Open source equals software freedom, not free software

How can big companies like Tibco misunderstand open source so badly nearly 15 years after the term was coined?

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That itself proved problematic. A strict focus on the cost of entry meant that supposedly open source vendors -- who made price their differentiator rather than software freedom -- incrementally encroached on the four freedoms, creating the same lock-in as proprietary vendors. Many of them used tactics like dual licensing ("buy a license from us so that you don't have to comply with the GPL"); when that failed to scare customers, they moved on to "open core" tactics where key customer features in a project are not under an open source license and don't come with any of the essential liberties. If you as the end-user lack those four freedoms, your ability to respond to change is tied to the vendor's whims. Incremental improvements, migration to another support provider, and exit to another solution all become costly or impossible.

The flexibility frame

True open source involves many software developers whose larger visions and plans share a common subset of software that does not differentiate them in the market. They are able to collaborate over that nondifferentiating aspect of their needs and maintain a shared commons of software source they are able to use in their own ways. The most successful projects -- those with longevity and "living" code, regularly maintained and improved -- can attract a changing group of diverse participants over a long period.

Projects that contribute a technical component to an overall solution, rather than attempting to embody the full solution, most often succeed by this measure. The Linux kernel, the Apache HTTPD server, and the GNOME desktop are all examples of open source used by businesses as a part of solutions without themselves forming the differentiating element of those solutions.

The trend in open source is toward this kind of component value and away from free-standing open source projects. There are a few notable free-standing projects, like the Gimp and LibreOffice, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Even LibreOffice -- now two years old and with a growing community -- owes its success to the ability of multiple, commercially motivated participants to collaborate, rather than the earlier model used by, in which a single dominant vendor restricted the ability of others to participate freely.

What all these projects have in common is that their participants engage within a "flexibility frame." Open source allows them to innovate, to leverage and complement the skills of others, and to respond to change without requiring the permission of others first. These are all features of the flexibility that open source delivers. When you can use the software and its source code for any purpose without needing to gain the permission of another party, when you can decide for yourself what problems need fixing and how to fix them, you're liberated to lead your industry. Open innovation depends on the flexibility frame.

It's sad that Tibco, the FRAND-demanding mobile industry, and others continue to misunderstand open source and apply the price frame to it. Apache, OpenStack, LibreOffice, and many more communities show that open source has moved on, that a flexibility frame is now more relevant. Now that it has become a default for the software industry, isn't it time for the proprietary dinosaurs to evolve a little and catch up with the open source mammals?

This article, "Open source equals software freedom, not free software," was originally published at Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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