[Fsf-friends] Free without ambiguity and overapplicability

Ramanraj K ramanraj@md4.vsnl.net.in
Sat Nov 29 18:04:56 IST 2003

  There is an animadversion that proprietary software is given away 
"free" and therefore, Free Software is ambigious.  Let us see if there 
is any truth in this criticism.  Since the literal use of the word 
"free" is involved, let us have a look at what "free" means.

Upon the word "free", the OED says:
~ not in bondage to another, having personal rights, social and 
political liberty
~ inheriting citizen rights and liberties
~ member of fraternity for mutual help and brotherly feeling
~ unfettered in action, unimpeded
~ open to all comers
~ spontaneous, unforced, unearned, gratuitous, willing
~ voluntary, not concealing one's opinions, blunt
~ released from difficulty
~ no fees charged
~ make free, set at liberty

If the word "free" is used to qualify software, then it would naturally 
and literally mean and include all the above meanings listed above.  If 
the object qualified with "free" is not free in any sense of the word, 
then the overapplicability should be restricted, to convey the true 
qualities of the software without ambiguity.

We rightly use "free" in Free Software scoring a clean 10 out of 10, 
whereas, the proprietary software companies use the word "free" 
incorrectly, inappropriately, ambigiously and with overapplicability, 
really scoring a poor 0 out of 10, meaning they cannot use the word 
"free" correctly or honestly and is only a misnomer. Let us closely 
examine the context in which the word "free" is used by the free 
software community and the proprietary software entities to qualify 

[0] No bondage to others:

Free software is a collection of software like GNU/Linux or FreeBSD that 
is a full fledged system, for single or multiple users or processors. 
 Every thing including the kernel (Linux, HURD, FreeBSD), shell (bash, 
sh, csh, tcsh), compiler (gcc), office suites (OpenOffice), browsers 
(Netscape and Mozilla), database servers (PostgreSQL etc), networking 
applications (apache, sendmail, including general scripting software 
like PHP, Perl, guile, elisp), graphics applications (gimp), and 
hundreds of other utilites (tar, bc, cat, less, more)  required to serve 
our needs are available under the GPL or like Licence, with full source 
code, making it possible to freely share, copy, and modify software for 
our use. New tools and utilities are created by every new generation of 
developers, and in the same traditions the software is added with 
liberty.  Free software if free for every user, and for every type of 
use, personal, commercial or governmental, without any restrictions. 
 Any one can freely share and use Free Software without seeking 
permission from anyone else.  Free means freedom, totally negating the 
restrictions imposed by proprietary software licenses.  For example, a 
school could use Free Software  and freely give copies of the software 
used to its teachers and pupils without restrictions.  Governments could 
freely use and distribute free software in the welfare of its citizens.

Now, proprietary software companies release just a trivial application 
like a browser free of price and claim to having released "free 
software".  The word "free" here is a misnomer, because, to use this 
piece of proprietary software, the user should have paid and purchased 
other components - the kernel, shell, or other systems under a licence 
from the proprietor. The ingenuius proprietary software licence will 
carefully give a full working system free of price, without source code, 
to governments and to educational institutions, just to ensure that the 
citizens and their children will forced to use proprietary software, and 
ultimately buy and use their proprietary software in their homes and 
offices.  In reality, the "free" proprietary software is not "free" but 
merely mis-branded as "free" solely for marketing purposes.  

[1] Inheriting citizen rights and liberties

Free software is freely inherited by the whole global community and 
society. Every new generation will freely inherit a rich body of code 
produced by the free software community. With proprietary software, one 
should always be ready to purchase new licences at the drop of a hat.

To keep the free software free for the community, developers who modify 
the free software source code and release to the public are required to 
release the modified free software under the same terms of the licence 
of the original software.  The copyright holder of free software can 
always sue the author who modified the software, for not freely 
releasing the modifications.  This is the only right the author of the 
software code reserves for himself, just to ensure that future versions 
of the free software remains free for the whole community.  The spirit 
of the free software movement is all pervasive, and sharing is 
practically automatic and happily done with grace.

[2] member of fraternity for mutual help and brotherly feeling

Sharing is free with Free Software.  Proprietary software licences 
restrict sharing, and further will even prosecute for sharing which is 
even worse.  There is an air of fraternity, brotherhood and freedom in 
the free software community, which is simply unknown in the proprietary 
software world, where users are chained and tied with a licence that 
will not allow any sharing or modification.  

[3] unfettered in action:

Free Software may be used freely for commercial, office, home, 
education, governmental or other purposes.  There are no fetters on 
copying, sale, exhibition, trading or installation of Free Software. 
 With most proprietary software, one has to spend a lot of time studying 
licence restrictions on using components and literally several practical 
actions required to use the software itself are fettered in one way or 
the other.  The proprietary software licence may say that even the 
licenced user can use only one instance on any one computer at any given 
point of time making realistic practical use of the software cumbersome.  

[4] open to all comers:

Free Software has promoted the principle of equality like never before, 
and all are welcome to the free software community.  With proprietary 
software, all doors are closed to people who cannot afford to purchase 
the software.

[5] spontaneous, unforced, unearned, gratuitous, willing:

The whole free software community acts spontaneously and voluntarily to 
develop high quality software to add well deserved honour to their 
names, and willingly and gratuitously give away the software under the 
GPL or like Licence.  These freedoms are not possible or imaginable with 
proprietary software.

[6] voluntary, not concealing one's opinions, blunt

Free software is used voluntarily, and enables users to express their 
opinions about the software plainly and fruitfully in a way promoting 
the interest of the entire community.  If a user finds something amiss, 
he may set out to correct the fault on his without wasting another 
moment, and release his work to the public, happy to have been of help.

[7] released from difficulty:

The souce code for most free software is mostly written in ANSI C, and 
free software applications can be compiled with gcc using standard 
procedures.  This gives great freedom to port software on to a number of 
platforms and wide range of hardware, to suit a variety of needs. 
 Proprietary software companies do not release source code, and they 
cannot be compiled with this kind of freedom, and are often tied to a 
particular platform, or even worse, to a unique version of a particular 
operating system.  

[8] no fees charged

Free Software is free of price, if downloaded from Internet, or shared 
between friends. The truth is that free software is more valuable than 
being merely available free of cost. Since further copying and trading 
is free, we can only say Price is Free plus profit  if you can earn it. 
  If the same free software is distributed through a "commercial 
package" the distributor gives the free software for a price greater 
than zero, which may be the cost of providing warranty cover and other 
distribution costs of CD/DVD media, printed manuals, packaging, shrink 
wraps, advertisement and tranportation costs, dealership margins, 
sometimes at a premium to those who can afford, and other business 
costs.  All users know that the free software included in the commercial 
package is available at no cost elsewhere, and deliberately chooses to 
buy a commercial package to suit their convenience or to promote the 
free software.

Some criticize that the cost of implementing and maintaining free 
software may be as high as proprietary software.  This is for a short 
span of time when documentation and other forms of help have not yet 
evolved, mostly because free software developers spend most of the time 
developing the software, and find little time to write elementary 
manuals.  But with time, excellent free online manuals are published, 
through which a user can learn without spending any money on purchasing 
documentation or training.  One is free to learn through public mailing 
lists, and even public libraries.

Proprietary software companies sometimes give away their software like 
soap samples, only to promote purchases, and cannot qualify to be free 
for all the above reasons.  Even documentation for proprietary software 
cannot be shared or freely reproduced.

[9] make free, set at liberty:

Free Software makes software users free and promotes their liberty in 
several ways. Proprietary software can do only the opposite.

Therefore, while we correctly and meaningfully use the word "free" in 
Free Software, proprietary software entities use the word "free" without 
any substantial meaning or content, with overwhelming ambiguity and 

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