Free and open-source software

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"FOSS" redirects here. For the K–8 science curriculum, see Full Option Science System. For other uses, see Foss.
A screenshot of free and open-source software: Linux Mint running the Xfce desktop environment, Firefox, a calculator program, the built-in calendar, Vim, GIMP, and VLC media player

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is computer software that can be classified as both free software and open-source software.[a] That is, anyone is freely licensed to use, copy, study, and change the software in any way, and the source code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve the design of the software.[3] This is in contrast to proprietary software, where the software is under restrictive copyright and the source code is usually hidden from the users.

The benefits of using FOSS can include decreasing software costs, increasing security and stability (especially in regard to malware), protecting privacy, and giving users more control over their own hardware. Free, open-source operating systems such as Linux and descendents of BSD are widely utilized today, powering millions of servers, desktops, smartphones (e.g. Android), and other devices.[4][5] Free software licenses and open-source licenses are used by many software packages.


In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it was common for computer users to have the source code for all programs they used, and the permission and ability to modify it for their own use. Software, including source code, was commonly shared by individuals who used computers. Most companies had a business model based on hardware sales, and provided or bundled the software free of charge.[citation needed] Organizations of users and suppliers were formed to facilitate the exchange of software; see, for example, SHARE and DECUS.

By the late 1960s, the prevailing business model around software was changing. A growing and evolving software industry was competing with the hardware manufacturer's bundled software products; rather than funding software development from hardware revenue, these new companies were selling software directly. Leased machines required software support while providing no revenue for software, and some customers able to better meet their own needs did not want the costs of software bundled with hardware product costs. In United States vs. IBM, filed 17 January 1969, the government charged that bundled software was anticompetitive.[6] While some software might always be free, there would be a growing amount of software that was for sale only. In the 1970s and early 1980s, some parts of the software industry began using technical measures (such as only distributing binary copies of computer programs) to prevent computer users from being able to use reverse engineering techniques to study and customize software they had paid for. In 1980, the copyright law was extended to computer programs in the United States[7]—previously, computer programs could be considered ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes, which are not copyrightable.[8][9]

In 1983, Richard Stallman, longtime member of the hacker community at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, announced the GNU project, saying that he had become frustrated with the effects of the change in culture of the computer industry and its users.[10] Software development for the GNU operating system began in January 1984, and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded in October 1985. An article outlining the project and its goals was published in March 1985 titled the GNU Manifesto. The manifesto included significant explanation of the GNU philosophy, Free Software Definition and "copyleft" ideas.

The Linux kernel, started by Linus Torvalds, was released as freely modifiable source code in 1991. Initially, Linux was not released under a free or open-source software license. However, with version 0.12 in February 1992, he relicensed the project under the GNU General Public License.[11] Much like Unix, Torvalds' kernel attracted the attention of volunteer programmers.[citation needed]

FreeBSD and NetBSD (both derived from 386BSD) were released as free software when the USL v. BSDi lawsuit was settled out of court in 1993. OpenBSD forked from NetBSD in 1995. Also in 1995, The Apache HTTP Server, commonly referred to as Apache, was released under the Apache License 1.0.

In 1997, Eric Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a reflective analysis of the hacker community and free software principles. The paper received significant attention in early 1998, and was one factor in motivating Netscape Communications Corporation to release their popular Netscape Communicator Internet suite as free software. This code is today better known as Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.

Netscape's act prompted Raymond and others to look into how to bring the FSF's free software ideas and perceived benefits to the commercial software industry. They concluded that FSF's social activism was not appealing to companies like Netscape, and looked for a way to rebrand the free software movement to emphasize the business potential of sharing and collaborating on software source code. The new name they chose was "open source", and quickly Bruce Perens, publisher Tim O'Reilly, Linus Torvalds, and others signed on to the rebranding. The Open Source Initiative was founded in February 1998 to encourage use of the new term and evangelize open-source principles.[12]

While the Open Source Initiative sought to encourage the use of the new term and evangelize the principles it adhered to, commercial software vendors found themselves increasingly threatened by the concept of freely distributed software and universal access to an application's source code. A Microsoft executive publicly stated in 2001 that "open source is an intellectual property destroyer. I can't imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual-property business."[13] This view perfectly summarizes the initial response to FOSS by some software corporations.[citation needed] However, while FOSS has historically played a role outside of the mainstream of private software development, companies as large as Microsoft have begun to develop official open-source presences on the Internet. IBM, Oracle, Google and State Farm are just a few of the companies with a serious public stake in today's competitive open-source market. There has been a significant shift in the corporate philosophy concerning the development of free and open-source software (FOSS).[14]


While copyright is the primary legal mechanism that FOSS authors use to ensure license compliance for their software, other mechanisms such as legislation, patents, and trademarks have implications as well. In response to legal issues with patents and the DMCA, the Free Software Foundation released version 3 of its GNU Public License in 2007 that explicitly addressed the DMCA and patent rights.

After the development of the GNU GPLv3, the FSF (as copyright holder of many pieces of the GNU system) updated many[citation needed] of the GNU programs' licenses from GPLv2 to GPLv3. Apple, a user of GCC and a heavy user of both DRM and patents, switched the compiler in its Xcode IDE from GCC to Clang, which is another FOSS compiler[15] but is under a permissive license.[16] LWN speculated that Apple was motivated partly by a desire to avoid GPLv3.[15] The Samba project also switched to GPLv3, which Apple replaced in their software suite with a closed-source, proprietary software alternative.[17]

Mergers have affected major open-source software. Sun Microsystems (Sun) acquired MySQL AB, owner of the popular open-source MySQL database, in 2008.[18]

Oracle in turn purchased Sun in January, 2010, acquiring their copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Thus, Oracle became the owner of both the most popular proprietary database and the most popular open-source database. Oracle's attempts to commercialize the open-source MySQL database have raised concerns in the FOSS community.[19] Partly in response to uncertainty about the future of MySQL, the FOSS community forked the project into new database systems outside of Oracle's control. These include MariaDB, Percona, and Drizzle.[20] All of these have distinct names; they are distinct projects and can not use the trademarked name MySQL.[21]

In August, 2010, Oracle sued Google, claiming that its use of Java in Android infringed on Oracle's copyrights and patents. The Oracle v. Google case ended in May 2012, with the finding that Google did not infringe on Oracle's patents, and the trial judge ruled that the structure of the Java APIs used by Google was not copyrightable. The jury found that Google infringed a small number of copied files, but the parties stipulated that Google would pay no damages.[22] Oracle has appealed to the Federal Circuit, and Google has filed a cross-appeal on the literal copying claim.[23]


Free software[edit]

Richard Stallman's Free Software Definition, adopted by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), defines free software as a matter of liberty, not price.[24] The earliest known publication of the definition of his free software idea was in the February 1986 edition[25] of the FSF's now-discontinued GNU's Bulletin publication. The canonical source for the document is in the philosophy section of the GNU Project website. As of April 2008, it is published there in 39 languages.[26]

Open source[edit]

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.[27][28] 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.[citation needed] Perens later stated that he felt Eric Raymond's promotion of open source unfairly overshadowed the Free Software Foundation's efforts and reaffirmed his support for free software.[citation needed]


The first known use of the phrase free open-source software on Usenet was in a posting on 18 March 1998, just a month after the term open source itself was coined.[citation needed] In February 2002, F/OSS appeared on a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to Amiga computer games.[citation needed] 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 acronym FLOSS was coined in 2001 by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh for free/libre/open-source software.[citation needed] Later that year, the European Commission (EC) used the phrase when they funded a study on the topic.[29]

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, with for example the F representing free (English) or frei (German), and the L representing libre (Spanish or French), livre (Portuguese), or libero (Italian), liber (Romanian) and so on. 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 free in English.

By the end of 2004, the FLOSS acronym had been used in official English documents issued by South Africa,[30] Spain,[31] and Brazil.[32]

Licensing: copyleft vs permissive [edit]

Licenses that restrict mixing of works licensed under them with proprietary works, like GNU GPL 3, are called copyleft licenses.[citation needed]

Licenses considered to have minimum restrictions of that kind, like Apache license, are called permissive software licenses.[citation needed]

Dualism of FOSS[edit]

The primary license 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."[33]

Thus, the Open Source Initiative considers many free software licenses to also be open-source. These include the latest versions of the FSF's three main licenses, the GPL, the Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL).[34]


Adoption by governments[edit]

"We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable -- one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could."

Official statement of the United Space Alliance, which manages the computer systems for the International Space Station (ISS), regarding why they chose to switch from Windows to Linux on the ISS.[35][36]

The Government of Kerala, India, announced its official support for free/open-source software in its State IT Policy of 2001,[37][discuss] which was formulated after the first-ever free software conference in India, Freedom First!, held in July 2001 in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. In 2009, Government of Kerala started the International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS).[38] In March 2015 the Indian government announced a policy on adoption of open source software.[39][40]

In the German City of Munich, conversion of 15,000 PCs and laptops from Microsoft Windows-based operating systems to a Debian-based Linux environment called LiMux spanned the ten years of 2003 to 2013. After successful completion of the project, more than 80% of all computers were running Linux.[41]

In 2004, a law in Venezuela (Decree 3390) went into effect, mandating a two-year transition to open source in all public agencies. As of June 2009, this ambitious transition was still under way.[42][43] Malaysia launched the "Malaysian Public Sector Open Source Software Program", saving millions on proprietary software licenses until 2008.[44][45]

In 2005 the Government of Peru voted to adopt open source across all its bodies.[46] The 2002 response to Microsoft's critique is available online. In the preamble to the bill, the Peruvian government stressed that the choice was made to ensure that key pillars of democracy were safeguarded: "The basic principles which inspire the Bill are linked to the basic guarantees of a state of law."[47] In September, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced its formal adoption of the OpenDocument standard for all Commonwealth entities.[48]

In 2006, the Brazilian government has simultaneously encouraged the distribution of cheap computers running Linux throughout its poorer communities by subsidizing their purchase with tax breaks.[48]

In April 2008,[49] Ecuador passed a similar law, Decree 1014, designed to migrate the public sector to Libre Software.[50]

In February 2009, the United States White House moved its website to Linux servers using Drupal for content management.[51]

In March, the French Gendarmerie Nationale announced it will totally switch to Ubuntu by 2015. The Gendarmerie began its transition to open source software in 2005 when it replaced Microsoft Office with across the entire organization.[52]

In January 2010, the Government of Jordan announced a partnership with Ingres Corporation (now named Actian), a open source database management company based in the United States, to promote open-source software use, starting with university systems in Jordan.[53]

In September 2014, the Uganda National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U) announced a call for feedback on an Open Source Strategy & Policy[54] at a workshop in conjunction with the ICT Association of Uganda (ICTAU)

FOSS and Benkler's new economy[edit]

According to Yochai Benkler, Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, free software is the most visible part of a new economy of commons-based peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. As examples, he cites a variety of FOSS projects, including both free software and open-source.[55]

This new economy is already under development. To commercialize FOSS, many companies move towards advertisement-supported software. In such a model, the only way to increase revenue is to make the advertisement more valuable. Facebook has recently been criticized for using novel methods of tracking users to accomplish this.[56]

This new economy has alternatives. Apple's App Stores have proven very popular with both users and developers. The Free Software Foundation considers Apple's App Stores to be incompatible with its GPL and complained that Apple was infringing on the GPL with its iTunes terms of use. Rather than change those terms to comply with the GPL, Apple removed the GPL-licensed products from its App Stores.[57]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ FOSS is an inclusive term that covers both free software and open-source software, which despite describing similar development models, have differing cultures and philosophies.[1] Free refers to the users' freedom to copy and re-use the software. The Free Software Foundation, an organization that advocates the free software model, suggests that, to understand the concept, one should "think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer". (See "The Free Software Definition". Retrieved 4 February 2010. ) Free software focuses on the fundamental freedoms it gives to users, whereas open source software focuses on the perceived strengths of its peer-to-peer development model.[2] FOSS is a term that can be used without particular bias towards either political approach.


  1. ^ Feller 2005, pp. 89, 362.
  2. ^ Feller 2005, pp. 101–106, 110–111.
  3. ^ Free Software Foundation. "What is free software?". Retrieved 14 December 2011. 
  4. ^ Hatlestad 2005.
  5. ^ Claburn 2007.
  6. ^ Fisher, McKie & Mancke 1983.
  7. ^ Computer Software 1980 Copyright Act, Pub. L. No. 96-517, 94 Stat. 3015, 3028.
  8. ^ "Copyright Basics". 
  9. ^ Weber 2009.
  10. ^ William 2002.
  11. ^ "Release notes for Linux kernel 0.12". 
  12. ^ "History of the OSI". 
  13. ^ Charny 2001.
  14. ^ Miller, Voas & Costello 2010, pp. 14–16.
  15. ^ a b Brockmeier 2010.
  16. ^ "LLVM Developer Policy". LLVM. Retrieved November 19, 2012. 
  17. ^ Holwerda 2011.
  18. ^ "Sun to Acquire MySQL". MySQL AB. Retrieved 2008-01-16. 
  19. ^ Thomson 2011.
  20. ^ Samson 2011.
  21. ^ Nelson 2009.
  22. ^ Niccolai 2012.
  23. ^ Jones 2012.
  24. ^ "". 20 September 2011. Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  25. ^ "GNU's Bulletin, Volume 1 Number 1, page 8". 
  26. ^ "The Free Software Definition – Translations of this page". 
  27. ^ Perens 1999.
  28. ^ "The Open Source Definition". , The Open Source Definition according to the Open Source Initiative
  29. ^ "Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study". 
  30. ^ "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. [dead link]
  31. ^ "FLOSS deployment in Extremadura, Spain". [dead link]
  32. ^ "Relatório da ONU aponta o Software Livre (FLOSS) como melhor". [dead link]
  33. ^ Stallman n.d..
  34. ^ "Licenses by Name". Open Source License. Open Source Initiative. Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  35. ^ Gunter 2013.
  36. ^ Bridgewater 2013.
  37. ^ ""Role of Open or Free Software", Section 15, page 20, of the State IT Policy (2001) of the Government of Kerala, copy available at the UN Public Administration Network (UNPAN) site" (PDF). 
  38. ^
  39. ^ Alawadhi 2015.
  40. ^ "Policy on Adoption of Open Source Software for Government of India" (PDF). 
  41. ^ "Landeshauptstadt München - Aktuelle Zahlen" (in German). Retrieved 2014-07-28. 
  42. ^ (Spanish) Venezuela Open Source[dead link]
  43. ^ Chavez, Hugo F. (December 2004). "Publicado en la Gaceta oficial No 38.095 de fecha 28/ 12/ 2004". Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  44. ^ "". Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  45. ^ "". Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  46. ^ Clarke 2005.
  47. ^ National Advisory Council on Innovation Open Software Working Group (July 2004). "Free/Libre & Open Source Software and Open Standards in South Africa" (PDF). Retrieved 31 May 2008. [dead link]
  48. ^ a b Casson & Ryan 2006.
  49. ^ "[News] Ecuador Ahead of the World with Democracy of Knowledge". 
  50. ^ (Spanish), Decree 1014
  51. ^ Vaughan-Nichols 2009.
  52. ^ Paul 2009.
  53. ^ "Jordan Information Ministry signs deal on open source - Government - News & Features". Retrieved 2012-04-23. 
  54. ^ "Open Source Strategy & Policy"
  55. ^ Benkler 2003.
  56. ^ ElBoghdady & Tsukayama 2011.
  57. ^ Vaughan-Nichols 2011.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]