Free Software or Open Source? You Choose

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“Free software” or “open source”? It's a perennial question that has provoked a thousand flame wars. Normally, the factions supporting each label and its assocated theoretical baggage manage to work alongside each other for the collective good with only a minimal amount of friction. But occasionally, the sparks begin to fly, and tempers rise. I think we're in for another bout of this particular fever.

The bone of contention is the FOSDEM 2009 conference:

FOSDEM '09 is a free and non-commercial event organized by the community, for the community. Its goal is to provide Free and Open Source developers a place to meet.

Well, that sounds neutral enough, carefully talking about both free and open source; so what's the problem? Answer: one of the “cornerstone sponsors” in the right-hand panel on the home page is Novell. This has provoked a heart-felt plea against the idea, which ends:

Instead of making a single effort to calm the ocean waters, by rejecting community-dividing patent agreements, by enticing their top engineers to write community embracing comments instead of further dividing the community with extremely hostile comments (that apparently forget years of bad blood against the Free Software bore by Microsoft and incited upon it's partner networks). Just notice how Novell doesn't do a single action in this direction, but instead keeps announcing more and more Microsoft integration and support. What's wrong with this picture?

In conclusion, please tell us how much do you need the community to help you, with hard cash, in order to replace Novell's sad contribution. I'm sure that given a goal we'll meet it, if not for 2009, then surely for 2010.

Here's to a great FOSDEM'09 without proprietary software sponsors!

Strong words, that provoked an equally strong reaction:

FOSDEM is a technical conference for open source software developers. It is not a political conference for free software activists. Since a fair number of free software activists also happen to be open source software developers, there are a number of free software people and projects at FOSDEM too. There is even an FSF Europe stand every year and we even let Richard Stallman give a keynote a number of times.

...

We honestly don't care about the politics of companies who give us money. If they are technically involved in the development of open source software, we are happy to relieve them of any excess cash they happen to have lying about. Our business is organizing one of the best and largest open source development conferences in Europe. Our business is software, not politics. We determine our budget based on what we need, not on who we want to take money from.

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Novell has been a valued sponsor of FOSDEM for a number of years and we are very grateful for their contributions. Their business model or politics is none of our business. What matters to us is that they are also in the open source software business and want to give us money.

Oh dear: there doesn't seem to be much of a middle way there: either you “don't care about the politics of companies” who sponsor things, or you do. You can't really care 50%. So I expect that as this rolls out across the blogosphere, people will weigh in on both sides, without really getting anywhere. And then things will die down. Until the next time...

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