Sunday, June 29, 2008

Free as in Beer!

As I mentioned in my last Independence Day post, most free software is free in the monetary sense of the word ("gratis"), which can be a hindrance to those of us who are trying our best to emphasize the "freedom-as-in-liberty" sense of free software to those who don't yet understand. To your average computer user, "free" usually means "free to download," and that category includes many programs that no one in the Free Software world would consider free in the "liberty" sense (here's an FSF page with some definitions of these variants). And even when people download software licensed under the GPL and its variants, they don't notice that difference because they click right by the EULA in every case. And let's face it - most computer users aren't philosophical about software - they just need a program or OS that works so they can get things done (be that work or play).

One of Richard Stallman's memorable and concise ways of making the "free" distinction is to say "think free speech, not free beer." The problem with the term "free software" seems to be that many users can't think past the "free-as-in-beer" quality (or perhaps "free-as-in-cheap" or "free-as-in-kittens" - my next topic!). But let's think for a second about why that is, and how we advocates and defenders of software freedom might use it to our advantage. This software is (almost always) free of charge. When I go out looking for a Linux distribution or a software solution, I don't go to a shopping site. I look in the Ubuntu repositories for a program I know I can use without buying it or I go to a download mirror. Isn't there value in this quality of free software? Can't we enjoy free speech and free beer? (I can really appreciate free beer, can't you?)

Of course, I'm not advocating not caring about freedom-as-in-speech. I'm a librarian and have worked for years in a world were everything's free-as-in-speech, but I also advocate the enjoyment of that shared freedom. Just like the library, the freedom of free software is something all of us can use, share, and enjoy. (And in the case of free software, you don't even need a picture ID and proof of residency!) :-) Let's enjoy it!


Fred J. Stephens said...

I thought this was important to point out to new users too, without going into so much detail their eyes glazed over.

Chris said...

Thanks for your comment, Fred. The "eye-glazing" issue is something that I try my best to avoid. The GNU/Linux/Open Source universe is already full of unfamiliar terms and concepts and the "free as in speech" quality is not always self-evident (so to speak :-)). I'm hoping these posts are clarifying and not muddying the issue!


Srikar said...

I want to be clear.Let me explain.

I am a gnu user, and i like the concept of free software and its social impact.

Lets us assume I setup a software company which develops free software,I need to pay my employs and myself.So i sell the software and giv all the essential freedoms to it .

So free doesn't mean free in cost , free means freedom , the freedom computer users and developers should hav . Its like we must control our OS and the reverse shouldn't happen.

Chris said...

Thank you for your comment. I think I understand what you're saying. I agree that "free" doesn't mean "without cost." My point is that free (libre) software is very often without monetary cost, which is something very valuable for all of us, and is a point we can easily lose sight of when we're promoting the "liberty" aspect of free software.