Eric Raymond in Goodbye, "free software"; hello, "open source" said:

the term [free software] makes a lot of corporate types nervous. While this does not intrinsically bother me in the least, we now have a pragmatic interest in converting these people rather than thumbing our noses at them. There's now a chance we can make serious gains in the mainstream business world without compromising our ideals and commitment to technical excellence -- so it's time to reposition. We need a new and better label.

Let's say I'm making a free software but I want to attract business people. Here is my analysis on why I don't want to brand my software as free, regardless of my want to protect their rights and teach them to defend it:

  • In term of attracting collaborators, donors, individual users and business users, at least there is no difference if they don't care about the philosophy. I fail to see how any of these business models for open-source software cannot be used for free software. However, if they care, then it's an advantage over branding it as open source. I'm unable to imagine how telling them that I'm standing for their right is a negative thing to say
  • In term of attracting investors or CEOs, it's possible that they don't want the users to know that they have rights so that they can extract more money. But then they should make proprietary software at the beginning to maximize the profit. If they see that open sourcing is not a threat to business and agree to invest on an open source project, then in general a selling point to the users should be a selling point to the them as well. But if they want to lock users in their program, or don't want them to be reminded that their other programs are not free, then this is not a selling point

Comparing the last paragraph with this one in Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation:

[Not triggering discomfort] is, however, what the leaders of open source decided to do. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics and freedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to “sell” the software more effectively to certain users, especially business.

While they don't disagree in content, the stakeholder is different. The article says that branding the product as free software will make your selling to business users hard. However I only see that this applies to those who want to lock users in, and usually open sourcing is not attractive to them at the beginning. Business users should be attracted to free software more. I may not want them to be aware of their right, but I can't see why this makes my sales harder.

In short, I don't deny the advantage of branding the program as open source, but where is exactly the disadvantage of branding it as free software in selling?

  • 1
    For all practical purposes "Free Software" and "Open Source" are exact synonyms, but the latter term is simply much more common. Not using it would be confusing. Btw making a software Open Source can be the first step in locking users in through a rights ratchet approach. If the software weren't Open Source, there would be fewer initial users that can't be locked in later. Doesn't matter here if the "users" are consumers, hobbyists, or businesses.
    – amon
    Commented Apr 15 at 22:22
  • I agree that "open source" is more common. But is there any harm on saying "free software"?
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 16 at 12:07
  • I just want to add that software can be free (gratis) to use, but not open source (e.g. like many "trial" versions) and it can be open source, but not free to use (like the .NET Framework in some aspects: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.NET_Framework#Licensing).
    – Marcel
    Commented Jun 18 at 6:05

2 Answers 2


This is my personal opinion, so I might be off, but I don't think I am too far off.

For me, and probably for a great many others, the primary association with the word "free" is that of "gratis", "at no (monetary) cost" (free beer). The association with freedom (free speech) is much weaker.

This association with (no) money is problematic if you want to receive money from investors. Investors want to see a return on their investment and the word free can easily be perceived as an obstacle there. The default way of making money with a product (software or physical) is that you sell copies at a price higher that what it costs you to produce them. Having the word "free" associated with a product can trigger the automatic train of thoughts "free == no cost == no income == no ROI" and you will have to work twice as hard to interrupt that train of thought and sell your actual business case.

That is how I believe that avoiding branding a FLOSS software as free and only mentioning its open source aspect can help selling the product easier. It has nothing to do with an actual difference between "free" and "open-source", but it is mostly phychology.

  • I think giving gratis product has been a classic strategy in marketing and selling, so I don't think that makes sense here. Plus that I think the strongest motivation for OSI to avoid the "free" word is on the "libre" meaning, not the "gratis" one
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 22 at 12:59

In short [...] where is exactly the disadvantage of branding it as free software in selling?

Well, you yourself "don't deny the advantage of branding the program as open source". Therefore, you accept that not doing so is a comparitive disadvantage; referring to something only as free software places it at that disadvantage.

Sure, referring to something as "free, open-source software", or "free/libre open source software" restores that advantage (ie, negates that disadvantage), but others feel that those terms are unwieldy enough to need abbreviating (to FOSS/FLOSS), and still others don't automatically recognise either of those acronyms. So there's no simple, generally-accepted way to refer to something as both, and it thus tends to be one or the other.

My personal feeling is that which of the two terms you use depends on what you're trying to emphasise: the advantages to developers or the advantages to users. Businesses, in my experience, are quite keen to streamline their development processes by reusing well-tested code, thus saving money, but they have no interest at all in giving freedom to their users. Thus they find open-source software of interest but free software much less so. But that's just my personal feeling.

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