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Distinction between Free Software and Open Source Software

The terms “Free Software” and “Open Source Software” both refer to software with few restrictions on its use and distribution. However, there are subtle differences.

Understanding the Nuances

Most people use the terms “Free Software” and “Open Source Software” interchangeably, but there are nuanced distinctions. The first emphasizes the ethical aspects associated with the freedom to use, modify, and share software. On the other hand, “Open Source Software” focuses on the technical advantages and collaboration in development.

Historical Background

The history of these terms is convoluted. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) under Richard Stallman pioneered “Free Software.” Later, the term “Open Source” gained popularity to underscore business suitability and technical efficiency. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) formulated the Open Source Definition, which outlines ten principles for Open Source licenses.

Practical Implications

In practice, it often means the same thing whether software is labeled as “Free” or “Open Source,” as many licenses are recognized by both groups. Ultimately, the choice between these terms depends on whether you emphasize ethical values or practical benefits.

Terminology and Public Perception

Additionally, alternative designations like “Free and Open Source Software” (FOSS) have been suggested to settle the debate. It is important to note that Free and Open Source Software should be distinguished from public domain software, as the latter does not have the same licensing requirements.


Overall, while the terms have different connotations, they are often interchangeable in practice, depending on individual priorities and requirements in software development.

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