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GNU is Not Unix

The Semantics of Free Software vs. Open Source 515

An anonymous reader writes "As the end-of-year technology round-ups begin, LinuxWorld's Kevin Bedell notes that in his opinion no useful distinction is served any longer by preserving the two separate terms 'open source software' and 'free software'. One interesting sidelight: Bedell says that 'one of the leaders of the open source movement' wrote to him in an exchange they had on this topic: 'The distinction between 'open source' and 'free software' is not technical; it's the same code and licenses. Nor is it social; it's the same developers. It's strictly one of attitude - are we focused on moralism and changing peoples' thoughts (free software) or on results and changing peoples' behavior (open source)?'"
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The Semantics of Free Software vs. Open Source

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  • Free? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dsginter ( 104154 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:37PM (#11202880)
    I've seen open source software that wasn't free. There definitely needs to be a distinction.
    • Re:Free? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by PoopJuggler ( 688445 )
      I've seen free software that isn't open source. I agree.
    • Re:Free? (Score:5, Informative)

      by sjalex ( 757770 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:51PM (#11203061)
      When someone says free software in this context it means libre. free software and freeware are not the same thing at all. freeware is software you can use without paying for it, and free software is software you can use/sell/modify/kludge/hack/whatever without obligation. freeware is beer free, free software is freedom free. open source software can be free software, or not, and it can be freeware, or not. It's all in how the product is licensed. And, as the original article indicates, it's largely a matter of semantics. For a lot of people it's still a pretty important difference though.
      • Wrong. (Score:3, Informative)

        by Rufus88 ( 748752 )
        [...] free software is software you can use/sell/modify/kludge/hack/whatever without obligation.

        No. What you've just described is called "public domain software". "Free Software" is copyrighted software which you can use in certain ways under the condition of certain obligations as specified by the Free Software Foundation. Certain core differences in the usages and obligations exist between "Open Source" software and "Free Software", so I don't understand the claim that the distinction is non-technical.
    • Re:Free? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Matimus ( 598096 ) <> on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:54PM (#11203101)
      It would be nice if we could switch terms and get RMS to start using something like "Liberty Software" or "Liberated Software", "free" is too general.

      In my mind that sounds compleatly resonable, but I doubt it will ever happen.

    • Re:Free? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by GlassHeart ( 579618 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:57PM (#11203132) Journal
      Just because there are exceptions doesn't mean that human languages always have to be precise. For example, for the gross majority of users, there is no effective difference between GPL, BSD, or even closed source freeware. Most of them will never even want to download any source code. There are people for whom it matters a great deal how the software is licensed, but it doesn't mean everybody should have to use precise but confusing terminology all the time.

      I do understand that technical people like to be precise in their speech. The problem is using the right level of precision when talking to people who care a lot less.

    • Open Source does not mean 'free'. It means that the source code is freely available. You can sell any project that is open source just as long as you provide the source code with it.
      • BSD license is open source. It does not require you to distribute the source, your modifications or anything else when you sell the binaries. Yet the original code can still be "Open Source" just not "Free Software".

        GPL on the other hand requires that you distribute the source of the binary if requested by the customer along with notification of how they can get the source. Traditionally the source is on the web, but there is no requirement to do such. This is considered "Free Software" because no one
        • Hmmm... true. Good point. I just always assume GPL=Open Source by default. But their ARE other open source licenses out there. I guess the real answer is 'it depends on the license' then.
  • BSD vs. GNU again (Score:5, Informative)

    by wawannem ( 591061 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:37PM (#11202881) Homepage
    I could be wrong, but IMO, they aren't the same licenses. The GPL and BSD licenses differ quite a bit.
    • I could be wrong, but IMO, they aren't the same licenses. The GPL and BSD licenses differ quite a bit.

      You are correct that the GPL and BSD licenses are very different. How they differ is not a factor, however, for the 99.99% of the users who will use this software without ever modifying or redistributing the source code.

      The GPL is in some ways a vestige of a time when computer users were largely computer programmers. Now, most people will never even look at a line a code. For them both Open Source

      • The difference matters..

        If a user downloads a piece of 'free' software (Apache license for example) which happens to be able to use MySql, then downloads MySql, they are *not* able to use this under the GPL - they must pay 300 euros for mysql - see the Mysql Licensing FAQ for more on this.

        This aspect of the GPL is quite scary, TBH, because it means it's very hard to use GPL software with anything.
        • Before I get modded down... here's the quote:

          "If you include the MySQL server with an application that is not licensed under the GPL or GPL-compatible license, you need a commercial license for the MySQL server."

          ie. if you distribute a GPL app *on the same CD* as a non-gpl one you break the license.

          "If you develop and distribute a commercial application and as part of utilizing your application, the end-user must download a copy of MySQL; for each derivative work, you (or, in some cases, your end-user) n
    • by FreeUser ( 11483 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:59PM (#11203154)
      I could be wrong, but IMO, they aren't the same licenses. The GPL and BSD licenses differ quite a bit.

      Both the BSD licenses and the GPL are free and open source licenses. That even includes the old BSD license with the advertising clause that was incompatible with the GPL.

      But your thought is a good one (and correct) even if your example is flawed. A better example would be Apple's AAPL, which is an open source license that is neither free nor compatible with the GPL.

      See []for an excellent overview of licenses and how they affect your freedom and/or protect you as the author.

      Many Open Source licenses are not free (by either the FSF/GNU definition or the BSD Folks' definition), and clearly a distinction is both necessary and important. Anyone claiming otherwise quite obviously has an ulterior motive and agenda which they feel is furthered by obfuscating what is implied by a Free License and what is implied by an Open Source License, and that agenda certainly appears to be at odds with the free software community and a large part of the open source community.
      • A better example would be Apple's AAPL, which is an open source license that is neither free nor compatible with the GPL.

        I appreciate the point you're trying to make, but FYI, the APSL (AAPL is Apple's ticker symbol) was revised, and is now considered to be a free (but GPL-incompatible) open-source license.

        From your link []:

        Apple Public Source License (APSL), version 2

        This is a free software license, incompatible with the GNU GPL. We recommend that you not use this license for new software that you

  • by LazyNerd ( 794850 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:42PM (#11202942)
    Here in the corporate world, the term 'open source' works better than 'free software'. The 'free' software (in upper management's mind) means questionable quality and no support, while 'open source' means that there might be some support available. Sure, it sounds crazy, but in big corporations they are used to spending good money for software, and the idea of 'free' is slow to catch on. Still, we have had lots of success getting 'free' and 'open source' products in the door, but we had to move slow and keep it quiet at first.
    • This is compounded by the second definition of 'free' in english. (e.g. free-as-in-beer) Your average person hears 'free' in so many advertisements and associates it with zero monetary cost, and never thinks about the other definition, especially in modern industrialized democracies. (Oppressed peoples probably think of freedom, but there aren't a heck of a lot of those producing or using software) PHB's see 'free' as you-get-what-you-pay-for.

      So, for both average users and businesses, the term 'open so

    • That's a good part of the theory behind the creation of the open source movement. However, the businesses I've talked to are very interested in making private derivatives of free software--taking advantage of a freedom which the open source movement doesn't care about (in fact this was one of the FSF's initial objections to the early versions of the Apple Public Source License []; one had to notify one central authority which, as they say, happened to be Apple, in a lot of situations one would commonly encoun

    • Beyond the "no money" implication, there's the issue that "free software" implies that the software is free, rather than that the user is free. I don't know about you, but I want the software I use to behave exactly as I tell it, and not demand vacations, the right to work for someone else, a fair wage, and so forth ("Free speech" is an idiom, which is why there's no alternative to "speech" in "free as in speech"). In fact, my experience with open source software is that it is more firmly under my control t
    • Well, that may happen over there, but in latin countries we have a word for it: Livre (or Libre, or whatever the slight variation). Software Livre. It works well, and it always boils down to how you present it.

      The main problem I see is neither wether you call it "Open Source" or Software Livre. Its neither that they inconsiously accept Microsoft's "Shared Source" as being "Open Source". And its neither wether it has support or not. The community's support together with a knowledgeable and non-lazy worker
  • by Langley ( 1015 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:45PM (#11202986) Homepage
    Maybe RMS should have called it Emancipated Software.
  • Premise is wrong (Score:4, Informative)

    by JoshuaDFranklin ( 147726 ) <`moc.oohay' `ta' ... nilknarfdauhsoj'> on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:47PM (#11203001) Homepage
    RMS clearly explains why "Free Software" is his term of choice, and it has everything to do with changing behavior: eedom.html [] Thanks for the opportunity for a flamewar, though.
  • WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

    by deego ( 587575 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:48PM (#11203026)
    The first few dozen posts, (some even modded +3, insightful) seem to be confusing "free" with "free as in beer" --

    By "free", the article means, "FREE as in libre'" -- just click on the link "free" in the above post, and you will understand that: "Free Software" is the term used by RMS for what is more commonly known as "Open Source Software".
  • by Peaker ( 72084 ) <.moc.oohay. .ta. .rekaepung.> on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:48PM (#11203027) Homepage
    The real distinction is between the Open Source movement and the Free Software movement. Both movements make software that is open-source and is free software.

    The difference is in the motivations:

    Free Software is motivated by the moral need to create a Free Way to use computers -- to free software users from their "masters".

    Open Source software is motivated by the practical advantages of the Open Source development process.

    The Free Software movement is more idealist: "Don't use it if its not free, whether or not there are practical advantages".
    The Open Source movement is more pragmatic, even at the cost of some Freedom: "Use whatever is better technically for your purpose, even if its not free".

    • "Free" vs. "free" (Score:2, Informative)

      by Osty ( 16825 )

      Notice the capitalization. Open Source does not necessarily create Free Software, even though the software may be free and Free Software is also by definition Open Source (the source is open). In neither case are the real proponents of the two movements concerned about price. RMS himself has even said you can charge for distribution of your software. So, when you say "free", mentally translate that to "Free"*, and you'll have things about right.

      Your take on the Open Source movement is also not quite ri

    • by Telex4 ( 265980 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @06:40PM (#11203630) Homepage
      The difference is in the motivations:

      Free Software is motivated by the moral need to create a Free Way to use computers -- to free software users from their "masters".

      Open Source software is motivated by the practical advantages of the Open Source development process.

      Well, yes. But one can go further to point out that Open Source is simply a development methodology. If you distill Open Source according to the Open Source Institute and Eric Raymond down you get nothing really questioning the way we think of property, community and the place of information in society. If proprietary methodologies happened to create better software, Open Source advocates couldn't really complain. Free Software, by contrast, is the same development methodology as well as a radical (and thus far ill defined) philosophy with political, economic and social implications.

      The point the author of the parent article misses is that to people outside the relatively small circle of programmers and tech managers, development methodologies are uninteresting and unimportant. To governments, NGOs and academics, Free Software is very interesting. To everyone else, both are dull ;-) So long as each movement encapsulates something different, they'll be relevant. And I don't see that going away unless everyone ceases to care about freedom, community and property laws, or businesses and programmers find the radical implications and approach of Free Software palatable.

  • Ridiculous (Score:2, Insightful)

    I'm sorry, but I think it's utterly ridiculous. The two are not mutually inclusive and cannot be used interchangably.

    Although all open source software is free by its very nature, it's ridiculous to try to make the reverse analogy that free software is also by default open source. There are a number of quality programs out there for which the source code is not freely available but the program itself is free of cost and in many cases limitations.

    Web sites have been posted and we are all aware of man
    • It can also be argued that early Shareware programs, like Doom and the various Apogee games [sic].

      By "early Shareware" you really should be referring to PC-Talk, PC-Write, etc., which is when the term "shareware" was coined. And at that time, there was very clearly a difference, and an intentional one, between "shareware" and "freeware". The former was closed-source, freely distributed but you were expected to pay if you used it (mostly enforced by the honor system); the latter was also usually closed-sou

    • Re:Ridiculous (Score:3, Insightful)

      by YoungHack ( 36385 )
      > Although all open source software is free by its very nature, it's ridiculous to try to make the reverse analogy that free software is also by default open source.

      I don't know if you are intentionally misunderstanding, but this is precisely incorrect. Free Software (with a capital F) has the 4 Freedoms set forth by the FSF, who created the term.

      That means Free Software is always Open Source, butthe reverse is not always true.

      Whoever modded the parent as insightful made an error.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:51PM (#11203059)
    I have corresponded with RMS and I have also
    discussed the subject of software licensing
    with an intellectual property attorney.

    The intellectual property attorney told me
    that it is only a matter of time until people
    begin to assert the right to royalties for
    code contributed to free software projects
    that generates any income for anybody.

    What Stallman wants is to forestall the
    inevitable for as long as possible, and he is
    impatient with people who knowingly or
    otherwise pave the middleground between free
    and commercial under the banner of Open Source,
    creating a nice broad avenue for the lawyers
    to drive their jags down.
  • Worth Discussion (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jcoxatonce ( 228245 )
    But inherently flawed. Open Source software is usually Free, too, but sometimes it isn't. I can see how the two labels could be confusing (but not as confusing as free as in beer and free as in speech), but as long a free software is closed source or open source software is even occassionally not free, the distinction is still important.
  • While the author of this post means "free" as in freedom, liberty/libre, emancipation, etc. the general public will think free as in beer, gratis, no licensing fees.

    At least in English-speaking countries.
  • by EggMan2000 ( 308859 ) * on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:52PM (#11203078) Homepage Journal
    The laugh I'm having is that it reminds me of Monty Python and the People's front of Judea vs. The Judean Peoples Front.

    That said, I think should be enough....
  • maybe we need a new term because free software can mean two things. That is why people keep on saying free as in beer and speech. If the originator of the term in question hadn't chosen an ambiguous term like free we wouldn't have this problem. I propose a new term that will clear all this up, lets say, liberal software. Thus we have three distinct categories which form a type of hierarchy.
    Free Software: IE, Media player, linux, BSD, C# etc..
    (software that does not cost money)
    Open source: bsd, C#, Linux, e
  • by irabinovitch ( 614425 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @05:58PM (#11203146) Homepage
    Kevin Beddell [] will be speaking [] at SCALE 3x [] on February 12th and 13th, 2005. SCALE will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, CA. Kevin's topic this year will be: "The Case for Open Source/Closed Standards" Other speakrs you might want to check out are John "maddog" Hall [], Larry McVoy (BitKeeper), and more. Check out the site for more info. PS For a free exhibit hall pass use the promo code "free" or for a large discount on full access pass use the code "newsp".
  • I prefer not to call it Free software. Many people on here are mistaking it for Free as in beer and not how it was meant to be taken and that is as the movement that advocates using only Free software and nothing else, this form of free implies that the source code is available. Personally using the term Free to describe this movement is just too ambiguous, thats why people are assuming free(as in beer). Open Source as a label for the same phenomenon makes much much more sense, the source code is open it
  • Hey, if the Eskimos can manage with a bunch of words that all mean "snow" (variants on a theme), then certainly we can do the same with respect to "Open Source" and "Free Software".
  • I would suggest 'Freedom Software'. That way you can please both 'free as in libre' proponents and anti-French Bushies.
  • Personally, I have no interest in combining the two terms. The only people that would want to are the people that don't see the value of free(dom) software.

    If you sign away enough of yourself on NDAs and other agreements, even the Microsoft Windows sources will be open to you... but that doesn't make it free. Hell, you probably can't even tell your friends what you saw.

    For my part, I could care less if the software is open, but I do care if there's some dipshit company that's restricting the use of

  • The ambiguity of the word "free" has been an issue for decades. And my problem with the term "open source" is that "open" has been an industry synonym for "badly marketed, loser technology" for decades. (OpenVMS anyone?)

    I first saw the term "libre" proposed on the gnu.misc.discuss ML back in the eighties (note: I haven't read that list since the eighties, but that's neither here nor there). I liked the term then, and I still like it now. Of course, it's never achieved the popularity of "free" or "open
  • Both Free Software Definition [] and Why ``Free Software'' is better than ``Open Source'' [] have laid out the differences pretty clearly for quite some time now. The differences are understood, and as apparent as the differences between BSD and GPL advocates. Stating he feels that the group that historically has been the most vocal should be swept under the rug is ludicrous, akin to Rush Limbaugh telling his AM radio audience that the Democratic party should be eliminated.

    I'm not sure if anyone should RTFA,

  • by mcc ( 14761 ) <> on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @06:20PM (#11203413) Homepage
    I use the terms "Free" and "Open Source" software pretty much interchangeably and assume anyone who complains about this is apparently so much more wrapped up in semantics than results that their opinion is unlikely to be of much importance.

    ESR and RMS might be of the opinion "Free" and "Open Source" mean something substantially different. Guess what? It isn't their decision anymore. The community has grown larger than them.
  • Sorry for the rant, but this is a subject that's been bugging the hell out of me...

    As a moral concept, I strongly support the concept of open source and free software. As comparatively cryptic as it often tends to be, it also provides an abundance of learning and utility resources that were simply not available in previous decades.

    But, at least to me, it seems that a lot of people lose touch with reality and begin assuming that the Open Source movement (loosely, a moral imperative to move the indust
  • The fundamental difference between what I'll call the "RMS approach" and the "ESR approach" ... is that with the ESR approach, software freedom is a means to an end. That end is, of course, "software that doesn't suck." It's inexpensive to acquire, maintained by a community (creating all the usual efficiencies), and doesn't create lock-in. With the RMS approach, software freedom is an end in itself. It's something that, on its own, has value.

    Most of us geeks understand the value of software freedom. I
  • Freedom Software (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ebresie ( 123014 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @07:13PM (#11203910) Homepage Journal
    Okay...I think in the end...the amiguity could be resolved by changin "free software" to "freedom software" (tm). Then people avoid the whole "free as in beer" confusion. May not be grammatically correct but I think it's still more reasonable...
  • by br00tus ( 528477 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @07:18PM (#11203960)
    The linked article has a link to an Eric Raymond article on terminology. However, the model Raymond uses seems flawed to me - very flawed.

    Raymond notes that a search on Sourceforge for "open source" versus "free software" is 97%+ versus Despite this, the words free software don't appear on my project's Sourceforge page. After reading this, perhaps I'll put those words up there. Looking around at other projects, I see one on page two of a Google search for "free" on Sourceforge that one project aims to develop free (GPL) speech recognition tools []. This project seems to be one saying it is in the Stallman "faction" although since they say "free (GPL)" instead of "free software", Eric Raymond doesn't count them.

    More importantly, let's look at the license [], are people issuing the "open source" BSD ones or the "free" GPL ones? 40434 projects are GPL while only 4194 projects are BSD. In fact, 6479 projects are LGPL, so even the GPL lesser license beats BSD.

  • This is just nuts (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mmm coffee ( 679570 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @07:43PM (#11204213) Journal
    The comments on this thread (A lot of which have been modded all the way up to +5) goes a long way to show how little even the average slashdotter understands what Free Software and Open Source really are.

    Free Software - This is software which is Free, as in speech. As in the wind. As in thought. This software gives the users four basic freedoms -
    • Freedom 0) The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
    • Freedom 1) The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.
    • Freedom 2) The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
    • Freedom 3) The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    Source: The Free Software Definition []. Also I would like to note that not only is "free as in beer" not a part of the Free Software philosophies, but the FSF has sold copies of it's sotware since day one! In the beginning of the movement RMS used to sell tapes of emacs for $300 to put a roof over his head. Today the FSF will sell a rather pricey distro [], hand compiled for you by the boys at the FSF. This is _NOT_ about free as in beer.

    The Free Software movement is about Freedom to use my programs without restrictions (read your EULA, folks), Freedom to give copies of the program(s) to others (sorry, can't give you a copy of photoshop even if you're going to use it only once), Freedom to modify the programs (This program is close to what we need but does not suit our businesses' needs. I'll have my IT boys fix it.), and the Freedom to create a community working together to create great software. More information can be found on GNU's philosophy pages [].

    Open Source - While the Open Source definition [] mirrors the Free Software definition in many ways, the two are far from the same in theory and are almost totally different in practice. Real world experience shows that the Open Source movment is far more interested in bug checking than freedom - insert the "many eyes" statement here. This is more development model than philosophy, while FS focuses on the "why", OS focuses on the "how". This is what gets Free Software fans in arms - we worry more about what the software will let us do than about how the software was made. An excellent explination of this is "It's Time to Talk About Free Software Again []", written by Open Source co-founder and Debian guru Bruce Perens [] (/. profile []).

    Since this post is getting very wordy, I'll close with something I've noticed over the past year or so - When a lot of slashdotters talk about Open Source they're really talking about the freedoms that the Free Software philosophies have given them. Look around at the stories and comments and keep in mind what both movments really are, you'll be quite amazed.

    (Please forgive my terse presentation - this can be a very deep subject and I wanted to keep it as brief as possible.)
  • Why Free Software (Score:4, Insightful)

    by groomed ( 202061 ) on Tuesday December 28, 2004 @08:48PM (#11204896)
    I'm a Free Software guy, because after all has been said and done, the GNU philosophy provides a much more rational answer to the question of "Why use it?" than the Open Source Initiative.

    The Open Source Initiative answers that question by saying that Open Source software is better: the programs are better, the development model is better, the support is better. In some cases that's at least subjectively true. Apache really is a best-of-class webserver. gcc really is a very good compiler collection.

    But then the examples quickly dry up. Mozilla, supposed to be the posterchild of the OSI movement, was years late, and had to be forked to spawn Firefox to finally deliver something people will actually use. It's a bit better in some respects than Internet Explorer, but not by a large margin. What's more it has been plagued by the exact same problems that open source development was supposed to prevent: it's late, security issues have been kept under wraps [] (you'll need to copy-paste this link into a new browser window), and it's bloated.

    That's not to say that it's bad software. In fact, I think it's pretty good software. But after years of development, broad community support, and generous funding by AOL, the end result turns out to be just slightly better than the most important closed source competitor. It's hardly a compelling argument in favor of the supposed superiority of Open Source.

    It's easy to go on in this vein, and mention the whole or partial failures of Open Office, or Helixcode, or XFree86, but that would be merely antagonizing and besides, it doesn't prove anything. In order to debunk the claim that Open Source leads to better software, it's not sufficient to mention open source failures: it's necessary to show closed source success as well.

    Well, that's not hard either. There's Apple's spectacular introduction of MacOS X, Microsoft's splendid .NET framework, the continued, and apparently unbreakable, dominance of Adobe and Quark in graphic design. Packages like AutoCad, Maya, Cubase, Reason, Live and Final Cut Pro are not just best-of-class, they practically define the industry. And then there's everybody's favorite, games: in the 6 years since the founding of the OSI, the games industry has grown by more than 100% [], all without giving open source so much as a second thought.

    Considering all this, it's hard to maintain that Open Source implies better software. And if it doesn't imply that, then why use it, or produce it? After all, isn't the Open Source creed all about doing what works best?

    Most Open Source advocates aren't quite ready to admit this to themselves yet. They claim Open Source produces more secure software, and use Windows' extremely poor record in this regard to prove it -- but they ignore the rising number of GNU/Linux exploits and the exemplary security record of closed source MacOS and HP/UX. They claim MS Office is bloated, but ignore the lumbering blimp that is Open Office. The list goes on and on, but I'm quite sure that at this point the few people who are still reading will wonder whether this post goes on forever.

    When all is said and done, what remains is the love of programming, the joy of seeing your work being put to good use, and the desire to share it with like-minded souls. Being "better" is important; what's more important is how we can protect our rights to share amidst a climate of overbearing patents and corporate favoritism.

    This is what the GPL tries to guarantee, and why Free Software is so different from Open Source.

%DCL-MEM-BAD, bad memory VMS-F-PDGERS, pudding between the ears