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Free Philosophy: Criticisms

By J. W. Pennington

What is Free Software, and Who am I?

The main problems that most people had with The Beauty of Doubt was that I was discussing open source- not free- software, and that I made it seem as though I was the spokesperson for the Free Software Movement (FSM). Please understand that it was not my intention commit either of these errors.

Firstly, I am not a spokesperson for the FSM anymore than any other free software proponent. Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU foundation, and there a number of very active people listed on the GNU site, as well as hundreds of people who help regularly. I am merely a member of a very large community, one that openly accepts the work and opinions of all- even the newest rookies- provided it is open. I wanted to present this series as a discussion by one of these members, not as the "Mission Statement" of the FSM. Those new to this community are urged to seek further information before blindly accepting my arguably flawed views.

Secondly, I want to assure everyone that I am indeed discussing free software. I understand that The Beauty of Doubt only touched upon the open source side of the coin, and most of this will be applicable to both, but my views are meant to be specific to the free software community. I used Netscape as an example in the final paragraph of the article. There, I was hoping to show only that there were benefits to the free software model. Unfortunately, I failed to mention the problems with Netscape's public licensing policy.

I recently heard an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) about a "new operating system that is an alternative to Windows." The interview was with a computer expert and discussed, of course, Linux. Ignoring for the moment the fact that Linux is by no means new, just "an alternative to Windows" (implying that Windows is somehow the only/best operating system in existence), or that it is even an entire operating system (Linux is the kernel), I'd like to talk about a large error made by the interviewee (whose name I have sadly forgotten). In his description of Linux, he stated that Linux is free software, that the "free" meant freedom, and that the source code was available. However, he went on to say that any software for which the source code is available is "open source" and that this and "free" software mean the same thing. This is meaningless slip for some, but a huge error for those in the FSC.

For those new to the concept, free software is open source, but not all open source software is "free". I use the term free in parentheses because the idea has little to do with money and everything to do with freedom. Open source software means only that the source code for the software is available. Fully proprietary software can be open source, a quick perusal of the Linux Journal can show that. Proprietary software is that which remains the intellectual property of the company. If I write a proprietary program, it means that it is mine, all mine. I may charge you a great deal of money to use it, but you are only using it. You only buy the right to borrow proprietary software, you own nothing. Anyone who has actually read a license agreement will understand this. This copyright holds true regardless of whether or not I decide to show you how my program runs, whether or not I show you the source code. Even if I allow you to modify the program using the enclosed source code, it remains mine. If you look carefully, you will discover that some companies try to tell you that any modifications that you make belong to them as well. This is proprietary software, open source or not, and it is something that the FSM emphatically disagrees with.

Free software is quite different. If I write a program and designate it free, then I include the code (like open source), but also relinquish ownership. I designate the software as belonging to everyone. There are a number of ways to do this, but the most often used is copyleft, which is a way to use copyrighting to ensure that the software, and all of the changes and additions, will be kept free from proprietary predators.

For all those who want a more indepth explanation of what free software is about, visit the GNU project's philosophy page.

Copyright © 1999, J. W. Pennington
Published in Issue 39 of Linux Gazette, April 1999