Freedom Software

OK, now that I’ve outed myself as anti-GPL, I guess I may as well go ahead and publish my rant on the phrase “free software”. I guess I’ve got no more credibility to lose as far as the FSF goes anyway.

The phrase “free software” has exactly one correct grammatical meaning, and guess what, it isn’t the one the Free Software Foundation keeps on pushing.

Software can of course be free as in “costing nothing”.  [All definitions are from NZ Pocket OED, 1988.]

Can it be free as in “power of acting without constraint of necessity or fate”?  No.  [1]

Can it be free as in “not a slave”?  Well, only in the trivial sense [1] that no software is a slave, since the word only applies to people.

Can it be free as in “not under the control of another [other than the software itself]”?  Again, no. [1]

Well, I don’t want to go through the entire list of definitions (it takes up an entire column) but you get the idea.  Some of the definitions can be applied to software, such as “available to all” but they don’t match the meaning of “free software” as defined by the FSF either.

And of course using the phrase “free software” with the FSF’s meaning causes endless confusion with the (more correct) meaning of the word “free”.

So, what should we call GPL and other similarly licensed software?  My vote (so to speak) is for “freedom software”.  This isn’t exactly euphonious, but at least it isn’t confusing and it means what it says – software that supports freedom.  (Even if it seems to me to be an odd kind of freedom for people to worry about.)

The upshot is that I’ve decided to start using “freedom software” instead of “free software”.  I’m hoping it won’t be necessary to explain myself too often.  I invite you to join me. 🙂


[1] Except for an AI, I suppose, but that’s not really the point.


2 Responses to “Freedom Software”

  1. bobool Says:

    I hope you realize, of course, that language evolves. So, even if “free software” as they intend it to mean didn’t exist before, it does once someone creates it and explains its meaning to others.

    I think “freedom software” is a better term though, because it’s more explanatory.

    • harryjohnston Says:

      I’m not sure it’s sensible to define a phrase to have a meaning different to that of the constituent words. There is precedent, I suppose, but that’s usually because the meaning of the words has changed while the meaning of the phrase has stayed the same. As far as I know, nobody uses the word “free” to mean “intended to promote freedom” in any other context, so the meaning of the word itself hasn’t changed, though it might do in the future.

      The practical problem, of course, is simply that “free software” is ambiguous. Unless you know whether the person speaking is a FSF fan, you can’t be sure whether they’re using the phrase “free software” as coined by the FSF or just the words “free” and “software” to mean, well, free software. 🙂

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