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foobar104's Journal: Definitions of "free" in the phrase "free software" 11

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A user named extrasolar made this comment:

This is what my dictionary says "free" means. The following definitions are what the "free" in free software mean:

3. Not controlled by an outside power; autonomous. 4. Not bound by restrictions or regulations: free trade. 9. Not controlled, restricted, or hampered by outside agents or influences. 12. Available to all; open: a free port.

These are some notable definitions that Stallman does not mean by free software:

1. Having personal liberty. 2. Having civil, political, or religious liberty. 15. Given or provided for without charge or cost: free seats.

So the phrase "free software" does mean what he intends it to mean, "unrestricted". Anyone who believes he means definition 1 or 2 in my dictionary, is a fool. If this is propaganda, its rather poor, don't you think?

Also, free software doesn't necessarily mean free of *all* restrictions, which seems to be your only complaint, just as free trade doesn't mean trade without *any* restriction. In both cases, it simply means you are generally not restricted in what you may do. By all accounts, the GPL is an unrestrictive license even if it doesn't allow you to relicense the work. Without the GPL, you wouldn't be able to copy the program, obtain source code, or distribute your own modifications.

My response to it is something I want to remember. I'm posting it here mainly so I can go back and think about this some more later. If you want to discuss it, Constant Reader, be my guest.

So the phrase "free software" does mean what he intends it to mean, "unrestricted".

It can't, though. Because "free software" (i.e., GPL-licensed software) is not unrestricted. Quite the opposite.

Let's run through your definition candidates one by one.

3. Not controlled by an outside power; autonomous.

This is a terrible definition, but it clearly means "free as in having liberty of self-determination." The phrase "not controlled by an outside power" may confuse you until you get to the part where it says, "autonomous." The fridge in our office kitchen is not controlled by an outside power-- clearly, because nobody ever cleans the damn thing-- but it's not autonomous. So it's not appropriate, under this definition, to refer to it as a "free fridge." Same with software. If the source code to software is released and the copyright abandoned, then it's not controlled by an outside power. But it's not autonomous. So the phrase "free software" makes no sense by that definition. That one's out.

4. Not bound by restrictions or regulations: free trade.

I've already covered this one in part by saying that "free software" (i.e., GPL'd software) is just as restricted by licensing terms as any other software, and moreso than some. But there's another problem with this definition, too. In the phrase, "free trade," "trade" is a process, not an object. Same with "free speech." It's a process that is unrestricted by outside forces. It's understood, from that use of the word "free," that the object isn't actually "free" in any meaningful sense, but rather that the participants in the process are. When you say, "free trade exists between Canada and the United States," what you really mean is, "Canada and the United States are free of restrictions in trade."

But "software" isn't a process in Stallman's definition. It's an entity. So "free software," the phrase, has more in common with "free couch" than it does with "free trade."

If you stretch your mind a bit and think of "software" as the act of exchanging source code between individuals, then maybe there's a parallelism to "free trade" here. But we're back to the part about "not bound by restrictions." GPL-licensed software is just as bound by restrictions as any commercial software. So that definition of "free software" is clearly bogus.

9. Not controlled, restricted, or hampered by outside agents or influences.

I've done this one already. "Free software," i.e. GPL'd software, is restricted in its use. Those restrictions include a prohibition of releasing that software under a different software license, and a prohibition of linking that software into a larger software product without releasing the entire larger product under the GPL. They're serious, restrictive prohibitions. The word "free" can't apply there without the definition's being bent so far it's in danger of breaking.

12. Available to all; open: a free port.

Okay, this one is the closest yet to a definition I can accept. "Free software" is free in the sense that a "free port" is free: anybody can use it without paying a fee. I might be able to go along with that.

But this proves my very thesis: out of 15 definitions of "free," some of which weren't listed, only one could possibly be applied in the phrase "free software" without being blatantly incorrect. And the definition that applies is relatively obscure and differs in significant ways from the most common definition. And, furthermore, the definition that applies has more in common with the "zero cost" definition of "free" than with any other definition, which is exactly what Stallman says it doesn't mean.

The use of the phrase "free software" is counterintuitive and misleading. It's a rhetorical technique, called "transfer," to associate oneself with something that the audience accepts as inherently good. If you can get your audience to make that connection in their minds, they're far less likely to consider your argument critically.

By all accounts, the GPL is an unrestrictive license even if it doesn't allow you to relicense the work. Without the GPL, you wouldn't be able to copy the program, obtain source code, or distribute your own modifications.

Um... no. Without the GPL, the software would have no license at all, and would be in the public domain. I would be able to copy it, use its source code, change it, distribute it, do whatever I wanted with it. The GPL artificially restricts my freedom to use the software in the exact same way that any other software license does. The fact that it grants some rights-- which are all fine and dandy, by the way-- doesn't mean that it doesn't restrict others in a significant way.

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Definitions of "free" in the phrase "free software"

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  • No software license is "free" in the sense that you can do whatever you want with the software, but as I see it, the closest to "unfree" of the OSI approved licenses would have to be the GPL. It forces any code under it to stay open, which in some cases may not be a viable option for anyone extending and distributing it. It is quite viral, and while nobody has proved that code linked to GPL'd code _has_ to be GPL'd, nobody has been able to prove otherwise. And you can't relicense GPL'd code either.

    Without trying to start a holy war, I'd say the better choices for "free" licenses would have to be MPL, the BSD license, or most of the other university licenses. As long as you give credit you're able to do almost anything with the code, including relicense it.
    • Why is it necessary to relicense software to be free?

      Do you consider proprietary software more free than GPLed software? If so, why? If not, then why is it important to give others the opportunity to make their software proprietary?
  • by turg (19864)

    I think part of the problem is that it's not really meaningful to speak of freedom by itself without saying "free from what?"

    Stalman and you have different ideas of what it is most important to be free from. And the type of freedom each of you prefers precludes the freedom that the other prefers

    • I think part of the problem is that it's not really meaningful to speak of freedom by itself without saying "free from what?"

      I disagree. I think there are two types of freedom, a "positive", or "freedom to"; and a "negative", or "freedom from". Most of the time, it just depends on your viewpoint. For instance, I have the "freedom to" speak my mind (1), not the "freedom from" government censure. I have the "freedom to" choose my own religion, and not the "freedom from" a governmentally-imposed religion (2). Those are obviously the same in either light, but what about other "freedoms"? Is the schedule my manager drew up for me considered "freedom from" having to deal with that myself? More on topic, does the GPL give me the "freedom to" use, copy, distribute, and modify GPLed code, or does it give me the "freedom from" having to choose from multiple licenses when I decide to use GPLed code in my own project?


      More generally, RMS strikes me as the kind of guy that would lean more towards the "freedom to" stuff, and that's cool. His license was designed to give developers the "freedom to" use, copy, modify, and distribute other GPLed code, not necessarily the "freedom from" restrictive licensing (associated with proprietary software). (3)


      Personally, I believe that any "freedom" should be defined in such a away that it gives you the "freedom to" something or to do something, and not a "freedom from" something. It's more powerful that way.


      -----


      1. Within certain limitations, of course. I'm not guaranteed an audience, only that I can speak my mind (and the related freedom to congregate, though again I'm not necessarily guaranteed to have a place to congregate, only that I can congregate if I so choose). I can't do things like yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there is none. I can't make death threats. I can, however, call the President a bumbling boob if I so choose, and nothing can be done about it.


      2. The Freedom of Religion obviously originated from the desire for freedom from an official state church, but it was worded such that it gave a positive freedom (the freedom of choice) rather than a negative freedom, and I think it's better that way.


      3. In the spirit of full disclosure, I personally disagree with the GPL, and will not use it for my own software, nor will I use GPLed code in my own software. In fact, I go so far as to avoid GPLed code whenever possible so as not to taint my thought processes. Wouldn't it be neat if the GPL had a non-taint clause, like Microsoft's Shared Source license, which guarantees that you cannot be tainted simply by looking at the source code? People praise Open Source software and Free software because it makes the code available so that others can use it for learning, but there's a caveat -- if you use Free software to learn, and then take a job writing proprietary software in a similar area as the Free software you learned from, you're in danger of tainting your proprietary software, even though you did not knowingly or willingly use GPLed code.

      • I think there are two types of freedom, a "positive", or "freedom to"; and a "negative", or "freedom from".

        You're right. But my basic point is that the word freedom is meaningless without a qualifier (like "to..." or "from..."). One freedom is gained at the expense of another -- at the very least, to give everyone the freedom to do X takes away the freedom to prevent others from doing X.

        • You're right. But my basic point is that the word freedom is meaningless without a qualifier (like "to..." or "from..."). One freedom is gained at the expense of another -- at the very least, to give everyone the freedom to do X takes away the freedom to prevent others from doing X.

          Right. The point I was trying to make (poorly) is that many people think of the GPL as "Freedom from restrictive licenses and proprietary software", which it most definitely is not. The reason I brought up the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to" is that, while they're transmutable (a "freedom to" has some corresponding "freedom from"), it's not always obvious what the opposite is. In this case, the GPL's "Freedom to use, copy, distribute, and modify" does not map to "Freedom from restrictive licenses and proprietary software". In fact, depending on how one wants to think about proprietary software, one could say that the GPL itself is a proprietary license (albeit more open than most). And this is where people get hung up. They only look at the "freedom to" side of the GPL argument, and ignore the "freedom from" side (or worse, never even see it). Thus, we end up with a lot of misguided people that think the GPL is something it's not.

  • Um... no. Without the GPL, the software would have no license at all, and would be in the public domain. I would be able to copy it, use its source code, change it, distribute it, do whatever I wanted with it.

    This is false. Copyright law in the United States applies to works by default - no action of the creator is necessary. Only one entity in the United States can create works that are not covered by copyright: the U.S. Federal government.

    In the event that you're actually trying to learn more about the GPL as the basis for forming a fact-based opinion of it, you're going to have to learn more about copyright law, as the GPL and copyright law are inextricably intertwined.
    • You bring up a good point; I shouldn't have oversimplified my argument. But you're not completely right, either.

      Copyright law in the United States applies to works by default - no action of the creator is necessary. Only one entity in the United States can create works that are not covered by copyright: the U.S. Federal government.

      While I don't claim to be an expert in matters legal, it seems that you might also benefit from a little research.

      Before 1976, in order to get protection by copyright for a work, the work had to be deposited and registered. The Copyright Act of 1976 removed the requirement that the works be registered to be protected by copyright.

      But even after 1976, a work could not be protected by copyright unless notice of that copyright was placed prominently on all published copies of it. Failure to do so meant that the work would not be protected by copyright. The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 removed that requirement, and only since has copyright protection been attached to works without any overt action on the part of the author or publisher.

      The courts have found that all an author has to do to release his works without copyright protection is to intend to do so. Consider the "Desiderata" case, Bell v. Combined Registry Co., 536 F.2d 164 (7th Cir., 1976). In that case, the appellate court upheld that Ehrmann acted out a long-term intent to abandon his copyright on his poem, Desiderata, and as such, copyright protection ceased to apply. The test they established was for a clear intent to abandon, and some overt act toward that intent. By distributing his poem freely, over a period of many years, and by repeatedly granting permission to others to distribute it, Ehrmann displayed a clear and reasonable intent to abandon his copyright.

      So all I have to do is put a statement to the effect that I abandon my copyright in or in proximity to my source code, and then distribute or make available that source code to others, and I have legally abandoned my copyright. At that point, anybody who runs across my source code is free to do whatever they want with it, with no restriction or limitation beyond the normal restrictions of law.

      So if you find my source code, the copyright of which I have abandoned, you are free to use it, or to create derived works based on it. You can't just put your name on it and claim it to be yours, because that's not a derived work. But you are free to create a new work based on my code and wrap it inside any form of legal protection you like.

      Let me emphasize that point again: a work in the public domain-- be it a book or a poem or software-- cannot be removed from the public domain. Derivative works may be created based on the public domain work, and those derived works may be protected by copyright and distributed under license agreement, but the work itself cannot be removed from the public domain by any means.

      So the GPL is fundamentally unnecessary. Once a piece of software is out there in the public domain-- assuming, of course, that it's legitmately in the public domain, and not subject to a claim by a third party-- it's in the public domain permanently. No further protection is required.
      • The Desiderata [fleurdelis.com] case, concerning a poem published in 1927, may say something about copyright law in 1927, but it says very little about copyright law in 2002. Since the case was all about publishing a work without the copyright notice - a notice which is no longer required - it's no longer possible to abandon copyright by publishing a work without the required notice.

        This was the subject of an interesting debate on a legal list I subscribe to a year or two ago - the various lawyers on that list could not come to a consensus on any way to decisively abandon a copyright.

        Oh, and I wouldn't be so sure that a public domain work will remain so forever. Several copyright laws have placed works back under copyright [copyright.gov]. See also the Golan [harvard.edu] and Eldred [harvard.edu] cases. These are unsettled law, and I think the plaintiffs - the "good guys" - have every chance of losing these cases.

        And as to the last point, whether it's better to be BSD-free or GPL-free, I'm not going to be sucked into *that* debate. I expect that fairly soon, someone will take a major piece of BSD-licensed code and turn it into a huge ball-and-chain. My personal prediction is that Microsoft will release a BSD-based operating system with DRM built-in. When - not if - that occurs, I expect that more people will see the value in the GPL.
        • Since the case was all about publishing a work without the copyright notice - a notice which is no longer required - it's no longer possible to abandon copyright by publishing a work without the required notice.

          But the test cited in Bell is "a finding of Mr. Ehrmann's long-term intent to contribute Desiderata to the public." The abandonment issue and the forfeiture issue are legally separate.

          Oh, and I wouldn't be so sure that a public domain work will remain so forever. Several copyright laws have placed works back under copyright.

          You're obviously informed on this issue, but I have to say that URAA is a terrible example. That piece of legislation was amazingly specifc; it placed works back under U.S. copyright that were still covered by copyright abroad (in Berne Convention signatory countries) but that had been placed in the public domain in the U.S. due to failure to comply with formalities mandated by U.S. law. Those are the same formalities, by the way, that were repealed by the '76 act. It's a perfectly reasonable measure to take to unify the copyright protection sphere, for lack of a better phrase, of the U.S. and its trading partners. It makes little sense for a work to be protected in (say) France, but public domain in the U.S.

          The Bono bill is pretty unpopular in some circles, but it has nothing to do with taking works out of the public domain and putting them back under copyright. It's merely an extension of the term of existing copyrights.

          Golan challenges the Bono bill and the URAA on the grounds of constitutionality. Eldred challenges only the Bono bill. Since they're both still in pleadings, it's impossible to draw any conclusions from them.

          But I really don't see what that has to do with anything. The URAA took works that should not have been in the public domain and restored them to copyright-protected status. The Bono bill extends the term of existing copyrights. Neither of these is an example of taking works that are rightfully in the public domain back out again.

          My personal prediction is that Microsoft will release a BSD-based operating system with DRM built-in. When - not if - that occurs, I expect that more people will see the value in the GPL.

          But your prediction has already come to pass, in a way. Mac OS X is built on top of Darwin, which is based on FreeBSD and Mach, both of which were released under the BSD license. Mac OS X is undeniably a good thing: a commercially supported, highly polished operating system with a user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing interface atop a damn near bulletproof core.

          Mac OS X never could have happened if it weren't for the BSD-style license. If FreeBSD and Mach had been released under a GPL-style license, Apple never would have been able to justify spending the years of effort and untold gazillions of dollars to build Mac OS X. Why should they have, when they would have been forced, by the GPL, to just give the whole thing away to anybody who asked for it?

The tree of research must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of bean counters. -- Alan Kay

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