t byfield on Wed, 6 May 1998 06:30:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Confusing words and phrases

[This was adapted for email (web-page repetitions, URLs inserted)
 from <http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html>. While
 many of the specific legal references are based on US law, it's
 worth noting that many US-centered "multinationals" are playing
 a game of three-card monte with the people around the world--by
 exploiting their influence on first-world governments to expand
 and impose hegemonic trans-national regulations on less-develop-
 ed countries, all the while shouting about how "global" markets
 are profoundly changing society. "Free" or "open source" theory
 may be trendy these days, but it neverthless offers a very wide
 range of critiques--some flakey, some fierce--of "corporate" ef-
 forts to lay claim to the financial profits that derive from hu-
 man efforts of every kind. So, however trendy it may be and how-
 ever US-centric it may be, these ideas are quite important. --T]
Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding

There are a number of words and phrases which we
recommend avoiding, either because they are ambiguous
or because they imply an opinion that we hope you may
not entirely agree with.
Also note Categories of Free Software (18k characters).

"For free"

If you want to say that a program is free software,
please don't say that it is available "for free."
That term specifically means "for zero price." Free
software is a matter of freedom, not price.

Free software is often available for free--for example,
on many FTP servers. But free software copies are also
available for a price on CD-ROMs, and proprietary
software copies may occasionally be available for free.


Please don't use the term "freeware" as a synonym for
"free software." The term "freeware" was used often
in the 1980s for programs released only as executables,
with source code not available. Today it has no clear

"Give away software"

It's misleading to use the term "give away" to mean
"distribute a program as free software." It has the
same problem as "for free": it implies the issue is
price, not freedom.

"Intellectual property"

Publishers and lawyers like to describe copyright as
"intellectual property." This term carries a hidden
assumption---that the most natural way to think about
the issue of copying is based on an analogy with
physical objects, and our ideas of them as property.

But this analogy overlooks the crucial difference
between material objects and information: information
can be copied and shared almost effortlessly, while
material objects can't be. Basing your thinking on this
analogy is tantamount to ignoring that difference.

Even the US legal system does not entirely accept this
analogy, since it does not treat copyrights just like
physical object property rights.

If you don't want to limit yourself to this way of
thinking, it is best to avoid using the term
"intellectual property" in your words and thoughts.


Publishers often refer to prohibited copying as
"piracy." In this way, they imply that illegal
copying is ethically equivalent to attacking ships on
the high seas, kidnaping and murdering the people on

If you don't believe that illegal copying is just like
kidnaping and murder, you might prefer not to use the
word "piracy" to describe it. Neutral terms such as
"prohibited copying" or "illegal copying" are
available for use instead. Some of us might even prefer
to use a positive term such as "sharing information
with your neighbor."


Publishers' lawyers love to use the term "protection"
to describe copyright. This word carries the
implication of preventing destruction or suffering;
therefore, it encourages people to identify with the
owner and publisher who benefit from copyright, rather
than with the users who are restricted by it.

It is easy to avoid "protection" and use neutral
terms instead. For example, instead of "Copyright
protection lasts a very long time," you can say,
"Copyright lasts a very long time."

"Sell software"

The term "sell software" is ambiguous. Strictly
speaking, exchanging a copy of a free program for a sum
of money is "selling"; but people usually associate
the term "sell" with proprietary restrictions on the
subsequent use of the software. You can be more
precise, and prevent confusion, by saying either
"distributing copies of a program for a fee" or
"imposing proprietary restrictions on the use of a
program," depending on what you mean.

See Selling Free Software for more discussion of this
issue. <URL below>


Copyright apologists often to use words like "stolen"
and "theft" to describe copyright infringement. At
the same time, they ask us to treat the legal system as
an authority on ethics: if copying is forbidden, it
must be wrong.

So it is pertinent to mention that the legal system--at
least in the US--rejects the idea that copyright
infringement is "theft". Copyright advocates who use
terms like "stolen" are misrepresenting the authority
that they appeal to.

The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is
mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an
attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define
justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside


Other Texts to Read

This first group of articles directly address the
philosophy of the GNU
project and free software:

   * What is Free Software?
   * Why Software Should Not Have Owners
   * Selling Free Software Can Be Ok!
   * Categories of Free Software (18k characters)
   * Free software is more reliable!
   * What is the Free Software Foundation?
   * What is Copyleft?
   * History of the GNU Project
   * The GNU Manifesto (31k characters)
   * Why there are no GIF files on GNU web pages

This second group of articles deal with related topics
but are not directly about the GNU project:

   * How to Protect the Right to Write Software
     (independent of whether it's free or not)
   * Where the Copyright System and Government Plans
     are Leading Us
   * The Right Way to Tax DAT (22k characters)
   * Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator
   * A speech that Richard Stallman gave in 1986 at the
     Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden
   * How to Protect the Freedoms of Speech, Press, and
         Association on the Internet

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