from the GPL to the LGPL.

Adoption by governments

See also



  • Byrne, E. J. (1991). Software reverse engineering: A case study. Software: Practice and Experience, 21(12), 1349–1364
  • Feller, J., Fitzgerald, B., Hissam, S. A., Lakahani, K. R. (2005). Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. MIT Press.
  • Miller, K. W., Voas, J., & Costello, T. (2010). Free and open source software. IT Professional, 12(6), 14-16. doi:10.1109/MITP.2010.147
  • Salus, P. H. (2005). A History of Free and Open Source. Retrieved from http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20050327184603969.
  • Vetter, G. (2009). Commercial Free and Open Source Software: Knowledge Production, Hybrid Appropriability, and Patents. Fordham Law Review, (77)5, 2087-2141.[1].
  • Wheeler, D. (2007). Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS, FLOSS, or FOSS)? Look at the Numbers!. Retrieved from http://www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html.
  • William, S. (2002). Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. O'Reilly Media.

External links

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