Seven misconceptions about free software

This article is an excerpt of the book Open models published in French in 2014 and translated in 2016.

#1 “Freeware is free software”

Diagnosis: This is the most widespread misconception. Two facts seems to support it: first, most free softwares (as in free speech) are de facto free of charge, so our minds quickly jump to “free = free of charge.” Next, the English word free is ambiguous : it relates to freedom and to cost at the same time.

Reality: 99% of free software is also free of charge and 99% of free of charge software is not free software (as in free speech).

Recommendation: if the software costs nothing but is a proprietary software, say “freeware”, not free software. And take some time to donate to free software, that will make you aware of the fact that they do actually incur some costs.

#2 “Free software is copyright free”

Diagnosis: When people ask what they can do with free software, the answer is often “anything”. Since copyright is associated with what is forbidden, they conclude that free software is free of any copyright protection.

Reality: Free software is either protected by copyright or is placed in the public domain. Copyrighted free software is not without any legal protection. When publishing a possibly derived version, obligations differ based on the free license used, but obligations do exist nonetheless.

Recommendation: Never say that free software is “copyright free”, which actually doesn’t mean much. At best, it means “in the public domain”, at worst, that copyright holders implicitly allow you to do whatever you want with their work. But that remains tacit and vague. It is better to systematically avoid using this expression.

#3 “Free software is written based on an open model”

Diagnosis: In 1997, Eric S. Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and launched the open source movement the following year. The objective was to “de-ideologize” the free software movement started by Richard Stallman in 1983, which is viewed by its founder as a social movement, not a method of writing software. In 2001, the Linux kernel is already 10 years old, and Wikipedia is starting up, to later become the global success we know today. By combining the ideas of open source and crowdsourcing, a “meme” starts spreading: that of a production opened to external contributions with post-moderation, like Wikipedia. And people tend to think this model is the one in use for free softwares, which is not the case.

Reality: Free software is in many cases written by tiny communities, where the driving force is the passion of a handful of persons, rather than external contributions. In the projects where these contributions are significant, the “openness” is relative. At best, it is limited by the ones who are in charge of validating the code, at worst, it is limited by the necessity to transfer copyright to a third party (like for some GNU projects, including GNU Emacs). What is 100% “open” is the possibility to fork the project, which is to create a derived version you can manage as you like, by imposing (or removing) constraints of your choice. This misconception is not completely incorrect, but it is overly simplistic and gives too naive a view of free software

Recommendation: Practice contrasting the two following facts. Wikipedia: huge community, no pre-moderation and technically virtually impossible to fork. Free software: small communities, pre-moderation by maintainers, and permanent forking possibility.

#4 “Free software is not user friendly”

Diagnosis: This preconceived idea comes from two phenomena. The use of a Terminal, and the existence of OpenOffice. A Terminal is a space where you can interact with your computer by typing instructions instead of clicking buttons. For example, if you type “Firefox” in a Terminal, you get the same thing you get by clicking the little fox icon. OpenOffice was a software that aimed at cloning MS Office functionality. Non computer-savvy people run away when they see a Terminal for the first time, and many willing people end up pulling out their hair when they try OpenOffice instead of MS Office. The end result is that free software is deemed not user friendly.

Reality: Firefox is so user friendly that Safari, Internet Explorer and Chrome copied its functionality. Installing the free GNU/Linux operating system is so much easier than MS Windows and MacOSX, that Microsoft and Apple are doing everything they can to make sure you don’t have to choose for yourself. As an operating system, GNU/Linux is so user friendly that updates happen without making your computer unstable, thanks to a package-based system that is yet to be seen outside of the free software realm.

Recommendation: Have faith in yourself. Do not confuse aesthetics with ergonomics. Set up your computer so that it becomes your friend.

#5 “Free software was born with the Internet”

Diagnosis: The free software movement only became famous when people started to hear about open source, and open source itself happened with the Internet, Linux being the offspring of both. Free software is therefore believed to have been created around the same time.

Reality: The free software movement was born in 1983 when Richard Stallman launched a project to write a free operating system called GNU, short for “GNU is Not Unix”.. If one of your aunts was connected to the Internet back then, send me her Caramail address. One can actually say free software was de facto in existence even before 1984, wherever the code was freely available.

Google does not make us stupid, it makes us forgetful.

Recommendation: Practice remembering the pre-Internet era. That is, Google does not make us stupid, it makes us forgetful.

#6 “Free software has no viruses”

Diagnosis: One of free software’s “selling points” is that GNU/Linux systems are “safe” and that they don’t get viruses.

Reality: Viruses that affect free systems do exist. This is indeed marginal compared to the proportions it has reached on Windows, but they do exist.

Recommendation: Try to find a GNU/Linux virus and to inject it in your machine. Once you suffer from it, you may believe it does exist.

#7 “You cannot make money with free software”

Diagnosis: To receive money, somebody has to give it. Since most free software is free of charge (see misconception #1), it is unclear who would provide the money and even less evident who would receive any.

Reality: Free software would probably not exist if it was confined to non-market exchanges. Money (and lots of it) is constantly invested to write free software, with many business models in use. Maybe you are familiar with the idea of a business model for free software based on selling services… but another misconception is that no other model exists. Reality is richer then that!

Recommendation: Immerse yourself in this book!

#Bonus 1: “Free software is a guy’s thing”

For the moment, men are the ones who dominate the field of free software at a shocking level of 99%. But this will change. It has to!

#Bonus 2: “Free software can spare us the reinventing of the wheel”

Yes, theoretically. Except that in practice, reinventing the wheel is lots of fun, and quite educational. Free software believers are certainly not holding back, and this if for the better – as long as the wheel is spinning of course.

#Bonus 3: “Free software is a leftist’s thing”

If the aim of basing competition on something other than a restrictive view of intellectual property is a “leftist thing”, then yes, free software is that. If requiring companies not to use data in our computers without telling us is a “leftist’s thing”, then yes, free software is as well. If wanting governments to favor computer systems that make it technologically less accessible to the goodwill of its allies is a “leftist” thing, then yes. But, as you would suspect, it is more complicated than that. The “leftists” of the Web are also liberals, even patriots!

Translation by Wasfi Jaouad


Bastien Guerry

About Bastien Guerry

Bastien Guerry is a developer and consultant, specialist in free software and digital education issues. He has been an advocate for digital freedoms since the end of the 20th century, at time when he simultaneously discovered GNU/
Linux, the free software movement, and programming.

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