Misunderstanding Open Source – It's Not Free

Ask a random person what they think about open source software (OSS) and they are liable to tell you that it is free software--source code that anyone can use and edit.  They are only partly right, and they are wrong about a major issue – OSS is not free by any means, but it is usually cheaper than proprietary software.

According to Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU OS project and the Free Software Foundation, “When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price... ” 

Stallman says that these open source values promote sharing and cooperation in society, bringing people together to solve their collective problems.  As our lives become ever more intertwined with digital technology, digital freedom is becoming a matter of personal freedom.  If our software isn't open in this sense, our freedom is limited.

Open Source Confusion is Rampant

Tibco is a major player in the IT infrastructure software industry, boasting a wide variety of services for several industries.  Their customers include such high profile organizations as Delta Air Lines, Merck, and FedEx. 

It is a bit confusing, therefore, to hear Tibco founder and CEO Vivek Ranadive say that “Open source is fool's gold... you think you are getting something for nothing but you are not.”

This flies in the face of the open source manifestos produced by Stallman and other OSS advocates, which are widely circulated on the Internet.  It also contradicts Ranadive's quote from the Tibco website: “A little bit of the right information, just a little bit beforehand – whether it is a couple of seconds, minutes, or hours – is more valuable than all of the information in the world six months later... this is the two-second advantage.”

Vivek Ranadive is obviously a very intelligent and successful businessman, and his misunderstanding of OSS indicates that this confusion is probably quite widespread.  How many people have heard OSS touted as 'free software,' only to be repelled by a price tag?  These people then get the impression that open source providers are being sneaky or dishonest.

OSS began as 'free software,' in the sense of personal freedom rather than free of cost.  The movement ran into the problems described above, but found that it was difficult to come up with the perfect name.  'Open source' software was settled on, not because it was perfect, but because it was good enough.

There is no doubt that people will continue to take the name at face value and misunderstand OSS, but as open source becomes more well known, we may see an improvement.  If it seems complicated, remember Richard Stallman's concise description: “...think of “free speech,” not “free beer.” ”