handyfloss

Because FLOSS is handy, isn’t it?

How (legally) strong is the word "free"?

Posted by isilanes on March 20, 2007

It seems that the answer is: a lot.

Perusing some old e-mails (I save all the e-mails I receive, except spam and stupid 2MB presentations), I found the following one, dated November 11, 2006:

Hello all,

I read in your page at:

http://www.linfo.org/index.html

That your “[…] project has the goal of providing high quality, comprehensive, accessible and free information about Linux and other free software”

How is it “free”, if the page also reads?:

“Copyright © 2004 – 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights reserved.”

Could you publish the information under a Creative Commons, or GNU Free
Documentation License? Either that, or remove the “free” part in the
paragraph above.

Yours sincerely,

Iñaki

As it follows from my e-mail, I was concerned for the use of the adjective “free” in an incorrect way. The reader might think they (of course) ignored my warning, because “free” is such a loose, multi-meaning, not-legally-binding word, much like “healthy”, “good”, “in a minute”, “you can do it yourself”, “natural”, “organic”… and all the jargon used in advertising to convey a positive look of the product, while still dodging potential sues for misguiding information.

Well, not quite. It seems that in software and information technology, “free” has a definite meaning, which linfo.org would not meet. As such, you can visit their current page, which now reads:

Welcome to The Linux Information Project (LINFO)! This project is dedicated to providing high quality, comprehensive and easily accessible information about Linux and other free software.

See any missing word? Why, the “free” is gone!

Maybe it sounds petty and nit-picking, but it isn’t. There is an increasing tendency to bastardize words like free software and the like, which I ascribe to closing the gap between “free and good” and “closed, for-profit, and evil”. Corporations have noticed how some terms are gaining progressive good reputation, like e.g. free software, and don’t want to lose terrain in the ensuing war.

This war has two fronts: first, demean everything that smells of “freedom”. For example, label “free software” products as “open souce software”. Why? Because it weakens its link with some freedom ideals, and conveys the idea that what makes that software different is simply that you can read the source code. You will also recognize bastards playing on this side because they will always refer to “free software” (software created and used with freedom) as “software that is free of cost” or “no-cost software”, or any other construction that tries to reduce all the benefits and characteristics of free software to the concept that it is free of cost, like mere freeware (read an example in a previous post[es]).

The second front is attaching the label “free” and/or “open” to any product that could conceivably (or inconceivably) bear it, much like “low-fat” would be attached to any food, be it naturally fatty or not (in which case little an achievement it would be), or even non-food (like tobacco), or “organic” to anything from food to clothes to shampoos.

In this confrontation, we start a slippery slope of giving blurry meanings to words, then end up having blurry concepts applied, like a “low-fat” super-hamburger that can single-handedly obstruct all your arteries with its cholesterol, but is called “low-fat” because it has lower fat content than another similar size burger, or a page showing information that they call “free”, but is under burdensome copyrights, that (for example) take from you the simplest right of copying the information and sharing it with others freely.

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