Alternative terms for free software

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Alternative terms for free software, such as open source, FOSS, and FLOSS, have been a controversial issue among free and open-source software users from the late 1990s onwards.[1] These terms share almost identical licence criteria and development practices.


Free software

In the 1950s to the 1990s software culture, the "free software" concept combined the nowadays differentiated software classes of public domain software, Freeware, Shareware and FOSS and was created in academia and by hobbyists and hackers.[2]

When the term "free software" was adopted by Richard Stallman in 1983, it was still ambiguously used to describe several kinds of software.[2] In February 1986 Richard Stallman formally defined "free software" with the publication of The Free Software Definition in the FSF's now-discontinued GNU's Bulletin[3] as software which can be used, modified, and redistributed with little or no restriction, his four essential software freedoms.[3] Richard Stallman's Free Software Definition, adopted by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), defines free software as a matter of liberty, not price, and is inspired by the previous public domain software ecosystem.[4] The canonical source for the document is in the philosophy section[5] of the GNU Project website, where it is published in many languages.[6]

Open-source software

In 1998 the term "open-source software" (as abbreviation "OSS") was coined as alternative for "free software". There were several reasons for the proposal of a new term.[7] On one hand a group from the free software ecosystem perceived the Free Software Foundation's attitude on propagandizing the "free software" concept as "moralising and confrontational", which was also associated with the term.[8] In addition, the "available at no cost" ambiguity of the word "free" was seen as discouraging business adoption,[9] as also the historical ambiguous usage of the term "free software".[10] In a 1998 strategy session in California, "open-source software" was selected by Todd Anderson, Larry Augustin, Jon Hall, Sam Ockman, Christine Peterson, and Eric S. Raymond.[11] Richard Stallman had not been invited.[12] The session was arranged in reaction to Netscape's January 1998 announcement of a source code release for Navigator (as Mozilla). Those at the meeting described "open source" as a "replacement label" for free software,[13] and the Open Source Initiative was soon-after founded by Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens to promote the term as part of "a marketing program for free software".[14] The Open Source Definition is used by the Open Source Initiative to determine whether a software license qualifies for the organization's insignia for open source software. The definition was based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines, written and adapted primarily by Bruce Perens.[15][16] Perens did not base his writing on the four freedoms of free software from the Free Software Foundation, which were only later available on the web.[17] According to the OSI, Stallman initially flirted with the idea of adopting the open source term.[18]

At the end of 1990s the term "open source" gained much traction in public media[19] and acceptance in software industry in context of the dotcom bubble and the open-source software driven Web 2.0. For instance, Duke University scholar Christopher M. Kelty described the Free Software movement prior to 1998 as fragmented and "the term Open Source, by contrast, sought to encompass them all in one movement".[10] The term "open source" gained spread as open source movement which inspired many successor movements like the Open content, Open-source hardware and Open Knowledge movements. Under the impression of the success of "Open source" several journalists reported around 2000 the earlier "Free software" term and movement and its leader Stallman as being "forgotten".[20][21][22] In response, Stallman and his FSF objected to the term "open source software" and has since campaigned for the term "free software".[23][24] Due to the Stallman and FSF's rejection of the term "open source software", the ecosystem is divided in its terminology. For example, a 2002 European Union survey revealed that 32.6% of FOSS developers associate themselves with OSS, 48% with free software, and only 19.4% are undecided or in between.[1] As both terms "free software" and "open-source software" have their proponents and critics in the FOSS ecosystems, unifying terms have been proposed; these include "software libre" (or libre software), "FLOSS" (free/libre and open-source software), and "FOSS" (or F/OSS, free and open-source software).


The first known use of the phrase free open-source software (in short FOSS or seldom F/OSS) on Usenet was in a posting on March 18, 1998, just a month after the term open source itself was coined.[25] In February 2002, F/OSS appeared on a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to Amiga computer games.[26] 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.[citation needed] The European Union's institutions later also used the FOSS term while before using FLOSS,[27] as also scholar in publications.[28]

Software libre

While probably used earlier (as early as the 1990s[29]) "Software libre" got broader public reception when in 2000 the European Commission adopted it.[30] The word "libre", borrowed from the Spanish and French languages, means having liberty. This avoids the freedom-cost ambiguity of the English word "free".


FLOSS was used in 2001 as a project acronym by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh for free/libre and open-source software. Later that year, the European Commission (EC) used the phrase when they funded a study on the topic.[31][32][better source needed]

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, for example the "F" representing free (English) or frei (German), and the "L" representing libre (Spanish or French), livre (Portuguese), or libero (Italian), etc. 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 English's "free".

By the end of 2004, the FLOSS acronym had been used in official English documents issued by South Africa,[33] Spain,[34] and Brazil.[35] Other scholars and institutions use it too.[36]

Richard Stallman endorses the term FLOSS to refer to "open-source" and "free software" without necessarily choosing between the two camps, however, he asks people to consider supporting the "free/libre software" camp.[37][38] Stallman has suggested that the term "unfettered software" would be an appropriate, non-ambiguous replacement, but that he would not push for it because there was too much momentum and too much effort behind the term "free software".

The term "FLOSS" has come under some criticism for being counterproductive and sounding silly. For instance, Eric Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, has stated in 2009:

"Near as I can figure ... people think they'd be making an ideological commitment ... if they pick 'open source' or 'free software'. Well, speaking as the guy who promulgated 'open source' to abolish the colossal marketing blunders that were associated with the term 'free software', I think 'free software' is less bad than 'FLOSS'. Somebody, please, shoot this pitiful acronym through the head and put it out of our misery."[39]

Raymond quotes programmer Rick Moen as stating:

"I continue to find it difficult to take seriously anyone who adopts an excruciatingly bad, haplessly obscure acronym associated with dental hygiene aids" and "neither term can be understood without first understanding both free software and open source, as prerequisite study."

Ownership and attachments

None of these terms, or the term "free software" itself, have been trademarked. Bruce Perens of OSI attempted to register "open source" as a service mark for OSI in the United States of America, but that attempt failed to meet the relevant trademark standards of specificity. OSI claims a trademark on "OSI Certified", and applied for trademark registration, but did not complete the paperwork. The United States Patent and Trademark Office labels it as "abandoned".[40]

While the term "free software" is associated with FSF's definition, and the term "open-source software" is associated with OSI's definition, the other terms have not been claimed by any group in particular. While the FSF's and OSI's definitions are worded quite differently the set of software that they cover is almost identical.[24][41]

All of the terms are used interchangeably, the choice of which to use is mostly political (wanting to support a certain group) or practical (thinking that one term is the clearest).

The primary difference between free software and open source is one of philosophy. According to the Free Software Foundation, "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."[42]


The choice of term has little or no impact on which licences are valid or used by the different camps, while recommendations might vary. At least until the release of the GPLv3,[43][44][45] the usage of the GPLv2 united the Open source and free software camp.[46][47] The vast majority of software referred to by all these terms is distributed under a small set of licences, all of which are unambiguously accepted by the various de facto and de jure guardians of each of these terms. The majority of the software is either one of few permissive software licenses (the BSD licenses, the MIT License, and the Apache License) or one of few copyleft licenses (the GNU General Public License v2, GPLv3, the GNU Lesser General Public License, or the Mozilla Public License).[48][49]

The Free Software Foundation (List of FSF approved software licences) and the Open Source Initiative (List of OSI approved software licences) each publish lists of licences that they accept as complying with their definitions of free software and open-source software respectively. The Open Source Initiative considers almost all free software licenses to also be open source and way around. These include the latest versions of the FSF's three main licenses, the GPLv3, the Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL).[50]

Apart from these two organisations, many more FOSS organizations publish recommendations and comments on licenses and licensing matters. The Debian project is seen by some to provide useful advice on whether particular licences comply with their Debian Free Software Guidelines. Debian does not publish a list of "approved" licences, but its judgments can be tracked by checking what licences are used by software they have allowed into their distribution.[51] In addition, the Fedora Project does provide a list of approved licences (for Fedora) based on approval of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the Open Source Initiative (OSI), and consultation with Red Hat Legal.[52] It exist also the copyfree movement, the BSDs as also the Apache and Mozilla Foundation with own points of views on licenses.

Public-domain software

There is also a class of software that is covered by the names discussed in this article, but which doesn't have a licence: software for which the source code is in the public domain. The use of such source code, and therefore the executable version, is not restricted by copyright and therefore does not need a free software licence to make it free software. However, not all countries have the same form of "public domain" regime and possibilities of dedicating works and the authors rights in the public domain.

Further, for distributors to be sure that software is released into the public domain, the usually need to see something written to confirm this. Thus even without a licence, a written note about lack of copyright and other exclusive rights often still exists (a waiver or anti-copyright notice), which can be seen as license substitute. There are also mixed forms between waiver and license, for instance the public domain like licenses CC0[53][54] and the Unlicense,[55][56] with an all permissive license as fallback in case of ineffectiveness of the waiver.

Non-English terms in anglophone regions

The free software community in some parts of India sometimes uses the term "Swatantra software" since the term "Swatantra" means free in Sanskrit, which is the ancestor of all Indo-European Languages of India, including Hindi, despite English being the lingua franca.[57] Other terms such as "kattatra menporul (கட்டற்ற_மென்பொருள்)" for free software, where kattatra means free and menporul means software is also being used in Tamil Nadu and Tamils in other parts of the world. In the Philippines, "malayang software" is sometimes used. The word "libre" exists in the Filipino language, and it came from the Spanish language, but has acquired the same cost/freedom ambiguity of the English word "free".[58] According to Meranau "Free" is KANDURI, Diccubayadan, Libre.

See also

  • Free software community
  • Free software movement
  • GNU/Linux naming controversy
  • History of free software
  • Open source vs. closed source
  • Permissive free software licences


  1. ^ a b Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study FLOSS Deliverable D18: FINAL REPORT – Part IV: Survey of Developers by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh et al "According to this ongoing discussion, one would expect a sharp polarization of the whole community of developers of non-proprietary software into two very different parties, one of Open Source developers and one of Free Software developers. However, figure 39 shows that, although there is clear evidence of these parties, still a share of almost one fifth of the whole sample does not care anyway if they belong to the one or to the other party." (2002)
  2. ^ a b Shea, Tom (June 23, 1983). "Free software – Free software is a junkyard of software spare parts". InfoWorld. Retrieved October 13, 2019. "In contrast to commercial software is a large and growing body of free software that exists in the public domain. Public-domain software is written by microcomputer hobbyists (also known as "hackers") many of whom are professional programmers in their work life."
  3. ^ a b "GNU's Bulletin, Volume 1 Number 1, page 8".
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  5. ^ "Philosophy of the GNU Project". Retrieved October 13, 2019.
  6. ^ "The Free Software Definition – Translations of this page".
  7. ^ Karl Fogel (2016). "Producing Open Source Software – How to Run a Successful Free Software Project". O'Reilly Media. Retrieved April 11, 2016. But the problem went deeper than that. The word "free" carried with it an inescapable moral connotation: if freedom was an end in itself, it didn't matter whether free software also happened to be better, or more profitable for certain businesses in certain circumstances. Those were merely pleasant side effects of a motive that was, at its root, neither technical nor mercantile, but moral. Furthermore, the "free as in freedom" position forced a glaring inconsistency on corporations who wanted to support particular free programs in one aspect of their business, but continue marketing proprietary software in others.
  8. ^ OSI. "History of OSI". conferees decided it was time to dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with "free software" in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds
  9. ^ "Goodbye, "free software"; hello, "open source"". The problem with it is twofold. First, ... the term "free" is very ambiguous ... Second, the term makes a lot of corporate types nervous.
  10. ^ a b Kelty, Christpher M. (2008). "The Cultural Significance of free Software – Two Bits" (PDF). Duke University press – durham and london. p. 99. Prior to 1998, Free Software referred either to the Free Software Foundation (and the watchful, micromanaging eye of Stallman) or to one of thousands of different commercial, avocational, or university-research projects, processes, licenses, and ideologies that had a variety of names: sourceware, freeware, shareware, open software, public domain software, and so on. The term "open-source", by contrast, sought to encompass them all in one movement.
  11. ^ Michael Tiemann (September 19, 2006). "History of the OSI". Archived from the original on October 1, 2002. The people present included Todd Anderson, Chris Peterson (of the Foresight Institute), John "maddog" Hall and Larry Augustin (both of Linux International), Sam Ockman (of the Silicon Valley Linux User's Group), Michael Tiemann, and Eric Raymond.
  12. ^ "The Saint of Free Software (page 2)". Archived from the original on June 12, 2008. Stallman hadn't been invited to the first such gathering of "open source" leaders, a "free software summit" held in April...
  13. ^ Eric Raymond. "Goodbye, "free software"; hello, "open source"". we have a problem with the term "free software" ... we came up with a replacement label we all liked: "open source".
  14. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Open Source Initiative. Archived from the original on April 23, 2006. How is "open source" related to "free software"? The Open Source Initiative is a marketing program for free software.
  15. ^ "The Open Source Definition by Bruce Perens"., Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, January 1999, ISBN 1-56592-582-3
  16. ^ "The Open Source Definition"., The Open Source Definition according to the Open Source Initiative
  17. ^ "". February 16, 2009. Retrieved October 23, 2011.
  18. ^ Tiemann, Michael (September 19, 2006). "History of the OSI". Open Source Initiative. Archived from the original on October 1, 2002. Retrieved August 23, 2008. We realized that the Netscape announcement had created a precious window of time within which we might finally be able to get the corporate world to listen to what we have to teach about the superiority of an open development process. We realized it was time to dump the confrontational attitude that has been associated with "free software" in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that motivated Netscape. We brainstormed about tactics and a new label. "Open source," contributed by Chris Peterson, was the best thing we came up with. Over the next week we worked on spreading the word. Linus Torvalds gave us an all-important imprimatur :-) the following day. Bruce Perens got involved early, offering to trademark "open source" and host this web site. Phil Hughes offered us a pulpit in Linux Journal. Richard Stallman flirted with adopting the term, then changed his mind.
  19. ^ The Mysteries of Open Source Software: Black and White and Red All Over by Brian Fitzgerald, Pär J. Ågerfalk University of Limerick, Ireland "Open Source software (OSS) has attracted enormous media and research attention since the term was coined in February 1998." (2005)
  20. ^ Leander Kahney (March 5, 1999). "Linux's Forgotten Man – You have to feel for Richard Stallman". Archived from the original on June 22, 2001. Like a Russian revolutionary erased from a photograph, he is being written out of history. Stallman is the originator of the free-software movement and the GNU/Linux operating system. But you wouldn't know it from reading about LinuxWorld. Linus Torvalds got all the ink. Even the name of the operating system, to which Torvalds contributed a small but essential part, acknowledges Torvalds alone: the Stallman part – the GNU before Linux – is almost always left out. It makes Stallman mad. At a press conference during the show, one unlucky journalist thoughtlessly called it Linux and got an earful for his mistake.
  21. ^ "Toronto Star: Freedom's Forgotten Prophet (Richard Stallman)". October 10, 2000. Retrieved March 25, 2016. "But if [Richard] Stallman is winning the war, he is losing the battle – for credit....Red Hat's Web site lists the major milestones in 'open source' software, beginning in the 1970s with AT&T's Unix system and jumping to Torvalds' kernel in 1991, completely bypassing Stallman. (Red Hat does, however, provide a link to the GNU Web site, but most people have no idea what it represents.)"
  22. ^ Nikolai Bezroukov (November 1, 2014). "Portraits of Open Source Pioneers – Part IV. Prophet". Retrieved March 25, 2016. "And in the second part of 1998 "open source" became a standard umbrella term encompassing commercialized GPL-based software and first of all major commercial Linux distributions (Caldera, Red Hat, Slackware, Suse, etc). Still like is often is the case in religious schisms, Raymodism overtake of Stallmanism was not complete and Eric Raymond had run into his own PR problems with his unsuccessful attempt to grab an "open source" trademark, that generated a lot of resentment in the community. Later his "surprised by wealth" letter undermined his role of influential evangelist of "open source is the best economical model for the development of the software" message. He became an object of pretty nasty jokes, but that does not help RMS to restore the role of FSF."
  23. ^ Why "Free Software" is better than "Open Source" on by Richard Stallman (1999)
  24. ^ a b FSF. "Why "Open Source" misses the point of Free Software". Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software.
  25. ^ "Posting re "free open source software", 18 March 1998".
  26. ^ "Using m$ products is supporting them :(".
  27. ^ European Parliament resolution of 19 January 2016 on Towards a Digital Single Market Act (2015/2147(INI)) on
  28. ^ Free and Open-Source Software by ANDRÉS GUADAMUZ (2009)
  29. ^ Quo vadis, libre software? by Jesús M. González-Barahona v0.8.1, work in progress, September 2004
  30. ^ "EU".
  31. ^ "Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study". Archived from the original on July 7, 2011.
  32. ^ "UNU-MERIT »".
  33. ^ "Free/Libre and Open Source Software and Open Standards in South Africa: A Critical Issue for Addressing the Digital Divide". National Advisory Council on Innovation. Archived from the original on August 29, 2004.
  34. ^ "FLOSS deployment in Extremadura, Spain". Archived from the original on December 16, 2007.
  35. ^ "Relatório da ONU aponta o Software Livre (FLOSS) como melhor". Archived from the original on February 10, 2009.
  36. ^ Karopka, T; Schmuhl, H; Demski, H (2014). "Free/Libre open source software in health care: a review". Healthc Inform Res. 20 (1): 11–22. doi:10.4258/hir.2014.20.1.11. PMC . PMID 24627814.
  37. ^ "Interview with Richard Stallman, Edinburgh, 2004". Free Software Foundation.
  38. ^ FOSS and FLOSS.
  39. ^ Please forget to FLOSS Armed and Dangerous, Eric S. Raymond, 26 March 2009
  40. ^ "Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS)". (Direct link not possible, site search required) Word Mark: OSI CERTIFIED ... Goods and Services: (ABANDONED) IC A . US A . G & S: software licensed under open-source licenses. ... Serial Number: 76020694 ... Owner: (APPLICANT) Open Source Initiative ... Live/Dead Indicator: DEAD
  41. ^ "Innovation Goes Public". Archived from the original on December 28, 2008. (javascript slide #3) When I say "Open Source", I mean the same thing as Free Software.
  42. ^ Stallman, Richard. "Why Open Source misses the point of Free. Software". Free Software Foundation. Retrieved October 23, 2011.
  43. ^ Kerner, Sean Michael (January 8, 2008). "Torvalds Still Keen on GPLv2". Retrieved February 12, 2015. "In some ways, Linux was the project that really made the split clear between what the FSF is pushing which is very different from what open source and Linux has always been about, which is more of a technical superiority instead of a – this religious belief in freedom," Torvalds told Zemlin. So, the GPL Version 3 reflects the FSF's goals and the GPL Version 2 pretty closely matches what I think a license should do and so right now, Version 2 is where the kernel is."
  44. ^ McDougall, Paul (July 10, 2007). "Linux Creator Calls GPLv3 Authors 'Hypocrites' As Open Source Debate Turns Nasty". Archived from the original on April 13, 2008. Retrieved February 12, 2015. the latest sign of a growing schism in the open source community between business-minded developers like Torvalds and free software purists.
  45. ^ Landley, Rob. "CELF 2013 Toybox talk". Retrieved August 21, 2013. GPLv3 broke "the" GPL into incompatible forks that can't share code. [...] FSF expected universal compliance, but hijacked lifeboat clause when boat wasn't sinking.[...]
  46. ^ Byfield, Bruce (November 22, 2011). "7 Reasons Why Free Software Is Losing Influence: Page 2". Retrieved August 23, 2013. At the time, the decision seemed sensible in the face of a deadlock. But now, GPLv2 is used for 42.5% of free software, and GPLv3 for less than 6.5%, according to Black Duck Software.
  47. ^ James E.J. Bottomley; Mauro Carvalho Chehab; Thomas Gleixner; Christoph Hellwig; Dave Jones; Greg Kroah-Hartman; Tony Luck; Andrew Morton; Trond Myklebust; David Woodhouse (September 15, 2006). "Kernel developers' position on GPLv3 – The Dangers and Problems with GPLv3". Retrieved March 11, 2015. The current version (Discussion Draft 2) of GPLv3 on first reading fails the necessity test of section 1 on the grounds that there's no substantial and identified problem with GPLv2 that it is trying to solve. However, a deeper reading reveals several other problems with the current FSF draft: 5.1 DRM Clauses [...] 5.2 Additional Restrictions Clause [...] 5.3 Patents Provisions [...]since the FSF is proposing to shift all of its projects to GPLv3 and apply pressure to every other GPL licensed project to move, we foresee the release of GPLv3 portends the Balkanisation of the entire Open Source Universe upon which we rely.
  48. ^ "Top 20 licenses". Black Duck Software. November 19, 2015. Archived from the original on July 19, 2016. Retrieved November 19, 2015. 1. MIT license 24%, 2. GNU General Public License (GPL) 2.0 23%, 3. Apache License 16%, 4. GNU General Public License (GPL) 3.0 9%, 5. BSD License 2.0 (3-clause, New or Revised) License 6%, 6. GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 2.1 5%, 7. Artistic License (Perl) 4%, 8. GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 3.0 2%, 9. Microsoft Public License 2%, 10. Eclipse Public License (EPL) 2%
  49. ^ Balter, Ben (March 9, 2015). "Open source license usage on". Retrieved November 21, 2015. 1 MIT 44.69%, 2 Other 15.68%, 3 GPLv2 12.96%, 4 Apache 11.19%, 5 GPLv3 8.88%, 6 BSD 3-clause 4.53%, 7 Unlicense 1.87%, 8 BSD 2-clause 1.70%, 9 LGPLv3 1.30%, 10 AGPLv3 1.05%
  50. ^ "Licenses by Name". Open Source License. Open Source Initiative. Retrieved October 23, 2011.
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  53. ^ "11/17: Lulan Artisans Textile Competition". June 17, 2009.
  54. ^ Validity of the Creative Commons Zero 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication and its usability for bibliographic metadata from the perspective of German Copyright Law by Dr. Till Kreutzer, attorney-at-law in Berlin, Germany.
  55. ^ The unlicense a license for no license Archived January 22, 2017, at the Wayback Machine on by Joe Brockmeier (2010)
  56. ^ The Unlicense Archived September 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine on
  57. ^ "FSF-India's homepage". Archived from the original on July 5, 2008. Think of it as swatantra software
  58. ^ "Re: Free Software, some thoughts". My suspicion is that if RMS were Filipino, he would have used Malayang Software to avoid the confusion regarding economics v. liberty.

Edited: 2021-06-18 14:12:48