« Open source means free, doesn’t it? ». Open source software implies transparency and innovation, but the actual meaning of “open source” may still be confusing, not that clear to anyone. Let’s take some time to gain a clearer insight into this specific type of software!
Open Source software: what does that mean?
Open Source software is a computer software whose source code is freely accessible, editable and redistributable. Collaborative development and IT skills share are usually associated to Open Source developers communities, too.
One of the main differences, opposing open source software to proprietary software, is that the source code of this latter is “closed”. In fact, the access to source code is impossible or very limited. This means that users pay a licence just to use the software, the way it is, since the source code remains inaccessible.
For example, let’s compare two professional operating systems that you know for sure: Microsoft Windows is a proprietary software, whereas RedHat Enterprise Linux is Open Source. Both of them are very popular and widely used in companies nowadays.
Open Source Initiative
The non-profit organization Open Source Initiative has determined 10 principles to be met, in order to qualify an IT software as Open Source:
- Free distribution, that means everybody can sell or distribute the software: no fees have to be paid to the author;
- The source code must be accessible, distributable and readable;
- Derived works and modifications are allowed and must be distributable under the same terms as the the license of the software original version;
- Integrity of the author’s source code: the distribution of modified source code can be restricted, only if patches are distributed with the source code, in order to modify the program;
- No discrimination against individuals or groups;
- No discrimination against fields of activity;
- The set of rights applied to the software are also applicable to all its users;
- The license must not be specific to a product : the software remains free, even if it’s separate from its software distribution ;
- The license must not set restrictions on other software distributed along with the same licensed software;
- The license must be technology-neutral.
Open Source does not mean FREE OF CHARGE
The expression "free software" has been misunderstood for a long time, inducing people to interpret it as "free of charges" because of the double meaning of the word "free". But Richard Stallman made it clear that "free software" should be understood as « free as in free speech, not as free beer ». In other words : free like freedom, rather than gratis.
Open Source: what are the benefits ?
86% of IT leaders say the most innovative companies are using enterprise open sourceThe State of Enterprise Open Source – Red Hat 2020
Having free access to source code grants transparency which, in turn, ensures companies with conformity and software quality. In fact, bugs and faults are easily detected by the developer community, this way enhancing security.
More and more companies are recognizing that collaboration and openness are key to innovation. In fact, these innovation levers enable entreprises to reduce their time-to-market, development costs as well as production cycles. In a nutshell, Open software – so Open Source – has become a crucial element to innovate, better and faster.
Even though an Open Source software is not free, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is generally less expensive than a proprietary solution.
Freedom and sustainability
Integrating an Open Source software to your work tools means more freedom and less dependency towards the software editor, differently from proprietary software. As a consequence, you can modify the software as you wish, customizing it depending on your needs. You can also benefit from collaborative dynamics, pushing for non-stop innovation, thanks to all the technical enhancements and contributions of each and every user. What’s more is that there is no risk to lose your tool, since the source code is freely accessible.
Free software vs Open Source software
There is still some confusion about the use (and meaning) of “free software” and “open source software” even in the media. These two notions are often used as synonyms. So, here’s the question: is there a difference between these two concepts or are they interchangeable?
From Free to Open source
In 1998, the Open Source Initiative was created to adapt free software to the commercial software industry. This way, the expression “Open Source” is introduced and adopted to finally break with this terms confusion.
Even though these two terms, “free” and “open source”, are frequently (but wrongly!) used to express the same thing, R. Stallman explains that the free software is a social and political movement, whereas the Open Source is related to a “development methodology”.
4 freedoms of free software
The “free software” movement was introduced in 1984 by Richard Stallman, who is considered to be not only the father of the GNU project, but also one of the main creators and activists of the powerful association Free Software Foundation (FSF).
In brief, according to this movement, users freedom is of paramount importance. It is actually on this basis that the FSF, founded in 1985, defines the 4 fundamental freedoms of free software:
- Freedom to use it,
- Freedom to study it,
- Freedom to modify it,
- Freedom to redistribute it.
Different types of software licenses
There are basically 4 main categories of free software licenses
- Public Domain : it is the most permissive license since software can be edited and then used with no restrictions.
- Permissive licenses – also known as “Apache licenses”, “BSD” or “MIT” – encompass minimal requirements about how software should be modified and then redistribute, making sure to respect for their authorship.
- The GNU GPL License (General Public License) constitutes the majority of free licenses and has a strong copyleft: users can access, modify, redistribute the source code, as long as they don’t put any restriction.
- Differently from the copyright, the Copyleft allows the studying, the modification and even the redistribution of works, which makes the software “free”. Moreover it requires the derived versions to be free too, by contamination effect.
When we talk about Open Source software, we can’t avoid addressing the concept of free software. The free software movement encompasses more than the technical aspects of the source code, since it also advocates philosophical values and even political ones, for some people. In short: a free software is always Open Source, but the opposite is not necessarily the case. In fact a software can be Open Source without being free, according to the FSF. In conclusion, “free software” and “open source” are definitely not synonyms, hence they should be used distinctly.