I have been reading Free Software, Free Society: selected essays of Richard M. Stallman to get a better understanding of OSS. In the process, I’ve found a whole new level of understanding (and appreciation) for how OSS came into being and also acknowledging the fine line between idealism and pragmatism. His work and words test this line often and create much debate in the community.
Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:
* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
There is some disagreement about this term and some in the movement wish to de-emphasize the word “free”. The real problem comes in the ambiguity of the word “free.” Stallman notes this and makes the distinction between free as in “free speech” vs. free as in gratis or “free beer.” Some choose to use the term Open Source Software which emphasized the open source code. This is a minor fissure in the movement as the basic goal remains the same, with a minor difference in terminology. The term F/OSS or FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) is a later introduction as well as FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open-Source Software). I personally prefer this term as it covers all the bases quite well, but the most common term used is OSS and we can read whatever meaning we choose into that term. In fact, the meaning does change as we learn more about it.
Words and thus names are important. Stallman points out that Linux should really be called GNU/Linux because of the contributions of the GNU community. The truth is “Linux”, like “OSS,” is the term which is most commonly used and it may prove futile to change the name that has caught on in an attempt to have it more accurately describe the reality or the idealism behind it.
Anyone who seeks to learn more about OSS will quickly find Stallman’s fingerprints all over it. he arguably started the entire movement. He also created the concept of copyleft and the GPL under which most OSS (or Free Software as Stallman would prefer) is licensed. It could be argued that OSS wouldn’t exist without this well-though-out concept. Stallman is also stalwart in his fight against Digital Restriction Management (as he cleverly renames it).
He is definitely acknowledged by the community even though his name and GNU are not as recognized as Linux and Linux Torvalds. It can seem at times that Stallman’s emphasis on words and seemingly credit cloud the true debate about what it means to have software freedom. It may appear that Stallman is worried about brand when he advocates GNU/Linux over Linux and “Free Software” over OSS. While I can understand the arguments for calling free software free, I have more trouble with calling Linux anything other than Linux. What’s odd to me is that the spirit of OSS / FOSS / FLOSS / Free Software / GNU / GNU/Linux / Linux / slash / (get my point?) …. anyway, the community seems to be the point, no monolithic leaders, but a community of developers and users. The brand is less important to those who take the time to learn, but words, names, brands are important sooo….
Here’s my modest proposal: LiGNUx.
And, don’t even ask me HOW to pronounce that!
Update: OK, I should have known this one was way too obvious. Apparently this was suggested over a decade ago (perhaps by Stallman – see footnote on this essay) and has been debated from time to time. There’s even a website with this name.