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"Free" and "Open Source" Software: Navigating the Shibboleths

To outsiders, software whose source code is freely distributable is open source software. However, as soon as you become involved with the community that centers around such code, you quickly find that it is also called free software -- and that the two terms are far from synonymous.

Which term you choose to use can quickly associate you with a whole spectrum of political and philosophical beliefs, and can make the difference between receiving cooperation and being ostracized. As a newcomer, you might easily imagine that you have stumbled out of the woods and into the target end of a rifle range, all because of your innocent choice of jargon.

To make matters worse, knowing which of the two phrases to use is difficult, because they are used in several different ways. At the most basic level, they indicate a specific organization and its principles. At another level, the choice of terms may reflect your audience. And, at the most important level, your choice may reflect your ethical imperatives and your vision of the future of computing.

All these meanings blur together, and are heavily dependent on context, so much so that members of the communities can switch meaning in mid-conversation, and sometimes even in mid-sentence. They also carry the baggage of over a decade of co-existence and personal animosities.

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FOSS Licensing

  • Confused by license compatibility? A new article by Richard Stallman may help
    Richard Stallman has published a new guide on titled License compatibility and relicensing. is home to a whole host of resources on free software licensing, including frequently asked questions about GNU licenses and our list of free software licenses. Our license list contains information on which licenses are compatible with the GNU General Public License as well as a brief description of what it means to be compatible. This latest article by Stallman provides a more in–depth explanation of what compatibility means and the different ways in which it is achieved.
  • The most important part of your project might not even be a line of code
    What is licensing? Why does it matter? Why should you care? There are many reasons that licensing is an important part of a project you are working on. You are taking the time to write code and share it with the world in an open way, such as publishing it on GitHub, Bitbucket, or any number of other code-hosting services. Anyone might stumble across your code and find it useful. Licensing is the way that you can control exactly how someone who finds your code can use it and in what ways.

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