Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Free as in Speech

With Independence Day coming up, I want to do a series of posts about freedom and what "free software" actually means. The English language is weak in the area of freedom, so when somebody says "free software" they think "free of charge" or "gratis" (to use the Latin term for the concept), which can really throw you, since most free software is available to anyone without monetary cost. If you have a CD drive with writing capability (which is standard on any computer made in the last four or five years) and a blank 700 MB CD, you can zip over to Ubuntu's download page right this minute, download the CD image, burn it to your disc, restart your computer with the disc in the drive*, and voila! You can either install or just use Ubuntu with the Live CD within 20 - 30 minutes for no charge beyond what you spent on the CD itself. That's free.

But that's still not what "free" means in the term "free software." This sort of "free" means "unfettered" or "free as in liberty" - it's what "free" means in "free speech." Or what the word "independence" means in "Independence Day." You're free to use this software in the way you see fit, as long as that way doesn't involve taking that same freedom away from others. It's free like a public library is free. It's ours not mine or yours. Corporate software companies make their millions on keeping their software locked down and "non-free" in this sense. Every end user license agreement that we click through going "yeah, yeah, I know" is restricting how we use the software we just paid for. It's more of a rental situation, like renting a Blockbuster DVD except a lot more expensive.

For example, if you purchase a copy of Windows Vista for your desktop, and decide you'd also like to install it on your laptop, you are not allowed to do that without buying it again. You just shelled out $130.00 and have the Vista installation disk in your hand, a disk you presume to "own," but you are not allowed to put it on another machine without buying it again. This is not freedom in the way any of us expect it to work. It would be like buying a book to keep on your bedside table and being told that you can't read it in the living room without buying it again.

On the other hand, with the Ubuntu disk you just downloaded for free, you can, without paying anyone or without asking or needing to wonder if you just broke the law, install it on any computer you want. Now that's freedom!

*The boot order in your BIOS settings has to be set to boot from CD before the hard disk.


Anonymous said...

I'm really glad that you are writing a series of articles about how Free Software means freedom instead of cost. If you want to make this point point stronger, though, you might want to call it "GNU/Linux" instead of "Linux". Since Linus Torvalds doesn't even like the GPL, it is a good idea to make sure you preserve the freedom by mentioning GNU. Plus, most of the stuff in the OS comes from the GNU project, whereas Linux is just the kernel.

Otherwise, great article!

Chris said...

Hey trombonechamp,

Thanks for your comment. I agree with your point, and if you look throughout my older posts, you'll see that I give the GNU project and Richard Stallman due attention. I've chosen to use the not-so-accurate (or incomplete) term "Linux" for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm directing my blog at the new (or non-) (GNU/)Linux user, and since "Linux" is the term everyone knows, I use it. Another reason (and you probably won't like this one - I know rms wouldn't!) is that "Linux" is a much catchier and easier name to use.

So please know that when I say "Linux," you can think of it as an abbreviation of "GNU/Linux," since the ideals of free software that you and I value so much do indeed stem from the GNU project.


P.S. Does your handle mean that you play trombone? I did too in high school! Go 'bones! :-)

I also saw your blog - GREAT posts!