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Defining FLOSS - free/libre and open source software

The term free software is defined by the Free Software Foundation.

The term open source is defined by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

The first known usage of the term FLOSS was as part of the Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study commissioned by the European Commission which was published in July 2002. Free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) is just a combination of the above two terms emphasizing the 'libre' meaning of the word free.

Please note that in English sometimes the 'l' is dropped in the acronym. While not as clear, this acronym should be considered equivalent.

For a primer of FOSS from an international policy perspective, please see UNDP's FOSS primer on the International Open Source Network.

Introducing "commons-based peer production"

The methodologies and licensing concepts of FLOSS have been extended beyond just the creation, distribution and enhancement of software. The term "commons-based peer production" was first introduced by Yochai Benkler in his paper "Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm".

In this paper I explain that while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing is the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode "commons-based peer-production," to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

Please go to Yochai Benkler's website which includes references to his book "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom"

Open Access

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. (From Peter Suber's Open Access Overview). When a work is Open Access it is able to be distributed freely including via "peer distribution", although it may or may not allow derivatives (modifications) of any type which is required for something to be "peer produced".

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons provides education and license agreements to ensure creators have certainty when adding their works to a commons or enhancing works already in the creative commons. The Creative Commons Canada is an initiative of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) that is bringing these licenses and concepts to Canada.

Introducing: "Software Manufacturing"

There have been a variety of terms to refer to the most well known competitor to FLOSS.

Some people refer to it as "commercial software". Since FLOSS can also have "profit as its primary goal" it can also be commercial, simply using alternative business models to collecting monopoly rents (royalties). There is quite a bit of non-FLOSS software that is given away for free (no royalty), suggesting that whether something is "commercial" and whether it is FLOSS are unrelated.

Some people refer to it as "proprietary software". Those of us involved in copyright reform find this confusing as all software that is not in the public domain has "proprietors". In the case of FLOSS the copyright holders (proprietors) have licensed their software using terms which protect the rights of those that will then be able to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Often there are more copyright holders with peer produced software than with other methods, with the term "proprietary software" only confusing people.

The best term I have found is "software manufacturing". This would refer to methods of production, distribution and funding of software that are similar to those used for manufactured goods. Some centralized company creates the software (possibly buying "parts" from other sources that it assembles), it is distributed by retail and other channels used for tangible goods, and it is funded per-unit (royalty fees, most often calculated per-copy).

Those involved in this methodology seem to be comfortable with the term. On the homepage of CAAST.org it says, "The Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft (CAAST) is an industry alliance of software manufacturers". While software manufacturers treat intangible software with the limitations of tangible goods, FLOSS offers a full spectrum of methods of creation, distribution and funding which harness the intangible nature of software.

Note: The easiest and best way to reduce so-called "Software Theft" is to move away from business models which count copies, suggesting that those who switch from "software manufacturing" to FLOSS do much more to reduce copyright infringement than any CAAST campaign.

Why different terms for Open Source and Free Software?

When discussing software, in most cases the software being spoken about is the same software. The differences are often not important to simple users of the software.

A number of different terms are used to describe very similar things. There is quite a bit of discussions around the use of the term open source software, and the term free software that predates it. The Free Software Foundation wrote an article titled Why ``Free Software'' is better than ``Open Source'' to explain some of the differences in terminology from their perspective.

The different terms try to explain the different motivations behind the creation and use of the software. These motivations are very important in trying to convince creators to add their works (software, etc) to the commons, and to help government policy makers to understand these methodologies adequately in their policy development.

Free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) is a way to describe free software that tries to take into account the freedom put forward by promoters of free software, as well as the so called "pragmatism" claimed by the promoters of open source. It also brings in some of the easier to understand terminology used in Europe since free software is called "software libre" in Spanish, "logiciel libre" in French and "software libero" in Italian.

The term "commons-based peer production" is useful when you want to talk about the principles and methodologies for human creativity beyond just computer software. This is often very useful when talking to people who are not computer people and who may think a software-specific movement isn't of interest to them.

I have tended to use a variety of terms, depending on the audience. When speaking to government bureaucrats about software I have started to use the expanded phrase "free/libre and open source software" to introduce what I am speaking about as it clarifies the meaning.

Relevant links

David A. Wheeler maintains his own Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS) References page.

There is a FLOSS topic area on the Digital Copyright Canada site.

The site PeerProduction.org will eventually be used as an information site about this methodology.

I spoke about peer production and peer distribution in a talk for Open Source Weekend 2004.

There are ongoing efforts to help the so-called "World Intellectual Property Organization" to fulfil its actual mandate (hint: its mandate is not to maximize patents and copyright for the benefit of old-economy monopoly rent seekers) and have meetings to discuss Collaborative Development Models.

Creative Commons License Copyright 2005 Russell McOrmond
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Last updated: $Date: 2011/03/06 21:16:18 $ UTC

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