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"Free" as in "whatever, dude"

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Something that comes up quite frequently in the middle of software discussions is the problem of differentiating between free and non-free software.

It's a problem because most people have an opinion and dismiss everyone else's as unimportant. The difference *is* important - however, it's difficult to get the point across especially when your friends or colleagues find it irrelevant to the main argument. It's easier for them to push the point aside as if it didn't matter or to label the person bringing it up a Stallmanist Fundamentalist or something similar.

Why is it important to know the distinctions between free/open source/non-free software? Well, it's just as important as knowing what the license of your commercial software allows you to do. If you work for a software company and use a third party piece of software which is licensed for "educational or private home use" for example, then you could lose your job if you get audited. It's not trivial.

There are, of course, much better reasons for taking the time to understand than fear of reprisal. You don't chose to commit murder based on whether you think the sentences for murderers are too harsh. But let's not go there.

Free (sometimes "libre") software is defined by the Free Software Foundation. In order to be free, you must be able to (0) run it for any purpose, (1) view and change the source code however you like, (2/3) distribute copies to anyone, whether modified or not.
I hear a lot of arguments about free software which demonstrate a complete lack of understanding.

First, I hear the free-as-in-beer problem:
"Adobe Flash? I didn't pay anything for it. It's free. What are you talking about? If you paid for it, you're a fool"
Well, no, if it was free then we'd have access to the source code, and be able to compile it and run it on other operating systems. Compatible copies of Flash on Linux have a long way to go still and the official Adobe builds are binaries - so if something goes wrong with it, nobody can fix it except Adobe. And Linux is way down Adobe's list of priorities.

Second, I hear the "it means the same as open source" effort:
"It's open source, so we can do what we like with it"
No again. Microsoft could release Windows 7 as open source but leave the license restrictions in effect, if they wanted. So white-hat hackers could search the code for vulnerabilities and report them - for Microsoft employees to fix. Distributing copies you fixed yourself would still be against the law. You wouldn't be allowed to edit and recompile it to exclude the WGA stuff, for example.This is hypothetical, sure, but hopefully the point is clear.

Then I hear this:
"I didn't pay for Microsoft Office, anyway. Haven't you ever heard of torrents?"
That just makes you a thief, it doesn't further the argument at all. I still hear it crop up after I've knocked back the first two, though, almost every time.

You're not even out of the woods if you chose to use free software. It may well be fundamentally incompatible with the licenses of your other (non-free) software. If you're a developer and you install a non-free plugin to your free web framework or vice-versa, you could be starting something you really should have thought about for five minutes first.

Honestly, I don't get why this is so difficult, or so boring as to make people dismiss it in such a rush.

1 Comments On This Entry

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04 August 2010 - 11:08 AM
Nice post. Some people really can't differentiate between free and non-free, aha.
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