My dictionary has fifteen definitions of "free", along with 36 sub-definitions. My dictionary also has two definitions for "freedom" with ten sub-definitions. What then does the "free" in "Free Software" really mean? What is the Free Software Foundation trying to tell us when they say Free Software is about "freedom"?

Software Freedom


The Free Software Foundation takes great pains to explain that Free Software is not about price or the absence of cost, but about freedom. But they do not define "freedom", taking it for granted that the reader knows exactly what they are talking about. They also bemoan the fact that English has only word for "free" whereas other languages have two; French as both "gratuit" and "libre". But again, they fail to define "free". Since "free" and "freedom" are highly emotional words, it is important that they are properly defined in relation to Free Software 1. But as I mentioned above, my dictionary has two definitions for "freedom". The first definition is "the quality or state of being free". The second definition is "a political right". There are many sub-definitions as well.

A Political Right

Let's dispose of the second definition for starters. Software, free or otherwise, is not a political right. There are two theories on the origin of political rights. The first is that they are unalienable or natural, that people are born with these rights. The second is that the government possesses all political rights, and through their benevolence, grants certain of them to the citizenry 2. Certainly, people are not born with a right to Free Software. This is as erroneous as the mythical rights to housing, employment and living wages.

Equally certain, there are no government laws giving people rights to Free Software. However, the possibility that the government could create such a right exists. The FSF likes to equate Free Software with free speech. If this is true, does Free Software qualify for a place alongside it in the US Bill of Rights? Hardly! A right to Free Software would be the antithesis of freedom. To ensure it would require the forceful disclosure of all source code, by police force if necessary.

But certain political rights do exist in reference to software. Freedom of speech is one of them. People have the right to create and distribute their own software. But just as freedom of speech guarantees one the right not to speak, it also gives proprietary software developers the right not to distribute their source code. Thus, to make Free Software a political right is to deny freedom of speech.

The Quality or State of Being Free

Now let's look at the first definition. It's kind of vague, but there are many sub-definitions. Some actually look like they fit the idea of Free Software! I'll go through them one by one 3.

Liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another.
This is usually the first definition one thinks of in connection with freedom. But it does not fit with Free Software. We may like to joke about Microserfs and slaves under the dominance of the Windows operating system, but it's just a joke. To seriously believe that Bill Gates holds power over Windows users is ludicrous. No one is forced to use proprietary software. Certainly there are limitations that one accepts in using Windows, but one still has a choice to use it or not.
The quality of being frank, open, or outspoken.
"Open Source Software" is synonymous with "Free Software. It has the distinct quality of being open. However, it still doesn't seem to fit. This definition applies to people, not software. It's a stretch to call Free Software "frank" or "outspoken."
The absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.
This is probably what the Free Software Foundation meant, but I could be wrong. Their rhetoric certainly makes me think so. Richard Stallman has written 4 "Using proprietary software makes you less free because it means you are living under domination." But again, no one is coerced into using proprietary software. No one is contrained against using Free Software. One could possibly argue that some have no choice in which software they can use at work, since their employer has already chosen for them. This argument misses an important point, namely that the employer is the licensee of the software, and he or she had a choice in its selection.

But are programmers constrained in action, or dominated, when they can't modify and distribute someone else's source code? It may be an inconvenience at times, but it's not a constraint. Arguing this would be like arguing that an artist's freedom is diminished if he or she doesn't have the right to alter another artist's masterpiece. If it's someone else's source code, they have no right to it. But the FSF argues that no one should own software, thus concluding that they should be able to treat all software as if it were in the public domain. But what do they do if public domain software is binary only? Sue the copyright holder?!? Remember that freedom of speech means freedom not to divulge source code.

The quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous.
This is similar to the above definition, but at a lesser level. Instead of coercion we have onerous situations. Is using proprietary software onerous? This is highly subjective. But it begs the point. People are already exempt from using proprietary software! Okay then, is the lack of source code onerous, especially to programmers? Again, this is highly subjective 5. I for one do not feel that the lack of Windows source code is onerous. That's because I have no desire to modify Windows source code in the first place! This could be a good definition for Free Software though, but let's continue on for something more objective.

Some people, particularly Open Source Software adherents, may be thinking of this definition when they think of software freedom. After all, "software that doesn't suck" is pretty much the same as "software that isn't onerous."

Unrestricted use.
This is the last potential definition. Does it fit Free Software? Yes and no. The answer is no because any software that is licensed, such as GNU software, is by definition, restricted. Only public domain Free Software is truly unrestricted. But the answer is also yes because unrestricted use is certainly the goal of Free Software. Free Software is much more unrestricted than proprietary software. According to the FSF, software is free if there are no restrictions on using the software, modifying the software, distributing the software or distributing modified versions of the software.

But the FSF probably doesn't like this definition. First of all, the GNU General Public License is the most restricted of all the Free Software license 6. The MIT and BSD licenses are much freer than the FSF's own licenses. Second, the FSF is a political organization. It's easier to rally around freedom from domination than it is to rally around freedom of usage.

Free to Use

Free Software is software that is free to use. You have the freedom to use it in almost any manner, including copying, redistributing and modifying it. This isn't a political freedom like free speech. It's not a freedom from coercion, domination or slavery. Your freedom comes about because someone shared their software with you. It's a shame that the Free Software Foundation attempts to make Free Software mean more than it is, because "free to use" is a very good thing all by itself.

The next time your friends asks you what Free Software is, tell them the truth. Tell them that it's software that's free to use.


  1. Because "free" has a positive emotional connotation, I prefer the term "Free Software" over "Open Source Software".
  2. There is also a third view that political rights do not exist, and that the word "rights" is merely a useful linguistic fiction.
  3. Some of the definitions do not fit at all, and it would be pointless to discuss them. They are "Ease, Facility", "Improper familiarity", and "Boldness of conception or execution".
  4. Letter to <>, October 17th, 1999, from Richard Stallman
  5. Some would argue that the restrictions in the GNU General Public License are onerous :-)
  6. A fact that the FSF will readily admit. The restrictions of the GPL are there to assure that all instances of the software, now and in the future, will also be Free Software.