Free Software is a proprietary term

19th March 2018

Who controls the term "Free Software"?

"Free Software" is defined by the Free Software Foundations 1, 2, 3, 4 as software that gives users the freedom to use, study, modify and redistribute it.

The Free Software Foundations present themselves as authorities on the ethics of technology, and most people who identify as members of the Free Software community recognise them as such.

The term "Open Source" technically means the same thing as Free Software, however it's come to have a very broad, fuzzy definition in general parlance. Conversely, "Free Software" has kept true to a strict definition, owned by the US Free Software Foundation.

The FSF's stewardship of the term "Free Software"

I like the idea of an ethical authority, because I think the ethics of technology is difficult, and insight from people who've studied it can be very helpful.

However, the authority needs to be right about things. The way to be right about things is to be constantly critiquing one's own position, and accepting feedback from others. I don't think the Free Software Foundations do that. Here are a few examples of things where I think the Free Software Foundations have an over-simplistic or out-of date view:

The Free Software Foundations treat very complicated issues as simple ones, which is a common mistake in politics.

I pay my monthly donations to my local Free Software Foundation every month, hoping that they can represent my interests and raise awareness about anything happening in the commercial or legal world that are relevant to software ethics. But I feel they're not accurately representing me.

What about "Open Source"

Am I to discontinue my membership of the Free Software foundation and become an "Open Source" advocate instead? Technically, Open Source is the same thing as Free Software.

The problem with Open Source is, most Open Source enthusiasts are just coders who like collaborating on software but don't care about wider society. Or worse; some people act like Open Source is a "type" of software that "competes" with proprietary software, implying that the philosophy of Open Source is only valuable insofar as it makes the software "better".

Furthermore, most software that claims to be "Open Source" actually isn't. People say Android is Open Source but almost all Android phones run proprietary images that you can't get the code for. GNU/Linux distributions like Ubuntu and ArchLinux claim to be Open Source but they both jumble Open Source and proprietary stuff together in their package managers. A product my employer uses is claimed to be Open Source but if you share the code the vendor permanently cuts off your subscription.

If you actually want to find real Open Source software you have to look for software branded as "Free Software" or "FOSS" such as those on the FSF's list of Free GNU/Linux distributions, Debian, F-Droid or The Free Software Directory.

What is better?

I like the idea of an ethical authority. I like the idea of a term that's political, rather than descriptive. The Free Software movement has these things, Open Source does not. However the Free Software Foundations insist on being so old-fashioned and absolutist about everything, making them unable to find the truth of complex ethical problems.

The term Free Software is proprietary and the term Open Source is free. The proprietaryness of the term Free Software makes it immutable and out-of-date. The lack of political focus of the term Open Source makes it vague and un-meaningful.

"Free Software" "Open Source"
Is term free? no, under FSF control yes, means what people want it to mean
Is term politically focused? yes, totally no, and software that is hostile to community is often called Open Source

I assert we need a term that's fundamentally political, rather than descriptive, otherwise it will be hijacked by organisations writing software that follows the word, but not the spirit, of the definition. But it needs to be free so that we can discuss and develop it. When I wrote a blog post once challenging the FSF's Free Software definition, I got an abrogating response from some members of the Free Software community: 1, 2. This needs to not happen.

I propose we need to hijack the term "Free Software" from the FSFs and make it free. Write lots of blog posts about what you think about Free Software! Talk about it lots!

Raid the castle! Storm the keep!