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 gnu.org’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 icculus.org 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.