A few years ago, The Free Software Foundation wrote an article entitled "Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding". If its purpose was to get people to think outside the narrow box of preconceptions, it was very successful. Over the years, however, Richard Stallman has corrected the vocabulary of email and usenet postings with a zeal that would make my grammar school English teacher proud. This makes me think that its purpose was different. Is it orwellian GNUspeak?

Words to Avoid

Words That Are Okay to Use

Here's a list of words that the Free Software Foundation does not want you to use, even though they are perfectly acceptable English. Yes, I am indeed aware that the title of this page is "Words to Avoid". You can find them later on down the page.

The FSF does not want you to use the term "freeware" as a synonym for "free software". They claim that it has no meaning. This is wrong. Freeware is software that has no monetary cost. In the past, most freeware packages were distributed without source code. But this does not negate the fact that freeware can also be Free Software.

The FSF will not admit it, but virtually all of Free Software is indeed "freeware". Even though most Free Software is sold, with prices ranging from a couple of dollars for a Linux distribution, to thousands of dollars for the complete set of GNU programs, they can still be had for no cost! Simply go to the appropriate FTP site and download to your heart's content. Or copy it off of your friend's CD-ROM.

When someone asks you whether your Linux operating system is freeware, answer truthfully and say "Yes, it is freeware. It is also Free Software, which means that there are no restrictions against copying, modifying and distributing it."

Intellectual Property
There are many kinds of intellectual property. They include copyrights, patents and trademarks. The Free Software Foundation is very opposed to copyrights and patents for software, but are perfectly happy with trademarks. I don't want to get into the issue of whether copyrights and patents are good or bad right now, because it doesn't matter. The FSF is opposed to the term "intellectual property" because it makes people think of material property. This is nonsense. The word "intellectual" is used as a prefix to "intellectual property" precisely to distinguish it from material or real property.

Another reason the FSF doesn't like this term is because there are some types of intellectual property that they don't have any problems with, such as patents for mechanical inventions and trademarks. They want you to be opposed to software patents and copyrights, not intellectual property per se. If you were against intellectual property then you would be against something that they agree with.

Intellectual property is the legal definition for the ownership of information. If you do not believe that people should own information, then you must be against all forms of intellectual property. On the other hand, if you believe that some forms of information can be rightfully owned, then consistancy demands that you support all forms of intellectual property, even though you might see a need for reform in certain areas of I.P. law.

Open Source
The FSF has always maintained that the "free" in "Free Software" is ambiguous. It can be misunderstood as "free from cost" or "free from coercion". Then some people got together and came up with a term for Free Software that was unambiguous and more precise in meaning: "Open Source Software". But by that time the FSF had grown comfortable with people mistaking Free Software for software that would liberate them from unjust domination. They seemed to desire that coterie of sycophants who hung on their every pronouncement.

They claim that "Open Source" emphasizes quality over freedom and profits over principle. But the freedoms and principles that the FSF wants emphasized are misdefined. The freedom they emphasize is freedom from domination, but there is no domination in using non-free software. And they've twisted the principle of sharing so much that their own GNU licenses are the most restrictive of all the Free Software licenses.

Software piracy is the illegal copying of software against its copyright. That piracy can also mean kidnapping and murder on the high seas is beside the point. The FSF prefers the "positive" term of "sharing information with your neighbor."

The fact that the FSF almost, but not quite, tells us that it's okay to steal software is very telling. There is a great tradition of civil disobedience in the US. I have no problem with the FSF engaging in software piracy as a means to protest copyright laws as long as they are willing to accept the consequences of their actions if they do. But I do have problems with them on one minor and one major points. My minor disagreement is that they seem to be encouraging this type of activity amongst others without letting them know the ramifications of it. One must take great care in when encouraging others to break existing laws. The FSF did not do so.

My major disagreement with this is that it is hypocritical. The FSF seems to think that it's okay to infringe upon someone else's copyright. But what would they think if someone infringed upon theirs? They have been very strident in the past about infringements of the GPL. As a hypothetical situation, what if someone took some of the emacs code and used it in a proprietary program? You can rest assured that the FSF would pursue legal action.

If the FSF wishes people to honor their copyrights, then they should encourage people to honor the copyrights of others.

Some pundits have called Free Software "communistic". Communism is a very pejoritive word, and it's no wonder that Richard Stallman gets upset with this insult.

However, the goals of the Free Software Foundation are still socialism, just not the violent and dictatorial kind like the Third International. They believe that software should not be owned, but held in common by all. Their own "copylefted" licenses attempt to circumvent existing copyright laws. Richard Stallman doesn't even consider himself to be the owner of emacs, gcc or bash, but rather their custodian. If this isn't socialism, then what is?

The rest of the Free Software community, by and large, accepts the capitalistic tenet of property ownership. But socialism is is nothing for the FSF to be ashamed of, even for the most ardent admirer of the free enterprise system. The software socialism that the FSF desires is a voluntary socialism. They do not want it to come about through political revolution or through a creeping statism. This kind of socialism is known as "anarcho-socialism". As long as it is voluntary, without coercion, then there is no moral problem with it 1. It may be economically unviable, but it's the right of the FSF to find that out on their own.

Words That You Should Avoid

Here's a list of words that the Free Software Foundation wants you to use, even though they are erroneous.

The FSF does not believe that people should be able to own software. But they have a quandary. Software that is owned by no one is in the public domain, and anyone at all can come along and use it, possibly in ways that the FSF would not approve of. So they invented a scheme whereby GNU software would always be free, no matter what. The heart of this scheme is a license that demands that all future instances of the source code, and even other code that comes in contact with the original, retain the exact same license. Along with these restrictions, they gave the software users numerous permissions.

Have you noticed anything wrong with this scheme yet? That's right, in order to ensure that their software would have no owners, the FSF must copyright and own their software! But the FSF does not call this ownership "copyright". Instead they prefer and promote the term "copyleft". The FSF will patiently explain that their software is not really copyrighted, but copylefted instead. Press them further, and they will explain that they are not really the owners, but custodians on behalf of humanity.

This is owellian GNUspeak! They either own their software or they do not. But think on this: if there were no copyright laws then there would be nothing to stop people taking GNU software closed source. If this is okay for them in a copyright-less world, then why isn't it okay in the here and now? Be honest in your language. If it's a copyright then call it a copyright.

Say "guh-new-linn-ucks" ten times real fast. After you manage to get your tongue out of its knot, ask yourself why anyone would prefer a word like "GNU/Linux" 2. The Free Software Foundation would prefer that you use "GNU/Linux" when you speak of the Linux operating system.

First, a bit of history. Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project in order to create a 100% free operating system, called GNU. He came up with a list of software that an operating system would need, stuff like a kernel, a shell, a compiler, etc. He wrote many programs for GNU, and literally hundreds of other people wrote other programs. Richard also borrowed software from other projects like BSD and X. Soon they had everything they needed except a kernel, the heart of the operating system. Across the Atlantic, Linus Torvalds created a kernel for his own project. This was the only usable free kernel in existance at the time, so it was not long before nearly the entire canon of Free Software was ported to work with it 3. When someone finally came along and gathered all of this stuff together into a software distribution, he decided to call the whole kit-and-kaboodle "Linux", and the name stuck.

A few years later, Richard Stallman suddenly started insisting that people call the popular Linux distributions by the name of "GNU/Linux". To paraphrase his argument for this, he claims that since it was GNU that first set out to create a free operating system, and since the list of packages included with most Linux distributions matches the list he keeps of which programs are part of GNU, that therefore the Linux operating system is really the GNU System. This argument misses two key points. First of all, the Linux kernel was not added to a GNU operating system. Rather, GNU programs, along with programs from other projects, were ported to work with Linux, and not the other way around. Second, the people who create Linux distributions do not use the FSF list of GNU components to decide what will be included. Instead, the distribution creators themselves decide which utilities and applications will be a part of their offering, and the majority of those components are not on the FSF list.

Please call your operating system by the name it was given from the people who developed it. In the case of Debian, this is "GNU/Linux". All other operating systems using the Linux kernel are called "Linux". If you wish to be precise, and avoid confusion between the name of the kernel and the name of the operating system, then call it by the distribution name, whether that be "Redhat Linux", "SuSE Linux", "Mandrake Linux", or something else.

I have a longer essay on this topic at "By Any Other Name".


  1. I'm ignoring the fact that the GNU Manifesto proposes a "software tax" as a method of funding Free Software development. I'm giving Richard Stallman the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he has come to his senses since it was written in 1985.
  2. It could be worse, it could be LiGnuX!
  3. It's interesting to note that the GNU Project, which needed a kernel, never took advantage of Linux.