Why `Free Software' Is Too Ambiguous

What Does `free' Mean, Anyway?

Some software is called `free' because it costs no money to download or use - but source code is not available. The license that covers Microsoft Internet Explorer is a good example.

Some software is called `free' because it (and the source code for it) has been placed in the "public domain", free from copyright restrictions.

A lot of software is called `free' even though the source code for it is covered by copyright and a license agreement. The license usually includes a disclaimer of reliability, and may contain additional restrictions.

The restrictions on non-public-domain `free' software range from mild to severe. Some licenses may prohibit (or require a fee for) commercial use or redistribution. Some licenses may prohibit distributing modified versions. Some licenses may contain "copyleft" restrictions requiring that the source code must always be made available, and that derived products must be released under the exact same license. Some licenses may discriminate against individuals or groups.

And Who Does It Mean It To?

Many different groups or people use different definitions of what constitutes `free software'.

As a result, communication is hampered due to arguments over whether a particular piece of software is `free' or not. This is bad enough when the argument is between people who basically agree that source should be available, but it could get worse.

If the `free software' label were ever to catch on in the corporate world, it all would be all too easy to imagine Microsoft claiming Internet Explorer is `free software' because its cost is zero dollars. Would we really want that?

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