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Posted: 07:56:43 PM, 15/06/2015

What does free really mean?

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We often hear the word freedom in connection with Free Software and Open Source Software (FOSS). Actually, most use of the word comes from the?Free Software Foundation (FSF) and its founder, Richard M. Stallman, repeating the term over and over[Note 1], until the word is almost devoid of meaning[Note 2]. The four freedoms expressed by Stallman are the freedom to run a program as you wish, freedom to study or modify a program, freedom to redistribute a program, and freedom to distribute modified copies of a program.?

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Now, there might be reasons to debate whether Stallman's use of freedom has the same meaning as in freedom of speech or freedom of religion but that's a topic for a different article. When asked about free software, Stallman and others will throw out the quip free as in speech, not free as in beer. Apparently, someone, somewhere is giving away free beer. I want to find that person.

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Anyone can download the source for the many thousands of FOSS programs, modify it, and redistribute a new version. But in practice, only a very small number of people ever download and build a FOSS program from source. I do on occasion, when a program isn't available in my distribution's repository. Of the few people who download the source of a program, a much smaller number will actually study it to see how it works and an even smaller number will make changes.?

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I use FOSS software. I use GNU tools, LibreOffice, Firefox, GIMP, and more. Like the great majority of Linux users, I use whichever version of a package is included in my Linux distribution. I'm very unlikely to ever modify any of these programs, even if I have the freedom to do so. The reasons are simple: Large programs like these are complex and take considerable time to comprehend how they work.

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I recently had an online exchange with someone who was upset that his Linux distribution did not provide support for a peripheral he just bought. He said that he had to purchase a driver to get it to work and that this was the first time in many years that he had paid for any kind of software. He wasn't concerned about the freedom to modify the software, or the freedom to understand how it works, or freedom to redistribute it, both because he lacked the technical background and, more important, lacked the desire to do any of these. The price for the driver was very modest, but he thought that the Linux community should have software support for any hardware on the market available without cost.

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In practice, the operative word in FOSS is not freedom but free as in without charge.

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I use Adobe Acroread on Linux, which is free software. That is, free as in freeware, no charge but no source, and with a click-to-accept license. I use Chrome which is built out of a large number of FOSS packages, but which has a license agreement no less restrictive than that included with any proprietary program, prohibiting reverse engineering, creating a derivative work, or copying Chrome. (The rationale, as I understand it, is that Chrome is inextricably related to the proprietary services which Google provides, such as collecting your browsing habits and selling it to advertisers.) Chrome is now the most popular browser, with over 50% of the market, beating both FOSS browser Firefox and proprietary Internet Explorer. Like everyone else, I have dozens of apps installed on my Android smartphone. Almost all are free. That is, there is no charge to install them. Some apps are full function, others crippled or adware to encourage me to purchase a fully functional version. Almost all are closed source, although no one seems concerned.

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While there is a small, impassioned, and very vocal community which is concerned about Free Software, the great majority are mostly interested in Free.

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Free as in free beer, not free as in freedom.

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Notes:

  1. The word freedom appears 43 times in Stallman's 3-page article Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software, Communications of the ACM, June, 2009, vol. 52(6). pp.?31C33, https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html.
  2. This is called semantic satiation. See Wikipedia.

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Michael Eager is principal consultant at Eager Consulting in Palo Alto, Calif. He has over four decades experience developing compilers, debuggers, and simulators for a wide range of processor architectures used in embedded systems. His current and former clients include major semiconductor companies and systems developers. Michael has been a member of the ISO C++ Standard Committee and ABI Committees for several processor architectures. He is chair of the Debugging Standards Committee for DWARF, a widely used debug data format. He is active in the open-source and Linux communities.

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