Christopher B. Browne's Home Page

5. Free Software

The English word "free" is unfortunately very ambiguous, which is a problem that proponents of "free software" have to wrestle with almost continually. "Free" has two main meanings, both of which can apply to "free software:"

The "catchy" way that this is often referred to is to say: " It's like 'free speech,' not 'free beer.' "

It must be noted that having complete and utter freedom is not something that is particularly tenable, at least not within the context of modern intellectual property law. The nearest thing to "utter" freedom would be to place works "in the public domain." Unfortunately, the legal consequence of placing works "in the public domain" is that someone may often pick them up and treat them as their own proprietary property, thus completely restricting access to the work.

It thus proves necessary to have some form of intellectual property license that applies some minimal set of restrictions so as to try to maximize peoples' ability to "freely" use the works.

Different people have come up with different such sets of restrictions. There is unfortunately a good deal of disagreement as to which approach is preferable. The two most common licenses for "free software" are the GNU Public License and the BSD License. There is some conflict over which is "more free."

It appears that it is appropriate to have some different arrangement for things that are read by humans as compared to things read and interpreted by computers. Neither the "laissez-faire" approach of the BSD License nor then "differently-restrictive" approach of the GPL appears to be perfectly appropriate for literature or documentation. The GNU Free Documentation License is being proposed as an alternative. The other literary license that has considerable popularity is the OpenContent License.

5.1. Literature and References

5.2. Licenses for Free Software

Note that with many of the "arguably not free" licenses, the issue is not one of what the authors of the software "owe" to the community. It is rather of what conditions are needed for developers of free software to consider the code to be "safe" to invest their time in it.

For instance, it is well and fine that Apple offers the ability to look at "Darwin" code without charge. But if their license restrictions mean that things I develop in conjunction with that code wind up not being "free" for me to use, or to pass on to others under terms I find acceptable, then I will find it unacceptable to invest my time writing code connected with Darwin.

There are some people, particularly some of the more "strident" supporters of BSD-related software, that find the restrictions of the GPL unacceptable. Their finding it unacceptable for their purposes is a reasonable preference. The "flame wars" wherein they fight with some of the insanely strident GPL supporters, who find the same restrictions acceptable, and find the restrictions involved in BSD licenses unacceptable tend to miss the point that they're not talking about global absolutes of what is, or is not, universally acceptable or unacceptable, but rather personal preferences.

5.3. Miscellaneous Information on the Use of Free Software

Contact me at