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Don’t call it “Free Software”

[This is as much of an essay as it is a complete rant. Take with a teaspoon of salt ;-)]

Arguably the worst thing about Free Software is its name.

There is a perpetual need for its advocates and proponents, such as I, to repeatedly re-explain ad nauseam why we mean “freedom” and not “freebies” when we talk about Free Software.

Just mention “free software” to one uninitiated and they think “freebies.” They either systematically think about not having to pay for a full version of Photoshop or MS Windows, or if they’re more sapient they worry about get rich quick scams, too-good-to-be-true-alarm-bells ringing. They think “yeah, like, illegal downloads, right?”

All this because in his ideological genius, Our Beardy Leader decided to stick with a nomencalture he knew was confusing, all because he wanted to use the word “Free” in one sense, when the rest of the world understood it in the alternative sense.

Here’s the thing: “Free [Things]” has for decades, if not a century or two, meant specifically: [Things] for zeros dollars. It was there first. Vox populi (aided by decades of marketing).

What we’re trying to do here, in muscling the adoption of “Free Software” to mean anything other than “freeware,” is to try and change the popular definition of a word from a top-down, prescriptive stance, against the already perpetuated alternative definition.

For someone so hung up with words as to clearly advise against calling Free Software an “alternative,” “because it conveys the wrong idea,” Our Beardy Leader seems to be oblivious of the fact that to the common ear, “Free Software” (the idealogical kind) and “free software” (the freebie kind) are one and the same.

They are. They are free. Look up the dictionary definition, you’ll find “available at no cost.” The common person could care less about the alternative definition; if they got it for free, then they got it free. Free. “Gay” means homosexual today, the idea it originally conveyed of being joyous is relegated to the past, like it or not. Similarly, where “free” can indeed mean freedom, the “Free” in “Free Software” also conveys the wrong idea, but Our Beardy Leader isn’t complaining about that.

All our exasperated lot on the ground can do at best is preach to the choir that understands Free as in “free speech,” or come across as pontificating pedants when we patiently explain for the thousandth time that Free Software does not include the likes of Angry Birds Free Edition and the OS X Mavericks free upgrade.

If you need to explain even the name of something to mitigate against being lumped in with your adversaries, you’ve clearly done a bad job at barnding. Like a health food company naming itself after its founder, McDonell. “Unshackled Software” would be a much better name to pointedly insist on freedom. Unweildy perhaps, but it gets that idea of freedom accross WITHOUT lumping itself in with warez and no-dollars-but-pay-with-your-data kind of schenanigans we’re trying to get away from.

Our Beardy Leader bemoans how the Open Source camp “missed the point” but to be honest, they know this “Free/Free” malarky was just plain stupid; and when said Beardy Leader decided to denounce the use of “FOSS,” ugly acronym as it is, for being too on-the-fence, it was he who missed the point: the opportunity to recognize that “Free AND Open Source” could be taken, in the infancy of the term, to mean “both at once or not at all” in true programming spirit. But no, he chose to stay with the then still influenceable interpretation of it as a colloquial “union” operation instead of a conditional test.

Yes, in calling it “Free Software” Our Beardy Leader decided to go against the common person’s understanding of “Free;” but in talking about “Free And Open Source Software” he just let the common definition through!

So I’ll just call it FOSS, by which to mean “Free Open Source Software.” I think it is perfectly feasible, if not much more powerful, in getting the Freedom message accross, whilst at the same time minimizing the risk of being misconstrued.

Posted in Free and Open Source, Musings

3 comments on “Don’t call it “Free Software”

  • I agree that the free software movement is necessary, but horribly named. But disagree about why.

    Free (as in freedom) implies that you can do what you want with something. From a developer’s standpoint, there are already licenses which corresponds to this universally-understood meaning: public domain, MIT, and (to a slightly lesser extent) BSD. Note that the MIT and BSD licenses don’t make any claims to liberty, they just spell out the few small restrictions they impose.

    Saying that you can only include some code in a project if you are willing to change your project’s license is the same as saying “you are free to do what you’re told,” in other words, it is the Marxist definition of freedom (I’m not using Marxism as a boogeyman — this is literally how Marx defined freedom), which presupposes a benevolent community (in this case the FSF) tasked with granting those freedoms to the individual.

    You could argue that developers who won’t play ball are “free” to not use copyleft-licensed code, which is true, but it’s another restriction, just on “who” rather than on “how,” and I fail to see how that makes things freer.

    Developers and users of software should not have to buy into outmoded theories of class struggle to make sense of their options. Give me the code to do with as I please, and if there are restrictions on what I can do with it, impose them, but without the side helping of newspeak. If you want to say that, in the long run these restrictions make society better, that’s fine, and I think they do as well — but instead of redefining liberty, let’s just admit that liberty isn’t always optimal.

    Useful software, like education, is a lever for opportunity, and like education, should as much as possible be made available to all, rather than doled out on the basis of income. Nowadays, in civilized places they *make* you get an education, and for good reason — but they don’t call it liberty, they call it “compulsory,” which is the word honest people use when something is, in fact, compulsory.

    The beer/freedom distinction is a red herring that the FSF actually benefits from, since developers by hammering on the distinction, are promoting Stallman’s loaded definition of freedom.

    • Tai Kedzierski

      May 8, 2014 at 11:14


      …. Interesting take.

      I’ll posit that it’s a question about whose freedom we’re talking about: the freedom of the software itself to not be behind restrictions (software of course not being a moral entity; we talk about “freedom of software” due to limitations in our language), as opposed to the freedom of developers to use various techniques to restrict it and monetize it (interests which we know are most often at odds). Stallman’s argument is that with developer-freedom users do not have freedom, whereas moving freedom to the code’s side does afford the intended goal.

      In terms of moral entities then, we’re moving freedom interests to the user-side rather than the developer-side. Having users and developers on either side, we then have the question of having users’ freedom to do what they will with the code, or developers’ freedom to restrict the code and thus restrict the users themselves in their rights to operate.

      So I don’t think it’s a red herring, nor that Stallman has attempted to redefine liberty – but rather a conflict of interests, as it always has been.

  • I agree, and I think it parallels the positive and negative conceptions of liberty, which, although I mentioned Marx before, apparently date back to Kant (but Marx and Engels did define freedom in terms of the opportunities a society makes available to the individual, which is to say, positively).

    I’d argue that the negative definition is more in line with people’s expectations, although I suppose citizens of socialist countries would be an exception. But I’ll admit that it’s just nitpicking.

    More importantly, I’m also skeptical that MIT and BSD licenses are less free than GPL, even by the opportunity metric. A new piece of MIT-licensed software doesn’t limit its user’s opportunities by merely existing, so the question is whether or not letting someone use it build on it and sell the result limits opportunities. I won’t say for sure that it doesn’t, but I’m not sure. Let’s look at a library: GPLing it reduces the ability of commercial coders to use it, and could lead to duplication of efforts. The opportunities made available to users (who might have no immediate use for the code, and who might benefit from a thriving commercial software market which uses it, or the ability of MIT & BSD-licensed open source projects to use it) needs to offset that in the long run. At the very least it might not always be a given that this offset happens.

    In any case, it’s all moot since the patents arms race is making sure none of us are free. Copyright has a lot less teeth in an industry where re-implementing something is easier than innovating it, and the result is often better than the original.

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