The term "free software" is a concept that originated with the invention of software development in the 1950s and persists until today. The term "free software" does not refer to price but instead refers to the concept of "freedom" of the user. Historically, in the 1950s, all software provided freedom to users to use software as they wished and this was considered normal. Starting in the 1970s, people started to consider non-free, closed, or proprietary software as normal. These proprietary software sacrifice user freedom and empowerment, and instead prioritises the benefits to software vendors at the expense of the users.
In the past decade, free software has returned to be considered normal and fundamental to how the software industry operates. The computer graphics industry is also currently returning towards free software. Unfortunately, the architecture, engineering, and construction industry is still very much behind, and the users have forgotten the concept of free software, leading to many misconceptions, mistrust, and the current status of the industry, where the digital maturity of users are restricted by vendors.
The opposite of free software is proprietary, non-free, or closed software. It is a goal of OSArch to make proprietary software the exception in AEC, not the norm.
The OSArch criteria for free software
A strict definition for free software is followed. Specifically, the Free Software Foundation defines four freedoms that a software must provide.
- Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
- Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
- Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute and make copies so you can help your neighbour.
- Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
Therefore, the primary criteria as to whether a software is free, is whether or not the software is licensed under a free software license. The FSF maintains a list of free software licenses that we use as a reference. If the license is not declared as a free software license, OSArch does not support it.
One of the conditions of providing freedom to the users is to also make the software open source. However, making software open source is only one of the conditions. If a software is open source, but not free, then OSArch does not support it. For this reason, we refer to the free software foundation's list of licenses as the standard.
Sometimes, free software and proprietary software are mixed together. This can lead to four combinations:
- Purely free software, where no proprietary software is required
- Proprietary software which extends or depends on free software as its foundation
- Free software which extends or depends on proprietary software as its foundation
- Purely proprietary software, with methods of using open data standards to interoperate with free software
OSArch will only promote purely free software, where no proprietary software is required. However, it is recognised that documenting the other three scenarios is valuable as a migration path away from proprietary software.
Misconceptions about free software
Does free software mean non commercial and non paid?
No. A common misconception is that free software is about price, and this misconception has led to people thinking that free software is purely volunteer work, or an impractical business model for a commercial venture. Free software is about freedom, and whether or not a software is sold commercially or paid for is a separate issue. Many free software is also free of charge, but it is actually recommended by the Free Software Foundation that software developers charge for their work to help keep development financially sustainable.
There are plenty of examples of free software that is also paid, such as Blender add-ons that are paid but still under a GPL license. There are also examples of free software being sold or developed commercially, such as through companies like Redhat, IBM, Novell, Nokia, Microsoft, and Blue Systems.
In the AEC industry, almost every single commercial and paid services you use actually uses free software under the hood. This a fact of the software industry, in that it is now highly impractical to build systems that do not use free software in one way or another. This fact and reliance on free software is not often advertised to users.
With regards to commercial and paid services that use free software that are specific to AEC, like IfcOpenShell, some examples of offerings are OpenProject, Tridify, StreamBIM, Xeokit, and Archipack. At one point even Autodesk Forge used OSArch-recommended free software to help provide their offering, it is not known if they still do.
Is free software only used by hobbyists and unfit for commercial work?
No. In the software industry, it is considered normal and commonplace for free software to be used by professionals, and is often preferred compared to proprietary software. Most commercial work also is expected to use free software. It is considered a disadvantage for software to be closed.
In the CG and games industry, the industry is currently migrating away from proprietary software towards free software. This is used to regularly produce commercial output. The free software Blender is used by, and supported by commercial companies like Epic Games, NVIDIA, Unity, AMD, Facebook, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Intel, Google, and more.
The AEC industry is highly immature from a digital perspective, still struggling with digital compatibility and integration of digital systems. This correlates with a high dependency on proprietary software. Despite this, the majority of OSArch contributors who support free software are also highly trained professionals who regularly produce commercial output in their respective fields.
Is free software and open source the same?
It depends on who you ask and the context in which it is used. In the context of licensing, free software and open source software is extremely similar, but is legally not the same. Free software is a subset of open source software. In other words, free software is necessarily open source, but not all open source software gives you freedom. The term "open source" is much newer than the original term "free software", and tends to describe open source in terms of its practical technical implications. In contrast, the original terminology describes free software in terms of ideological user freedom, seeing the availability of source code as a means to a larger goal of user freedom. This difference is reflected in the legalese that accompanies free software and open source licenses. From the perspective of OSArch, we only support free software licenses.
In the context of casual speech, the difference is less clear, and is largely an exercise in semantics. One school of thought suggests that open source misses the point of free software, and recommends that the term "open source" should not be used, instead favouring the term "free software". Another school of though suggests that open source and free software are both terms for the same thing. There are arguments for both sides of the semantic usage, but common arguments are listed below for you to make an informed decision.
- Free software is the original terminology, not open source
- Free software defines a clear goal: to provide freedom to users
- Free software is confusing in English, where "free" is commonly used to mean gratis, or un-paid
- Open source is a highly marketed term, perhaps already known in corporate environments
- Alternative terms may be used to clarify your position, like libre software, gratis software, and freeware.
- The term "open" has changed meaning over time, originally connoting "absense of lock-in", but then reducing in scope to mean "availability of source code".
- Only using the word "free software" may help people investigate the differences, thus helping people understand the ideological reasons of why free software is important.
- Only using the word "free software" may actually worsen the situation, thus legitimising the use of "open source" to mean something increasingly different to free software over time.
In the context of OSArch, three things are made clear. Firstly, the "OS" in OSArch stands for "Open Source". Secondly, we prominently use the words "Free software" in our slogans and explicitly define free software as the goal and the legal criteria for software. Thirdly, prior to OSArch, both the terms "free software" and "open source" were practically unknown in the AEC industry, so we're breaking new ground, and creating new rules.
Investigate, and draw your conclusions.
"Free as in freedom, not free beer"