Free software and open source: The freedom debate and its consequences

Mathias Klang


Recently the University of Göteborg held an online course in the theory and philosophy of free software and open source. During this course a lively discussion on terminology took place, in particular the concept of freedom was discussed. Without arriving at particular conclusions the posts included views in part on the lack of user awareness on what was property within the computer, on the difference between free, gratis, and libre in different languages and cultures and the need for both a common terminology and infrastructure. This paper is not an attempt to resolve these issues but to bring these questions to the attention of a wider audience in the hope that the discussion will continue.

To most outsiders the ethics of software is not something usually considered. To most proficient computer users with a passing interest in this question the ethics of software is recognised as one of the fundamental questions in the digital rights area. To most of the latter, terms such as free software, open source, and their derivatives (FLOSS, FOSS, Software Freedom) are interchangeable. Choosing one over the other is a matter of taste rather than politics. However, to most insiders the question is not one of taste. There is a fundamental difference between the two areas even if they share a similar root. Free software is not the same as open source. The two groups differ in their fundamental philosophical approach to software and its importance to society as a whole. This paper examines the two groups’ differing philosophies and explores how their actions have affected software development, access to fundamental software infrastructure, and the development of the concept of freedom.

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