Geek / Technical Politics/Government

Free Software and the Power of Language

It’s been coming up a lot recently, and I, as a Gnu/Linux user and Free Software advocate, am getting tired of being lumped in with software pirates. Free Software and Open Source Software is not about getting something for nothing. They aren’t about stealing anyone’s livelihood. They aren’t about ripping off hard-working programmers.

The use of the word “free” is unfortunate in that people think it means “$0” or “no price”. The Free Software Foundation won’t use another word because they want to emphasize freedom; “open source” doesn’t call to mind the idea of freedom at all. The FSF philosophy is that all users should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

Free Software refers to freedom, not price. Most people get that part.

What is frustrating is the number of people who support Free Software AND miss the entire concept of freedom. These people are worse than the ones who are against Free Software because they think it is about giving away things for free; they make it seem like the GPL was created specifically to prevent commercial use!

I’ve argued that the distinction between “free software” and “commercial software” is false; they are not mutually exclusive. A lot of people on all sides of the argument are careless with these words, which only muddies the waters and makes “free software” much more confusing to talk about. The use of the right words makes all the difference. “Death Tax” sounds a lot worse than “Estate Tax”, for instance, and the use of one term instead of the other helps to change the way you think, especially if you can’t be bothered to learn about the facts.

From’s Words to Avoid:

“Free software” does not mean “non-commercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important.


Please don’t use “commercial” as a synonym for “non-free.” That confuses two entirely different issues.

A program is commercial if it is developed as a business activity. A commercial program can be free or non-free, depending on its license. Likewise, a program developed by a school or an individual can be free or non-free, depending on its license. The two questions, what sort of entity developed the program and what freedom its users have, are independent.

In the first decade of the Free Software Movement, free software packages were almost always noncommercial; the components of the GNU/Linux operating system were developed by individuals or by nonprofit organizations such as the FSF and universities. Later, in the 90s, free commercial software started to appear.

Free commercial software is a contribution to our community, so we should encourage it. But people who think that “commercial” means “non-free” will tend to think that the “free commercial” combination is self-contradictory, and dismiss the possibility. Let’s be careful not to use the word “commercial” in that way.

How many anti-Free Software zealots would be surprised at the above? Heck, how many pro-Free Software zealots would be surprised at the above? From flame wars on a forum to government reports to FUD spread by certain organizations and companies, the use of the word “commercial” as opposite “Free Software” or “open source” makes people think that FOSS must necessarily be non-commercial. It’s not.

When talking about free software, it is best to avoid using terms like “give away” or “for free”, because those terms imply that the issue is about price, not freedom. Some common terms such as “piracy” embody opinions we hope you won’t endorse.

Let me put that part in bold: Some common terms such as “piracy” embody opinions we hope you won’t endorse.

For those who think that the FSF is about supporting piracy, how do you explain that statement?

On the same page:


Publishers often refer to prohibited copying as “piracy.” In this way, they imply that illegal copying is ethically equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and murdering the people on them.

If you don’t believe that illegal copying is just like kidnapping and murder, you might prefer not to use the word “piracy” to describe it. Neutral terms such as “prohibited copying” or “unauthorized copying” are available for use instead. Some of us might even prefer to use a positive term such as “sharing information with your neighbor.”

Perhaps that last line might sound like support for piracy, and I have to admit that I also questioned what it meant. I sent an email to the FSF asking for clarification. The response was from Program Assistant Tony Wieczorek:

Our concerns with people referring to piracy are that companies use that pejorative term to denounce all of our efforts. We are afraid that people will call our legitimate and legal practices piracy for lack of a better term. That, of course, is not the case at all. We believe that software should be free, and we use the law (copyright law, in the case of the GPL) to achieve that (albeit in a way that most people don’t use that law – this is the idea of copyleft).

I think that paragraph is also meant to point out that equating copying software with raping and pillaging ships is gauche. The two crimes are nowhere near similar and people should make that point when they speak of illegal copying.

So the FSF doesn’t endorse piracy and wants to make sure that Free Software is considered distinct from something illegal. I feel that they are making two arguments at once and make their points needlessly confusing, but the second argument was that copyright infringement isn’t something comparable to what pirates did/do.

For an example of why the confusion about FOSS and commercial software is a problem, check out this news item on Linux Games announcing Caravel Games’ DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold. One comment in response to the idea of an open source shareware game:

WTF? What on earth is open source shareware?

Nevermind that id had released the source to a number of their older games while still requiring you to purchase the game to play it. The idea that Free and Open Source software can also be commercial software is too confusing for a lot of people. The expectation is that if it is commercial, then it can’t possibly be Free Software.

There are practical concerns, of course. You can’t just release your software under the GPL and expect to be able to sell it the same exact way you sold your proprietary software. Still, it is possible to make a profit by way of software that doesn’t restrict your customers’ freedoms. While it is easier to earn revenue through an MMO game through subscriptions — “The client can be both Free and free, but to play on our awesome servers, you’ll need to pay” — it is also possible to sell a non-MMO, open source game and make a profit. If you immediately make the argument that EXAMPLE XYZ proves that Free and Open Source Shareware can’t work, recognize that you are coming to a conclusion based on one counterexample. Rather than asking “How can I make it work?”, you are simply stating “It can’t work.”

If you think that the effort to make a profit from Free and Open Source Software is too great to justify, that’s fine. You’ve made what is hopefully a well-informed decision for yourself. Just realize that it isn’t impossible to make money from FOSS, that it isn’t illegal to use or create FOSS, and that it isn’t about getting something for nothing. Free Software is not about supporting piracy. It isn’t the opposite of commercial software. It’s about freedom, and when it comes to the GPL specifically, the license requires that commercial software be possible. It’s not a contradiction.

You’ll find people online who support FOSS but also make confusing statements about licensing. For a good example, the Linux Gamers’ Game List at lists games that are available for Gnu/Linux. The license section would presumably tell you what the license for the game entails, but it actually doesn’t. It tells you whether or not it costs money. The reason I was given was that someone’s grandmother would get confused about the idea that a game could be Free and cost money. I think that the column shouldn’t be called “License” if it isn’t really about the license. I would think labeling it “Cost” would avoid confusion if the purpose of the listing is to help out people who would be confused about licensing issues. I also think that most grandmothers probably wouldn’t think to look for the list in question, let alone find it.

Another example? Pick one out of the many Free games, and you’ll most likely find one. The GPL was for computer code. It makes no sense when it comes to an image or a piece of music. Still, most authors will simply license the entire game under the GPL without a thought.

People will argue that the best part of FOSS is that it doesn’t cost anything. Now, when you were first told about the FSF, the GPL, and Free Software, who did you hear it from first? Was it from people who said, “It’s about freedom! Here, let me explain what I mean…” or was it from “It doesn’t cost anything!” Most detractors seem to hear it from the latter. For example, you’ll see lines like “But the FSF is in the minority when it comes to convincing developers that giving away their software for free is the right thing to do.” Reading that line, you’d think that the Free Software Foundation WAS trying to convince people to give away code at no cost. You’d also be more inclined to believe that the GPL was about giving away something for nothing and that FOSS is about stealing the livelihood of those would dare to try to make their software into a commercial product. The funny part is that the same people who complain that the GPL is about giving away software also prefer to use code licensed under BSD, MIT, and similar licenses that basically allow you to take code and make it your own…essentially, taking without giving. So while the GPL is supposedly guilty of forcing people to give away their code for nothing, the accusors prefer code that actually is available for nothing. Interesting, eh? But I digress…

Multiply each of the above with the millions of people on the World Wide Web, and you can see why people would be confused about the nature of Free Software. There is a definite minority who are “on message” for Free Software, but they have to compete with the language of those who think FOSS is evil — calling it a cancer or referring to supporters as communists — as well as those who think it is great but don’t actually get the idea behind it.

11 replies on “Free Software and the Power of Language”

So, you support the FSF and its use of language – but you can’t be bothered to use any term but Piracy? Which I agree, is transparent garbage as far as language control goes.

I don’t equate it to piracy. I’m generally not into open source because the only thing I understood out of the gpl is that if you use it you have to expose your source, and I just don’t buy that.

As far as free software, it might be different thing entirely.

I like the license used by ZLib, where essentially it’s copyrighted but you get to use it however you want.

Jason: I think that the problem with the word piracy is that it implies a lot. Too many people still think that the word “theft” is appropriate to use in place of copyright infringement as well. I think “piracy” just helps to perpetuate the misunderstanding.

I should be using “copyright infringement” since it is the most accurate. It, of course, doesn’t bring up the same emotions as “theft” would.

Keith: There is a difference between freeware, software that is given away at no cost, and Free Software. Personally, I would like it if people used the capital ‘F’ when referring to this type of software since I think it would emphasize the Freedom as opposed to free, but the FSF still uses ‘f’. In any case, there are people who are opposed to Free Software for good reasons.

The GPL requires that if you give someone the binary, you must also give that person the source. If you are trying to create a software product to sell in the same way you would sell a toaster, then the GPL probably isn’t appropriate.

ZLib is a perfectly fine license, but the FSF would probably take issue with the fact that anyone can take the code, update it, and release the binary without releasing the new source. I would argue that it would be a real case of getting something for nothing; however, I also believe that whoever released it under the ZLib license probably knew what he/she was doing and so it isn’t like I feel cheated in any way. It wasn’t like the ZLib license was forced upon the code. Similarly, the GPL isn’t forced upon anyone, so you have a choice: use it and adhere to it, or don’t use it.

What bothers me is the number of people who make the GPL out to be this scary entity that can steal your code out from under you when you’re not looking. id didn’t accidentally release the engine for Quake 3 Arena as Free Software. GPL zealots didn’t storm their offices and replace the license files with copies of the GPL.

Maybe I’m too cloistered in my work, but I never equated GPL with piracy. I dunno where that came from.

The problem I *do* have with GPL is quite frankly “How do I make a living at it?” It seems that it was initially built on the mindset of employees for big sponsoring companies that sold something OTHER than software swapping code so they could do their job easier – share and share alike. It’s been moved pretty well into a realm where software development is assumed to be a SERVICE industry rather than a product industry. For B2B-style business plans, this works pretty well. Maybe. MySQL is still around and certainly APPEARS to be doing pretty well at it.

But when you are trying to sell software directly to consumers? The way companies have been getting around it has been by claiming that the “content” is proprietary (thus protecting their product) while the “code” is open. In practicality this works, though it seems a little bit like a dodge (and seems like it devalues the effort that went into the programming —- a false assumption to be certain, but still a perception).

I think the business model and licensing models still require a bit of evolution. My feeling on “open source” / free software is that it’s the RIGHT thing to do – it’s the best way to keep up with the rising costs of software development. But when your livelihood is built around SELLING the result of your labors, releasing it for free is a difficult pill to swallow without some additional protection in place.

I think how id and a few other game companies are handling it is one way to have it both ways. Once a version of your software has pretty much run its course with profits (the new version is out and established), then the source code to the old version is released out into the wild with an open-source license attached to it. The trick is encouraging other people to do the same. GPL pretty much forces them to play nice, but doesn’t allow them the luxury of only releasing the code after it is no longer a source of profit.

LGPL is “better” in that it allows people to retain that code that they consider a “competitive advantage,” but any improvements they make to the core open-source code libraries they originally used must be released immediately. But unfortunately it doesn’t do as good of a job of encouraging beneficiaries to give back to the community.

Is there a better licensing scheme potential out there that can cause people to contribute to the bulk of available, “free” software and source code out of enlightened self interest? Something less risky and scary than GPL?

I have to say that until I started paying attention to things outside of my immediate social circle (made up of a number of Gnu/Linux enthusiasts), I didn’t notice that people have such huge misconceptions about Free and Open Source Software. When id release the source to Q3A under the GPL, there was at least one person who wrote about his disapproval, claiming that the game doesn’t cost much in stores so you shouldn’t need to steal it. This article has a section that complains about the piracy line that I addressed above.

In any case, I believe that GPLv3 is supposed to adhere to the FSF principles while also being more business friendly. You’re right, though, that selling direct to customers is difficult when you are essentially telling your customers, “This code is yours to redistribute” as opposed to “You can’t redistribute this code”.

As for something that is less risky/scary than the GPL, I’m not sure how risky/scary it is in the first place, and I also don’t know of another license that better encourages the production of more Free Software. Of course, I’m no expert.

Maybe they need a new kind of license for entertainment products. I mean I like going and getting 7zip for free and say something like the GIMP. So if I made a software product that was for productivity some sort of tool or whatever, i’d have know problems sharing it because it is a tool to make other things with. A game however, I don’t really want to release the sources to my games. There are several implications from that one is you might not want anyone to look at your sloppy source, secondly you don’t really want people taking your game source and recompiling it and somehow making money off of it, or copying it off for friends.

Keith, I don’t know how to address the code-is-sloppy fear, but I think I can address the second.

One, if they take your source, they can recompile it…but they would end up with the same binary you gave them. If they change the code, they might change the game, but you obviously wouldn’t support such changes anyway. I remember someone made the argument that they couldn’t possibly support all the different changes someone might make to libsdl, for instance. I responded with basically, “Yeah? So what? Do you support all changes people make to proprietary .dlls?” Just because the source isn’t available, it doesn’t mean that the functionality can’t change. These issues aren’t the exclusive domain of FOSS.

They can only make money with your code in two ways: either illegally by using your game data which would presumably be under a proprietary license, or by creating their own assets and releasing their own game with your source.

If it is illegal, it would be illegal to do even without access to the source. If you don’t want them to make their own games with your source code, then you clearly don’t want to use the GPL as your license.

Illegal copies for friends already occur with proprietary code. It would obviously be easier for someone to take an open source project and make a copy since copyprotection generally relies on being secret. The question is “Can I trust my customers, or do I assume that most will rip me off given half a chance?”

Until I have it proven to me otherwise, I will go with “I can trust my customers” when GBGames starts to sell its first game. How soon that will be is still bothering me, but I digress.

Like I said, if you want to use the GPL to sell games, you can’t just pretend that you are using a proprietary license. It won’t work the same way.

Well the point is I wouldn’t be using the GPL. But if you were to use source code under GPL, you’re obligated to abide by the GPL itself. Then the idea is not to use that code. But isn’t half of the code that’s used to produce programs for linux gpl’d or even lgpl’d?

Plus I just have a problem with the fact that when I read the license it seems a bit complicated. And if you have to read through it every time to figure out whether your software abides by the license then you probably shouldn’t use anything that has anything to do with the license.

Like any license, once you understand it, you understand it. There are plenty of standard licenses that are already known to be compatible with the GPL, so it is easier to be compliant. They are even trying to cut down on the number of similar licenses, so it will get even easier.

As complicated as the GPL might seem, it is really there to enforce four freedoms. Most other EULAs take away those freedoms, and some are getting worse. I’d rather deal with the GPL than with the EULA for some software that tells me that not only can the software change at any time without my needing to know but that it can also change the way MY computer works. I like knowing that my computer doesn’t change unless I say so. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t aware of the EULAs they have agreed to just by having Windows Media Player 7 or higher on their systems, for example.

Thank you. It is such a pleasure to see that someone understands these issues. I continue to grow so tired of the open source free-loaders who pass themselves off as a “community” despite the fact that their ignorance is probably the biggest threat to Free Software other than Microsoft and the TCPA.

As frustrating as it is, I think it has been feeding on itself for some time, so it is hard to blame someone who think he is knowledgeable about the topic.

Interestingly, the only reason why TCPA and Digital Restrictions Management is a threat is because most people don’t understand what they would be giving up if they accepted them.

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