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Misunderstanding open source #2: Confuse FOSS, FLOSS, Open Source and Free Software

with 6 comments

The term ‘FOSS’ means ‘Free/Open Source Software’. The term ‘FLOSS’ means ‘Free/Libre/Open Source Software’

FOSS and FLOSS are two different terms for the same thing – the combined software production of the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement.

The free software and open source movements are similar to each other in many ways but are not the same. The differences are largely political and ideological. To most consumers of the software these differences are immaterial. For years I tried to maintain an impartial position on these differences, but have lately given up and sided with the open source movement.

Because of the definitions of these terms it is usually meaningless to compare or contrast FOSS with open source or FOSS with free software because FOSS includes both of them.

Here is an example of wrongly using these terms from a Dana Blankenhorn post (http://blogs.zdnet.com/open-source/?p=4901):

FOSS is idealism, 80-proof distilled idealism, and the open source movement was born in 1998 as a reaction against that.

There are two problems with this statement. Firstly, this statement says that open source was born as a reaction against Free/Open Source Software. Open source was created as a reaction against itself? This is clearly meaningless. The second problem is that that FOSS and FLOSS refer to the software – not to the movement, participants, politics, practices or philosophies. The software itself does not have idealism, the people creating it do. To make sense this statement should be:

The Free Software movement is idealism, 80-proof distilled idealism, and the open source movement was born in 1998 as a reaction against that.


Written by James

October 1, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Posted in open source

6 Responses

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  1. I was technically trained, so any any argument I feel it is important to define terms. “Free Software” is software that meets the requirements of the four freedoms. “Open Source Software” is software that satisfies the Open Source Definition. It has been shown that open source software satisfies all four freedoms, and is therefore also free software. It is silly to try and differentiate the two since the differences are slight.

    But you hit the nail on the head in separating “free software” from the “free software movement”. While those who use open source software can enjoy greater freedoms than those who use proprietary software, the motivation is different. It’s a good distinction.


    October 1, 2009 at 9:29 pm

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  5. I disagree that the software doesn’t have ideals. The ideals of software freedom can be seen in its creation and in its operation: if the software operated to restrict your freedom, it could not be distributed under copyleft (as an example, not the only one that works). Furthermore it is more important that Free Software has been created with freedom in mind. In other words distinguishing between the software and the movement is not that important. One is the product of the other.


    December 30, 2010 at 3:31 am

    • Thanks for your post.

      I’m talking about the ‘1’s and ‘0’. They are binary bits. They cannot have emotion. For example, regardless of how you feel about nuclear weapons, the software that launches them is neither ‘evil’, nor ‘righteous’ – it is a sequence of binary digits without any sense of self and it is interpreted by a machine with a similar lack of feeling. We can only direct our opinions of this software towards the creators of it.

      Software cannot ‘operate to restrict’ anyone’s freedom. The license under which the software is provided may specify restrictions, but the software has no understanding of that. Hence you can use software in violation of its license – it does not know or care. The ‘license’ itself does not have ideals either – it is a string of characters – again ‘1’s and ‘0’s.

      FOSS is created by people, for people. Without people, FOSS has no meaning and no usefulness. The meaning and intent of the licenses makes sense only to people – not to ‘1’s and ‘0’s and not to CPUs.

      I raised the point because I hear statements such as ‘proprietary software is evil’. This makes no sense to me. The proprietary software is not evil (see above). Neither are the people who create it – they are hard-working people trying to support their families. I think the economics and business models that we have ended up with in many software markets are not optimal and that FOSS can provide better solutions. I also think the current implementation of many IP concepts (like the US patent system) is also not optimal. But there is no evil here.


      December 30, 2010 at 4:02 am

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