Free, free, and 'Free': the BSDs Certainly Are

by chromatic

The word 'free' is a bit loaded when it comes to software, especially in circles that eschew "traditional" copyrights. You can make a case for it having any of four connotations:

  • no price -- free as in beer

  • no restrictions on use -- free as in a non-commercial license, probably free as in speech

  • copylefted -- free as in GPL, free as in speech

  • no restrictions on use or distribution -- free as in FreeBSD, free as in speech

These categories are pretty fluid, and I fully expect that reasonable people will disagree on the number and classification. That's fine -- my point is simply that the word 'free' is highly overloaded.

As for the controversy, I wrote:

I apologize for apparently conflating the BSDs with "Free Software"

That's ambiguous, even without a six-dollar word like "conflating". Worse, I'd already mentioned projects like Apache, Python, and Perl and would go on to mention other free software.

A reasonable person could read that clause and say, "Wait, does he mean that the BSDs aren't free software"? Several people did just that. Since the BSDs are indeed free by all four definitions above, it lead to a lot of confusion.

My original intent of that sentence (as far as I can make any sense of it now) was to say something like "While I'm using the term 'Free Software' which can connote a philosophical position held by the Free Software Foundation, I don't mean to imply that the people who work on these projects hold those motivations."

That's not great either, but I find it clearer. Of course, everything would probably have been better off without any disclaimer.

As a writer, I hate that we have such an ambiguous word to describe the whole state of free software. (I don't particularly care for the terms 'open source', 'F/OSS', and 'FLOSS', either, but that's a different subject.) As a programmer, I try to be as precise as possible.

Let me sum up by being very precise. The BSDs are indeed free software. Anyone who tells you otherwise is uninformed, lying, or typing a lot faster than his brain is working. Again, I apologize for the confusion.

Alright, I'll take my lumps here. Have at it.


2003-03-01 05:25:13
Libre' software
This is why I have come to use the term 'Libre' Software'.

'Free' is just to confusing. Even after having explaining your particular working definition, people still hear their own definition.

It does not help communication.

2003-03-01 09:35:55
NO is not overloaded
As he says, "free" is overloaded, but that means it is easy to use the word misleadingly and people deserve to be flamed when they don't take care to say what they mean, especially when the ambiguity effects a kind of propagandistic lie, intentional or not.

But "no" is NOT overloaded and it's just WRONG to associate "no restrictions..." with FreeBSD or non-commercial license, as the author does; there are several important restrictions in any typical open-source license.

And the fact that "free" is overloaded doesn't mean that words like "freely" is as fuzzy. GPLed software may NOT be freely redistributed, despite what any GPL evangelist may falsely claim. The license was given conditions so that people may NOT freely redistribute the software (eg, as part of non-GPL derivative).

The problem is more one of fuzzy thinking than fuzzy words.

Our author errs again in referring to "traditional copyrights", when he apparently means "traditional (open source) copyright licensing". There's only one kind of copyright -- the kind in copyright law.

2003-03-01 18:29:17
absolute freedom is a fantasy
The fundamental problem is that when you say "free", people assume an absolute. Everything offered in this world has some restriction and/or price. Absolute freedom is also called anarchy, and is unsupported.

As an American, you may say you live in a free country. But when your attorney general arbitrarily redefines public law and then uses military force to violate the privacy of thousands of people without warning, can you honestly say you're free? You are free to an extent, nothing more. You need to pay attention to the boundary.

The same goes for software that has a license of any description. If it were otherwise, there would be no license at all.

2003-03-04 06:47:57
Don't worry about hairsplitting hypocrites
Sure, the linux commissars want to force everyone to use their definitions of words. Proudly defend the truth: free minds and free markets!

The linux armed tovaritches want to ram their buggy stuff down everyone's throats, but the people will not be deceived! Even now the Dept of Homeland Security is exposing the sendmail and snort security holes. No doubt there will be more hard realities to come. Real Americans can only hope that Ashcroft will give the linux menace the attention it deserves. FreeBSD forever!