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Journal Journal: Definitions of "free" in the phrase "free software" 11

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.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Welcome to my journal. 4

This entry serves mainly to remind me that I've decided to start a journal. I made this decision based primarily on encouragement from Osty, and a few others.

If you're a friend of mine (in the SlashCode sense I can't promise that this journal will ever go anywhere. I don't know, yet, whether I'll enjoy writing in it enough to take the time. But we'll see what happens.

Oh, one last thing: I want to keep a note of this comment. I wrote some decent things in here, and I'd like to remember to go back and flesh them out sometime soon.

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