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Open Source and Free Software


Open Access SignThere are two major movements that promote the distribution of software that is open and free: The Open Source Initiative (OSI) and the Free Software Movement. Both focus on lack of restriction on distribution and freedom to modify source code. According to Richard Stallman, "Nearly all open source software is free software. The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement." (Stallman, 2007)

The Free Software Movement offers different types of licenses, while the Open Source Initiative seeks support from various types of open source licenses available including those of the Free Software Movement. Both movements seek to counter the rapid trend of commercialized proprietary software. Although the two groups have philosophical differences, for our purposes here, we will include both on this page because those differences do not impact educational usage.

History Free Software Movement/ Open Source Initiative

When computers reached universities, software source code was open and freely available for research. Those who worked on programs were paid for programming skills. Once computers reached the business world, programmers and business developers began to restrict rights or charge fees for copying code. In 1984, Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the GNU Project to ensure that people would have more freedom to use software. He designed a set of rights and included them in the GNU License. He coined the term "CopyLeft" for his license to signify users' right to copy.

In 1998, a splinter group was formed called the Open Source Initiative. The group wanted to teach the corporate world the superiority of open source and move away from the confrontational attitude created by the free software movement. Their goal is to sell open source on pragmatic business grounds. (Unesco, 2001)To learn more about the history of free and open software, see a 24 minute video by David Wiley called Introduction to Open Education.

What's the Difference between the Open Source Definition and the Free Software Definition?

The official free software definition is very similar to the open source definition. The Free Software Foundation's (FSF) definition frames free software as related to liberty (liberté) rather than price (gratis) .

"The word "free" in our name does not refer to price; it refers to freedom. First, the freedom to copy a program and redistribute it to your neighbors, so that they can use it as well as you. Second, the freedom to change a program, so that you can control it instead of it controlling you; for this, the source code must be made available to you." http://www.gnu.org/bulletins/bull1.txt

According to Slackbox.org, "The Free Software Foundation uses a specific license and provides software under that license. The Open Source Initiative seeks support for all open source licenses, including the one from the Free Software Foundation. The grounds on which each argues for making source code freely available sometimes divides the two movements, but the fact that two ideologically diverse groups are working toward the same goal lends credence to the efforts of each."

The basic difference between the two groups boils down to philosophy. Where the Free Software Movement is against the use of any proprietary software, the Open Source Initiative is willing to allow the open products created to work with proprietary software.

For a good Guide on OER, see SIIA's Guide to the Use of Open Educational Resources in K12 and Post Secondary Education ( PDF download)

Next up: Free Software Movement