March 4, 2002

Let's stop calling it free software

Author: JT Smith

- By Robin "Roblimo"

Since I became editor in chief of, I have gotten
hundreds of emails requesting -- even demanding -- "free
support" for "free Linux," not to mention endless
complaints about how dare anyone put advertising on a "free
software site" or charge money for a Linux distribution or
how free software advocates often receive speaking fees for
talking about free software. It's time to come up with a
new name for software released under the GPL and
similar licenses.

"Software Libre" is an alternative I have seen proposed
many times, although it will probably never be acceptable
to most Americans because it sounds too much like the "Cuba
Libre!" slogan that has been used for decades by Cubans of
one political persuasion or another to boost their cause,
not to mention the fact that "Cuba Libre" is also the name
of a popular

You've got to admit, "Software Libre" would make a great
drink. Perhaps Finnish vodka (in honor of Linus Torvalds),
cranberry juice (in honor of the Free Software Foundation's
Massachusetts roots), and a squeeze of lime (because limes
are grown in many countries -- and because lime tastes good
with vodka and cranberry) served in a salt-rimmed glass (to
give the concoction a little "pucker factor" for those not
used to it).

But we'll leave the drink experimentation to "after the LUG
meeting" sessions, and get back to the business at hand,
namely giving "free software" a name that will be widely
and unambiguously accepted in places like the United States, where
we may hear truisms like, "the best things in life are
free," but we also hear, "If a deal sounds too good to be
true, it usually is."

In another column, a few weeks ago, I briefly mentioned the
idea of using the title "Public Service Software" for
programs written with the intention of helping make others'
lives better or easier. "Open Source" sounds nice, but it
describes a code licensing technicality that zooms right
over the heads of most computer users, who are more
interested in having their software work properly without a
lot of fuss than in how many eyeballs it takes to make a
bug move from the deep end of the pool to the shallow end.

Who can argue with the idea of Public Service Software? It
echoes John F. Kennedy's ringing inaugural statement, "My
fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you:
Ask what you can do for your country." It is a call to arms
in which the country named is not important, one that has
been heard by selfless coders all over the world who work
on everything from kernel development to user-level GUIs to
network administration packages for use in underfunded

Perhaps Public Service should not describe a certain type
of software license, but an intent to write and distribute
software freely to those who need it without worrying about
their ability to pay. Perhaps there should be a Public
Service Software Foundation that promotes this activity,
not only by individual programmers but by large
corporations and wealthy individuals who want to sponsor
worthy computing advances the same way they now sponsor
hospital buildings, charity fund-raisers, TV documentaries,
and race cars.

Imagine yourself immensely wealthy, wanting to do something
good for the world. Which would you rather have your name
on, Free Software or Public Service Software? Wouldn't you
love to see "The [your name here] Center for Public Service
Software Development" carved in marble over an imposing

I'm serious enough about this that I have personally
registered the domain names and I have no personal need for
these domain names, and I am far too busy to start the
Public Service Software Foundation myself.

How about you? Are you involved in writing, distributing or
advocating Free Software? Can you put either or both
of these domain names to good use? That is, use them
effectively to help boost the idea of Public Service
Software, either as a direct replacement for the confusing
"Free Software" moniker that needs endless explanation of
the difference between free speech and free beer -- and
still seems to confuse 90% of the "mainstream" people who hear it --
or as a way to get attention and support from corporate
executives and government agency managers who hear the word
"free" and instinctively wonder, "What's the catch?"

This is just a thought I'm broaching here. A raw idea. A
discussion starter. Something someone else -- like you --
can probably take a lot farther than I ever could. This
whole concept, of finding a more politically acceptable
name for "free software," is going to take a lot of
discussion -- no doubt over a Software Libre or two.

The idea of a Public
Service Software Team
was first put forth (as far as I
know) by University of Chicago Computer Science Professor
J. O'Donnell
. I have merely expanded on his original
concept a bit. Professor O'Donnell deserves most of the credit,
and IMO has "first dibs" on the Public Service Software
domain names if he wants them.


  • Migration
Click Here!