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"?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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.