David A. Wheeler's Blog

Mon, 08 Dec 2008

Use “FLOSS” instead of “FOSS” or “OSS/FS” as Universal term for Open Source Software / Free Software

Below is my brief attempt to untangle some terminology. In short, I suggest using “FLOSS” instead of “FOSS” or “OSS/FS” for software which meets the Free Software Definition and Open Source Definition.

There are many alternative terms for “Free software” in the sense of the Free Software Definition. Examples of such alternatives are “open source software”, “libre software”, “FOSS” or “F/OSS” (free/open-source software”), OSS/FS (open source software / free software), “freed software”, and “unfettered software”. Wikipedia’s article on alternative terms for free software discusses alternative terminology further.

For someone (like me) who tries to write about software under these kinds of licenses, having multiple different names is annoying. What’s worse, the term “Free software” (the original term) is really misleading; people who hear that term presume that you mean “no cost”, which is not related to the intended meaning of “freedom”. Yes, I know that the “Free” means “freedom” (aka “Free as in speech” or “Free market”), and I’m well aware that you can charge and pay for Free software. But you have to re-teach everyone who knows English, and you’re fighting a losing battle against search engines (which will mix results together when you search for a phrase with two common meanings). Even the FSF admits that the term “Free software” is widely misunderstood. Years ago I suggested to Richard Stallman that he use the term “freed software” instead of “free software”, so that the term would be different but the acronyms could stay the same; obviously he didn’t accept that suggestion.

The term “open source software” is the most widely used term in English, and the term’s creators intentionally tried to include everyone regardless of their motivations. I’m happy to use the term “open source software”; I think it’s a reasonable term and it’s widely accepted. So, in groups which already use that term, I’ll gladly use “open source software” as the “universal” term that covers all such software, regardless of the motivations of the developers.

Unfortunately, many of the developers of such software strongly object to the term “open source software” as the universal term. Their objection is that many people who use the term “open source software” only emphasize engineering or business advantages, while the FSF emphasizes freedom for end-users and objects to a term that doesn’t note that possibility somehow.

This objection causes problems for people like me. I’m usually not trying to exclude those who object to the term “open source software”. Instead, I often want an inclusive term to describe such software, regardless of the motivations of its developers. Different developers often have different motivations - and even the same developer may have different motivations over time or on different projects. So, is there some term that most can accept?

One inclusive term is “OSS/FS”, which you can blame me for. I starting writing about open source software / free software (OSS/FS) many years ago, when such writings were much less common. So for example, look at the title of my massive paper “Why open source software / free software (OSS/FS)? Look at the Numbers!” At the time, there wasn’t an obvious “universal” term, so I chose to use “OSS/FS”, which was an obvious way to combine the two most common terms. “OSS/FS” takes too long to pronounce, though, so it hasn’t really caught on.

Among the other terms, “FLOSS” (Free/Libre/Open-Source Software) seems to have won the popularity contest as a “universal” English term that nearly all can accept. Google reports the approximate number of pages a phrase will return, so it’s a reasonable way to determine how popular a phrase is. A quick search on Google (using English on 2008-12-08) shows these popularity figures: “FLOSS software” gets 1,570,000 hits, “Libre software” gets 596,000 hits, “FOSS software” gets 595,000 hits, “OSS/FS” gets 193,000 hits, and “F/OSS software” gets 66,200 hits. Note that FLOSS adds the term “libre”; “libre software” or “livre software” is widely used as the universal term in Romance languages, so adding it helps clarify which sense of “free” is meant. The term “FLOSS” also hides the fact that some people prefer the original spelling “open source software”, while others prefer to hyphenate it as “open-source software”. In context, “FLOSS” is unlikely to be confused with dental floss. If you’re an advocate who objects to that similarity, just imagine that “FLOSS cleans the gunk out” :-).

So, when speaking to a group that already uses “open source software” as the universal term for such software, I’ll use “open source software”. I have no objection to “open source software” as the universal term; it’s a reasonable term, and my primary goal is understanding by my hearers. I don’t see a problem with using separate terms to describe people’s motivations, as opposed to terms for the software that they (co-)develop. Thus, I can glibly say “open source software is co-developed by people and organizations who often have different motivations to do so; those who develop it to promote freedom for end-users typically term their members the ‘Free Software Movement’, and those who develop it for engineering and business (cost-saving) reasons may be referred to as the ‘Open Source Movement’”. I think that’s perfectly acceptable as terminology; it’s certainly clear that different people and organizations can have different motivations and yet can work together. Many, many people use “open source software” as the universal term for such software.

But not all groups accept the term “open source software” as the universal term for such software, and my writings on my website cater to a variety of people. You can’t please everyone, but I’d like to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. At the least, I’d rather people object to the substance of my writing instead of my word choice :-).

So: I suggest using “FLOSS” (Free/Libre/Open-source software) instead of “FOSS” or “F/OSS” or “OSS/FS” as the universal term for such software (in English). It’s easy to say, inclusive, and it seems to be the most popular of those alternatives. Many people use “open source software” or “Free software” (with the funny capitalization) as the universal term for such software, and that’s fine by me. But for material on my website, I intend to slowly migrate towards FLOSS instead of my older term OSS/FS. I’ll leave OSS/FS in a few places (including titles) so that people searching for it will still find it, but at this point, I think the OSS/FS acronym is a fossil. I’ll tend to leave “open source software” where I use that term; typically those are written for audiences where it’s established practice to use that term.

Strictly speaking, “Free software” in the FSF sense is defined by the Free Software Definition (FSD), and “open source software” is defined by the Open Source Definition (OSD). In practice, a software license will typically either meet, or fail to meet, both definitions. This is hardly surprising; different dictionaries have different descriptions of much simpler words. The Free Software Definition is much simpler and easier to understand, and it gives a better understanding of why an end-user might want such a license. So when describing what FLOSS is, I generally prefer to use the simpler and clearer Free Software Definition. If I’m doing a technical analysis of a software license, I require that both definitions be met. The FSD is better at explaining the overall concept, but the OSD has additional information that helps clarify it. In other words, a software license must meet both definitions, or it’s not a FLOSS license.

path: /oss | Current Weblog | permanent link to this entry