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
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
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?
The Real-World Evidence
In mid-2004, the President of OSI did a statistical Web-content analysis
on the usage frequencies of the phrases "open source" and "free software.
You can read that analysis here. A summary of the conclusions:
- Among software developers and in the technology trade press, use of the
term "open source" dominates use of the term "free software" by 95%-5% or
- On the general Web, the ratio is 80%-20% or more.
- The gratis/libre ambiguity in the term "free software" produces about
an 80% false-positive rate in Web searches.
- Use of the term "free software" is in long-term decline, and older or
obsolete pages form a larger part of its share than for "open source".
The clear message is that six more years has done nothing to resolve
the ambiguity of the phrase "free software".