Freedom, the Marathon, Open Source Software and Beer

What does “free” mean to runners and software geeks?

In honor of Patriots’ and Marathon Day (and cause it’s my birthday) let’s look at the concept of freedom in the software and running worlds. 

The word “free” is often associated with both barefoot running and open source software. The primary meaning of free is no cost. A cheapskate like me surely appreciates the concept of literally not having to pay for running shoes. And this is especially the case if one believes (as I am coming to) that elaborate, slick-styled, cool-colored, logo-laden footwear is just built wrong. Quite simply, low cost, unadorned feet are better for running.

“Free” is also the root of the word freedom with a slightly different meaning and one that also applies to barefoot running. Barefoot runners enjoy toes that are free to wiggle, they are free from the shackles of big business, and when they run they get a feeling of liberation from the conventional world.

So too do both facets of the word “free” apply to the open source world. maintains a definition of free software that begins by taking the distinction on directly as follows: Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.

Open source software is not necessarily free (in the sense of no cost) but by definition can be and in practice is. Huh? The OSI definition of what makes an open source license says (among other things) that open source software can not be restricted from being given away for free and that when it is distributed, source code must be included. Let’s say I develop some software and make it available under an open source license. I can charge whatever I want, but when someone buys it from me, they will be in a position to give it away for free. That doesn’t necessarily mean that my software will become available for free, but practically speaking it tends that way, because if I charge much, someone will surely offer it for less.

So, “free” often means literally free with respect to open source. But the real focus of that adjective, in the open source context, is, as per the GNU definition, more about liberty than pricetag. Open source is a philosophy about software development, and one that is nirvana for developers. The freedom contemplated is the freedom for developers to do what developers do. If they get their hands on some software they can run it, figure out how it works, change it, share it…all without asking permission. That’s the big difference between OSS licenses and commercial licenses that explicitly preclude such activities. The left wing of the open source party believes that is simply wrong (some would say evil) and simply not the way software should be built.

So, how does anyone make any money? Well, in the barefoot world, no one is getting very rich, though some people are making a few bucks hosting websites, delivering clinics, authoring books, organizing races. Similarly commercial open source business models are typically built around packaging, training and support services. More for another day. Time for a free beer.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022