FOSS vs. open source as an American debate

Summary:Open source, in contrast to FOSS, accepts the idea that people might build proprietary extensions to open source programs, and that the obligation seen by Stallman, what I sometimes call the Fourth Freedom of open source, need not apply.

Soon after I took on this beat for ZDNet, I got a nasty gram from Richard Stallman (right).

I wish he'd put it in the form of a paper letter. I probably should have framed it.

In his note, as I recall it, Stallman made clear the difference between Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and open source as conceived by Eric Raymond and supporters in the business community.

FOSS is not just "free as in free beer," he told me. Under FOSS software is free, not just for the user. The software itself has liberties.

To Stallman, and to other FOSS advocates, this implies an obligation on the part of those who benefit from free software, which is to help the software grow, to contribute their additions back to the commons.

Critics like to call this communism or socialism, the idea that your code and your rights to your work may be taken in the name of some ill-defined "commons."

But to Stallman it's in keeping with the lyric of composer Gene Scheer:

Let them say of me I was one who believed, in sharing the blessings I received

The debate resonates through American history. As Bruce Springsteen notes in his own introduction to Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land, "This was written as an angry song. It was written as an answer to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America.' And it's probably one of the most beautiful songs ever written."

I happen to agree, but not everyone does. You can hear this in echoes of arguments over Stephen Decatur's famous saying, "My country right or wrong."

Decatur's name is now on many American towns, including the one which starts at the edge of my sidewalk in Georgia. He was one of our independent country's first great heroes, who led his marines to the shores of Tripoli.

What he said, at a banquet honoring his heroism, was this. "'Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.'"

It's a warrior's toast, a warrior's boast, that we should strive to do right, but the warrior will follow orders, always.

To many, like Ross Douthat, this means obedience to orders. " A patriot who ceases to love his country because it happens to be governed by a despot is no patriot at all," he writes. It's a bit like saying "my mother, drunk or sober."

To liberals, it means the love of country should not blind us to what it does wrong, that the highest form of patriotism is often protest. Is Natalie Maines a patriot or a traitor? Is Florian Mueller? Is IBM?

Open source, in contrast to FOSS, accepts the idea that people might build proprietary extensions to open source programs, and that the obligation seen by Stallman, what I sometimes call the Fourth Freedom of open source, need not apply.

Open source, in other words, is Irving Berlin. FOSS is Woody Guthrie.

All I want to say this July 4th weekend is both Berlin and Guthrie were great Americans, that America can survive such debates, and that so can open source.

Topics: Open Source

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.