Goodbye, "free software"; hello, "open source"

This is the original call to the community to start using the term ‘open source‘ that I issued on 8 February 1998. The event referred to in the first paragraph is the 23 January announcement of the Mozilla source code release. Because this is a historic document, I have fixed some link drift but haven't re-styled it to match the rest of my site. Though it has been converted to XHTML rather than HTML classic, except for this gray box and the RCS date at the bottom it looks pretty much exactly as it did then. There are Spanish and Indonesian translations of this document.

After the Netscape announcement broke in January I did a lot of thinking about the next phase -- the serious push to get "free software" accepted in the mainstream corporate world. And I realized we have a serious problem with "free software" itself.

Specifically, we have a problem with the term "free software", itself, not the concept. I've become convinced that the term has to go.

The problem with it is twofold. First, it's confusing; the term "free" is very ambiguous (something the Free Software Foundation's propaganda has to wrestle with constantly). Does "free" mean "no money charged?" or does it mean "free to be modified by anyone", or something else?

Second, the term makes a lot of corporate types nervous. While this does not intrinsically bother me in the least, we now have a pragmatic interest in converting these people rather than thumbing our noses at them. There's now a chance we can make serious gains in the mainstream business world without compromising our ideals and commitment to technical excellence -- so it's time to reposition. We need a new and better label.

I brainstormed this with some Silicon Valley fans of Linux (including Larry Augustin of the Linux International board of directors) the day after my meeting with Netscape (Feb 5th). We kicked around and discarded several alternatives, and we came up with a replacement label we all liked: "open source".

We suggest that everywhere we as a culture have previously talked about "free software", the label should be changed to "open source". Open-source software. The open-source model. The open source culture. The Debian Open Source Guidelines. (In pitching this to the corporate world I'm also going to be invoking the idea of "peer review" a lot.)

And, we should explain publicly the reason for the change. Linus Torvalds has been saying in "World Domination 101" that the open-source culture needs to make a serious effort to take the desktop and engage the corporate mainstream. Of course he's right -- and this re-labeling, as Linus agrees, is part of the process. It says we're willing to work with and co-opt the market for our own purposes, rather than remaining stuck in a marginal, adversarial position.

This re-labeling has since attracted a lot of support (and some opposition) in the hacker culture. Supporters include Linus himself, John "maddog" Hall, Larry Augustin, Bruce Perens of Debian, Phil Hughes of Linux Journal. Opposers include Richard Stallman, who initially flirted with the idea but now thinks the term "open source" isn't pure enough.

Bruce Perens has applied to register "open source" as a trademark and hold it through Software in the Public Interest. The trademark conditions will be known as the ``Open Source Definition'', essentially the same as the Debian Free Software Guidelines.

It's crunch time, people. The Netscape announcement changes everything. We've broken out of the little corner we've been in for twenty years. We're in a whole new game now, a bigger and more exciting one -- and one I think we can win.

(A note about usage. In accordance with normal English practice, the term is "open source" standing alone, but "open-source" used as an adjective or in compounds; thus, "open-source software".)

(Yes, we're aware of the specialized meaning "open source" has in the intelligence community. This is a feature, not a bug.)


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Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>