What is 'open' in Free and Open Source Software?

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

What is 'open' in Free and Open Source Software?

Down to Earth» When we buy a proprietary software, we are only buying the licence to use it under certain conditions. The conditions of use are explicitly laid out in the end user licence agreement.

But very few of us go through the elaborate licence agreement because it doesn't make much of a difference to a non-technical user (who is not into programming, for example). The licence agreement prohibits users from taking a part of the software to study how it works, modify, improve or even copy it.

The primary hindrance is that the source code is kept confidential. The source code gives instructions to the computer in a programming language using letters, numbers and punctuations. Therefore, if someone wants to customize the software to suit some special requirements, s/he will not be able to do it.For instance, if someone wants to use a software application in Bhutanese language, or develop a package for the visually challenged, the option is to get the source code from the proprietary software company. The source code in free and open source software (FOSS) is available to the user. FOSS is governed by the general public licence, which makes it mandatory for anybody who makes changes in the software to release the source code.

Features of FOSS include
Free redistribution The software can be given as part of a package with other applications

Source code The code must either be distributed with the software or easily accessible

Derived works The code can be altered and distributed by the new author under the same licence conditions as the product on which it is based

Integrity of the author's source code Derived works must not interfere with the original author's intent or work

No discrimination The software should be user friendly for all, including the disabled for example. Also, there are no limitations on its use. People must be able to use the software for any purpose they want to

Distribution of licence The rights of a program must apply to all to whom the program is re-distributed without need for an additional licence

Licence must not be specific to a product FOSS should be compatible with all kinds of hardware and software. It must not contaminate other software and must be technology-neutral

How did it come about?

» Richard Stallman initiated the free software movement in the mid 1980s in the US.

In 1971, Stallman used to be a programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and it was around that time he worked with a software community using a massive central computer, which everybody shared.

The purpose of the community was to share software, an activity he says was "as natural as eating". A decade later, the members of the community found that they had become "illegal". They were shut out by either non-disclosure agreements or copyright notices that accompanied the operating system software they used. The notices forbade the sharing and modification of the software's source code--the program that made it work. As sharing and modifying the code was what the community was all about, this licence change presented a serious problem.

Stallman then decided that he would have to secure his independence by creating his own computer system if he wanted to write and share software with fellow programmers. He started off by creating Emacs, a programme that was given along with operating systems, and it could be used to change/modify the source code. James Gosling, another programmer, developed the software and called it Gosling Emacs.

Gosling initially allowed free distribution of the Gosling Emacs source code but later sold the rights to UniPress, a company based in Florida. The software was now called UniPress Emacs. UniPress threatened Stallman to stop distributing the Gosling source code, and Stallman had to comply. He later replaced these parts with his own code, and to prevent the free code from becoming proprietary in future, Stallman devised the General Public Licence. According to the licence, one had the freedom to run the software for any purpose, to give copies of the software to other people, to study and modify it and improve it and to distribute the improvement.

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