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*Software Secrets: Do They Help or Hurt?

*Why "Free Software" Is Too Ambiguous

*Shared Source: A Dangerous Virus

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?

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 more.
  • 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".

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