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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Libertyware

I love words.  In another life, I could imagine myself as a philologist, linguist or lexicographer.  In this life, for better or worse, I became a software engineer and manager thereof.

 

Software has always had its own jargon and vocabulary used by people in and around the biz and universities.  Many of these have even leaked into the mainstream.  With the explosive growth of the Internet, people who ten years ago had no computing skills frequently use words like “spam,” “bug,” “blue screen,” “crash,” “interface,” “CPU” and so on.

 

Recently, I have dedicated nearly all of my time to working on access technology programs that fall into the category known as “free software” by some, “open source” by others and a few other terms used by different groups of people to try to describe the licensing schemes applied to different software.

 

Richard Stallman, the individual who most credit with coining the term, “free software,” and the somewhat more descriptive, “free as in freedom” and I have discussed finding a term that can distinguish between these different licensing schemes and declare accurately which are “free as in freedom.”  The word I suggested, libertyware, seems to contain the concept very well.

 

The word “free” can mean a number of different things when applied to software.  One may think it means without monetary cost or gratis which is clearly a legitimate definition.  Free might also mean “without restriction” which would include all of the software that is covered by GPL and some other libertyware licenses.  In the access technology field, we have an additional monkey wrench tossed into the vocabulary gears as, in the world of technology for people with vision impairment, the largest company,  the one that sells JAWS, the most widely used software in this particular market niche is called Freedom and is spelled with a capital “F” as it is a proper noun

 

Deconstructing the vocabulary of how the words “free” and “freedom” apply to software in our field led me to inventing the term libertyware as all of the possible combinations and, therefore, definitions can get very confusing and result in highly ambiguous statements which the author thought held a level of precision far greater than readers who come from different backgrounds might think.

 

To wit:  “free software” as in software that carries GPL affords the right to sell the software as long as the same liberty is passed to everyone else who can decide to sell it or give it away for free.  The many GNU/Linux distributions that are sold for a price remain free software as one who pays for it can give it away without cost, has the source code and can take the liberty to make changes (as long as they provide their altered  source code under the same license).  Stallman referred to this as “free as in freedom” which causes a problem for screen reader users as, by default, no screen reader will announce whether a word is capitalized or not so a layer of ambiguity is added to the word “freedom” as one can be left wondering whether the author meant freedom in the liberty sense of the word or if they mean Freedom as in Freedom Scientific, which led me to start describing such software as “free as in freedom with a lower case f” which is cumbersome and meaningless to anyone who is unaware of FS, JAWS and access technology in general.  Hence, libertyware.

 

The rats nest of definitions and terminology that surrounds the different licensing schemes outside of access technology and our added issue of distinguishing between software from FS and “free” software whether gratis or with the liberties afforded by the GPL and other similar licenses is difficult for all but the serious students of such who study the rather dry prose in these agreements and learn the details, nuanced as they may be, that distinguish one license from another.

 

For instance, the term “freeware” is often applied to software given away without cost but also without source code thus restricting the user’s ability to enhance, fix bugs or learn from the techniques used by the programmer who wrote it.  This is often referred to as “free as in free beer.”

 

Some software, typically found in third party libraries that developers use to perform some tasks where they have learned that it will be cheaper to buy than build include source code which, in a narrow definition of the term, can be called “open source.”  The people who buy the library do not, however, have the liberty to share the source code with others so a program can be open source without being free (in the sense of beer, in the sense of liberty or from Freedom Scientific).

 

Other programs can include source code, hence be open source, but not be libertyware as their license will include restrictions on how the software can be distributed and, in some cases, will permit the developers using the code to leave their changes out of future distributions and not, therefore, contribute to the community that built the source code upon which some of their program is based.  I’m not sure if such licensing schemes has a term to describe it.

 

So, for the purposes of this paragraph all uses of “free” is in the sense of as in freedom with a lower case f, we can have free software that is not open source, open source programs that are not free and software that is partially free.

 

I’m confident that if Stallman was here with me, we could think up a whole lot more complications that surround the terms “free” and “open source” so, today, (after bouncing the idea off of rms and receiving his blessing) I offer the word libertyware to mean software without restrictions, software covered by GPL and similar licenses like Mozilla and Apache.

 

Now, I guess I should go over to wikipedia and add the word there and hope it catches on as I’ve always wanted to be credited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the inventor of a word.

 

-- End  

2 Comments:

Blogger DaveP said...

Christine Peterson at the OSCON conference 2008, used a term for the opposite of free. The phrase I liked was 'no secret software for public data'.

Doesn't help you with defining free, but secret software captures, for me, the idea of the opposite of free, quite nicely.

regards Dave P

2:04 AM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy Comrades!
I don't get this, BC. My impression is that one buys liberty wear from places like Abercrombie and Fitch or Victoria's Secrets. I heard your buddies at MIT are developing smart clothes, but these liberty wear clothes have very little fabric to work with. Maybe you could fit a couple of quantum dots on the swim suits, but that's about it. Hang on; I am getting a call from the Comrade Mother. Oh hell! She suggested I should check the spelling of liberty ware, and I apologize for my confusion. The CM said my mind is always in the gutter. Never mind!
Regards,
Chairman Mal
Power to the Peeps!
PS: I hope Liberty Ware will catch on with those witchapedia folks. If not, the Comrade Mother will put a hex on them.

11:16 AM  

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