It's All The Same Kind Of Free To Us

Over the weekend I got into a heated discussion sparked by some of the things I'd asserted in a <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2009/09/gpl_vs_fsf.html" target="_blank">previous column</a> about open source vs. free software. Out of that discussion came another, similar idea: Most people don't distinguish between kinds of free, and maybe it's unfair to expect them to.</p>

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

October 5, 2009

2 Min Read

Over the weekend I got into a heated discussion sparked by some of the things I'd asserted in a previous column about open source vs. free software. Out of that discussion came another, similar idea: Most people don't distinguish between kinds of free, and maybe it's unfair to expect them to.

In the software world, there's two kinds of free -- what the free software / open source folks have labeled "free as in speech" and "free as in beer", a formulation that always makes me cringe when I hear it. The first means that the software is yours to transform and build upon according to the rules provided to you with it. The second means you can run it without paying for it, but only as-is.

To the people who make those distinctions, this difference means everything. To the rest of us, not so much. To many of us, nothing whatsoever.

The reason is simple enough. Most of us see software as a tool for a job, a way to get things done. It's not the end product of a manifesto. The best tool for the job wins. Granted, if you're broke and you have no money at all, then it may well be a free tool -- but if you've got money to spend, you can afford to choose more broadly.

The part that really set off the argument was, how much effort is worth putting into educating people about the two kinds of free? I used to be a good deal more idealistic about such things, I admitted, but now I'm a pragmatist. Mention the difference, and if people express natural curiosity about the differences, then educate them. Otherwise, leave 'em alone. Let 'em get their work done. It's not worth dragging them into something that is really not their fight in the first place.

The other guy was of the opinion that if they use software or computers at all, it is their fight. I couldn't agree with that. It conflates too many issues at once, and makes every act of computer use into a political act -- even the ones where nobody except you is involved.

The best way to make the speech-kind-of-free a compelling argument is not to talk about it until you're blue in the face. It's to put out software licensed with it that's better than anything else out there.

That's mission enough all by itself.

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Serdar Yegulalp

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