Free Or Free?

Author
free::zombie
Editor
Aron Schatz
Posted
April 29, 2007
Views
17012
Free Or Free?
Free as in beer or free as in speech? Why does everything need to be so hard!? Let ASE Labs explain the difference of the two terms in a segment from our very own free::zombie.

Page 1: Free or Free

Free or Free?

You might have heard or read that Linux or Firefox is "free software". This piece of information might have been accompanied by something confusing about beer and, more importantly, a link where you can download it for free. So, what's the big deal? You get to see freeware all day, don't you? And where's that beer?

The Beer

Sorry to disappoint you, but you aren't getting no beer. Some free software may be beerware as well, but that means that you buy the author a beer and not the other way around. Either way, here goes the infamous sentence that brought the beer up in the first place:

To understand the concept, you should think of "free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer".

Now, we all love free beer for a simple reason: we can get it for free, just like Ubuntu or Firefox. However, the point is that that's beside the point. You may be able to get said software without paying, but certain freedoms that separate it from both non-free commercial and non-free ("proprietary") freeware are a lot more important.

So... What would that be then?

This is best thought of in terms of what you might want to do with the software. For example, you'll want to

USE THE PROGRAM

This is so obvious that you don't even think about it. However, non-free software may well restrict this right, and you might not even know it as you're too lazy to read the EULA. For instance, many freeware packages forbid commercial usage, and Microsoft doesn't allow you to provide commercial hosting services with Windows XP Home Edition. All this is not the case with free software, the definition of which starts with the following freedom #0: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose

SHARE IT

All your life, you have been taught to share. This fundamental part of human society is deeply engrained in education starting in nursery school and earlier. Proprietary software forces you to break from this concept: Almost all non-free software, especially the commercial sort, force everyone to get their own copy directly from the "manufacturer". The right to behave socially and share is another fundamental freedom on which free software is built. This is formalized in freedom #2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

MAKE SURE IT DOES WHAT YOU WISH

Software is never perfect. Every now and again, a security hole is found, something stops working due to an upgrade of some other piece of software or you realize that you f*ing hate that stupid paper clip. In many cases, you cannot count on the company or person that wrote the software to fix this: they may be bankrupt, fail to see the problem or have some reason to knowingly ignore the problem. You, who bought the software, are left with a worthless lump of machine code. This is clearly unacceptable and addressed in two of the four fundamental freedoms:
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

At this point, you may think "I'm not a programmer, why should I care?". It is true that non-programmers will have a hard time understanding or sensibly modifying the source code, but they may have a friend who can freely help, or they can take the liberty of paying someone to fix what the original author won't, or won't quickly enough.

And how does this work?

The internet does the magic. Almost all free software projects give you some way to report a problem, or "bug", or contact the principal author (maintainer) or all active authors collectively. This is often done via mailing lists, simple e-mails, IRC or sometimes web forums. If you are a programmer and manage to fix your problem, many an author will be delighted to incorporate your code into the official version.

Wait a moment: What happens to copyright?

Copyright law is quite definitely the most important piece of legislation for free software. In fact, it is the system with which software can be made free. All free software has some form of license which, unlike the EULAs you have scrolled over so many times, grant you the four freedoms and more. These range from relatively simple licenses like the FreeBSD license to complex so-called "copyleft" licenses like the GNU General Public License . Copyleft licenses are based on copyright law in exactly the same way, but do not only grant the rights, they force them to stay forever: In most cases, they require all changes and copies to be licensed under exactly the same terms. Thus, no company can take the code and hide the inner workings. (This does not require you to release the program to the public, but if you do, it must be equally free and copyleft)

Freedoms recap

Here are, again, the four essential freedoms, in order, so that they may not disappear under the mountain of explanation:
  • 0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
  • 1. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • 2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • 3. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

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