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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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