Don't call it Free Software

dont-call-it-free-software.exe
created (updated in this commit)
Tags:

Now stick with me, I will get to what I mean with this (admittedly clickbaity) title1 soon. I think it is important for us to define our terms before we get to it.

Unless in Quotes, these definitions are used:

Why write this text?

I think Libre Software is important to our society as a whole, as respect for personal freedoms has been in decline for quite a while. Whether private companies spy on you for some ad money or the government does in the name of terror prevention matters little to me, and I think most other privacy-conscious people. As such it is of great importance to have an understanding of what it means to have software that is “free”. And here we have the exact issue: it’s the word free. Free can obviously stand for freedom, your rights, no restrictions. But it can also mean gratis or free of charge. Don’t get me wrong. This also fits, but it also fits the more general term Freeware and therefore a way broader field of software.

It seems this misunderstanding is even prevalent among some developers as can be seen in this reddit post3 in which one comment displays this very misconception.

If these issue even exists among developers, how can we expect laymen to understand this concept? We simply can’t. And Free Software does matter to everyone, whether they know it or not.

And what is Free Software?

The definition2 is pretty self-explanatory, but to paraphrase: Free Software is software that guarantees your rights to do what you want with this software by forcing editors to make their changes available under the same license.

Free Software is a way to guarantee you that you can use this software, and if someone wants to add spyware like Google Analytics, then you can see that and rip it right out again.

And why is Free Software not “free software”?

If by “free software” you mean freeware, then it is; but it is much more. To illustrate that point, I took the liberty to draw this diagram4:

venn diagram showing a software-bubble containing a freeware-bubble that overlaps an open-source bubble, in the overlap are is a smaller bubble labeled free software
A simplified diagram to show the relationship of the discussed softwares.

You don’t always know, what freeware contains, and you are not always allowed to compile and use Open-Source software. Libre Software is part of their overlap5

And what can we do to clear that up?

We can just do what GNU already told us in the definition2:

We sometimes call it “libre software,” borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis.

Use the term “Libre Software” instead and most developers should know what you mean, if not, they are under no impression that you might actually mean freeware and laymen can clearly tell that you not only mean “free of charge”.


  1. Is it clickbait if I mean it? ↩︎

  2. https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html ↩︎

  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20210820090800/https://www.reddit.com/r/programmer/comments/p7nteh/is_there_any_difference_between_free_and_open/ ↩︎

  4. Thanks to Steven for pointing out that Libre Software does not have to be freeware. I doubt that there is a lot of Libre Software that has to be paid for, as redistribution is always allowed; but it is technically possible nonetheless. ↩︎

  5. Thanks to stuff like the commons clause, not everything that is Freeware and Open-Source, is Libre. ↩︎


Do you know better? Have a comment? Great! Let me know by sending an email to ~poldi1405/comments@lists.sr.ht


If you feel like it, you can donate.
Unless stated otherwise the texts of this website are released under CC-BY and code-snippets under the GPL.
© Moritz Poldrack