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Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding

 [image of a Philosophical Gnu]

There are a number of words and phrases which we recommend avoiding, or avoiding in certain contexts and usages. The reason is either that they are ambiguous, or that they imply an opinion that we hope you may not entirely agree with.

Other Texts to Read | "BSD-style" | "Closed" | "Commercial" | "Consumer" | "Content" | "Creator" | "Digital Rights Management" | "For free" | "Freeware" | "Give away software" | "Intellectual property" | "Market" | "Open" | "Piracy" | "Protection" | "RAND" | "Sell software" | "Software Industry" | "Theft" | "Vendor" | Other Texts to Read

Also note Categories of Free Software.


The expression "BSD-style license" leads to confusion because it lumps together licenses that have important differences. For instance, the original BSD license with the advertising clause is incompatible with the GNU GPL, but the revised BSD license is compatible with the GPL.

To avoid confusion, it is best to name the specific license in question and avoid the vague term "BSD-style."


Describing non-free software as "closed" clearly refers to the term "open source". In the Free Software Movement, we want to avoid being confused with the more recent Open Source Movement, so we are careful to avoid usage that would encourage people to lump us in with them. Therefore, we avoid describing non-free software as "closed". We call it "non-free" or "proprietary".


Please don't use "commercial" as a synonym for "non-free." That confuses two entirely different issues.

A program is commercial if it is developed as a business activity. A commercial program can be free or non-free, depending on its license. Likewise, a program developed by a school or an individual can be free or non-free, depending on its license. The two questions, what sort of entity developed the program and what freedom its users have, are independent.

In the first decade of the Free Software Movement, free software packages were almost always noncommercial; the components of the GNU/Linux operating system were developed by individuals or by nonprofit organizations such as the FSF and universities. Later, in the 90s, free commercial software started to appear.

Free commercial software is a contribution to our community, so we should encourage it. But people who think that "commercial" means "non-free" will tend to think that the "free commercial" combination is self-contradictory, and dismiss the possibility. Let's be careful not to use the word "commercial" in that way.


The term "consumer", when used to refer to computer users, carries unfortunate assumptions.

Economic theory uses the terms "producer" and "consumer". In that context these words are appropriate. But describing the users of software as "consumers" presumes a narrow role for them. It treats them like cattle that passively graze on what others make available to them.

This kind of thinking leads to travesties like the CBDTPA "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act" which would require copying restriction facilities in every digital device. If all the users do is "consume", then why should they mind?

The narrow economic vision of users as "consumers" tends to go hand in hand with the idea that published works are "content".

To describe people who are not limited to passive consumption on their computers, we suggest terms such as "individuals" and "citizens".


If you want to describe a feeling of comfort and satisfaction, by all means say you are "content", but using it as a noun to describe written and other works of authorship is worth avoiding. That usage adopts a specific attitude towards those works: that they are an interchangeable commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money. In effect, it treats the works themselves with disrespect.

Those who use this term are often the publishers that push for increased copyright power in the name of the authors ("creators", as they say) of the works. The term "content" reveals what they really feel.

As long as other people use the term "content provider", political dissidents can well call themselves "malcontent providers".


The term "creator" as applied to authors implicitly compares them to a deity ("the creator"). The term is used by publishers to elevate the authors' moral stature above that of ordinary people, to justify increased copyright power that the publishers can exercise in the name of the authors. We recommend saying "author" instead. However, in many cases "copyright holder" is what you really mean.

"Digital Rights Management"

"Digital Rights Management" software is actually designed to impose restrictions on computer users. The use of the word "rights" in this term is propaganda, designed to lead you unawares into seeing the issue from the viewpoint of the few that impose the restrictions, while ignoring that of the many on whom the restrictions are imposed.

Good alternatives include "Digital Restrictions Management" and "handcuffware."

"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 copies are often available for free--for example, by downloading via FTP. But free software copies are also available for a price on CD-ROMs; meanwhile, proprietary software copies are occasionally available for free in promotions, and some proprietary packages are normally available at no charge to certain users.

To avoid confusion, you can say that the program is available "as free software."


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 particular agreed-on definition.

Also, if you use other languages than English, please try to avoid borrowing English terms such as "free software" or "freeware." It is better to translate the term "free software" into your language.

By using a word in your own language, you show that you are really referring to freedom and not just parroting some mysterious foreign marketing concept. The reference to freedom may at first seem strange or disturbing to your compatriots, but once they see that it means exactly what it says, they will really understand what the issue is.

"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. One way to avoid the confusion is to say "release as free software."

"Intellectual property"

Publishers and lawyers like to describe copyright as "intellectual property"---a term that also includes patents, trademarks, and other more obscure areas of law. These laws have so little in common, and differ so much, that it is ill-advised to generalize about them. It is best to talk specifically about "copyright," or about "patents," or about "trademarks."

The term "intellectual property" carries a hidden assumption---that the way to think about all these disparate issues is based on an analogy with physical objects, and our ideas of physical property.

When it comes to copying, this analogy disregards the crucial difference between material objects and information: information can be copied and shared almost effortlessly, while material objects can't be.

To avoid the bias and confusion of this term, it is best to make a firm decision not to speak or even think in terms of "intellectual property".

The hypocrisy of calling these powers "rights" is starting to make WIPO embarassed.


It is misleading to describe the users of free software, or the software users in general, as a ``market''.

This is not to say we're against markets. If you have a free software support business, then you have clients, and you trade with them in a market. As long as you respect their freedom, we wish you success in your market.

But the free software movement is a social movement, not a business, and the success it aims for is not a market success. We are trying to serve the public by giving it freedom--not competing to take them away from a rival. To equate this campaign for freedom to a business' campaign for mere success is to diminish the significance of freedom.


Please avoid using the word "open" as a substitute for "free software". A different group, whose values are less idealistic than ours, uses "open source" as its slogan. If you are referring to them, it is proper to use their name, but please don't lump us in with them or describe our work by their label---that leads people to think we are their supporters.


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, kidnapping and murdering the people on them.

If you don't believe that illegal copying is just like kidnapping and murder, you might prefer not to use the word "piracy" to describe it. Neutral terms such as "prohibited copying" or "unauthorized 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."

If you want to criticize copyright instead of supporting it, you can use the term "copyright restrictions." So you can say, "Copyright restrictions last a very long time."

"RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory)"

Standards bodies that promulgate patent-restricted standards that prohibit free software typically have a policy of obtaining patent licenses that require a fixed fee per copy of a conforming program. They often refer to such licenses by the term "RAND," which stands for "reasonable and non-discriminatory."

That term white-washes a class of patent licenses that are normally neither reasonable nor non-discriminatory. It is true that these licenses do not discriminate against any specific person, but they do discriminate against the free software community, and that makes them unreasonable. Thus, half of "RAND" is deceptive and the other half is prejudiced.

Standards bodies should recognize that these licenses are discriminatory, and drop the use of the term "reasonable and non-discriminatory" or "RAND" to describe them. Until they do so, other writers who do not wish to join in the white-washing would do well to reject that term. To accept and use it merely because patent-wielding companies have made it widespread is to let those companies dictate the views you express.

We suggest the term "uniform fee only," or "UFO" for short, as a replacement. It is accurate because the only condition in these licenses is a uniform royalty fee.

"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.

"Software Industry"

The term "software industry" encourages people to imagine that software is always developed by a sort of factory and then delivered to consumers. The free software community shows this is not the case. Software businesses exist, and various businesses develop free and/or non-free software, but those that develop free software are not like factories.

The term "industry" is being used as propaganda by advocates of software patents. They call software development "industry" and then try to argue that this means it should be subject to patent monopolies. The European Parliament, rejecting software patents in 2003, voted to define "industry" as "automated production of material goods".


Copyright apologists often 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 apologists are making an appeal to authority...and misrepresenting what authority says.

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 down.


Please don't use the term "vendor" to refer generally to the developer of a software package. Many programs are developed in order to sell copies, and their developers truly are vendors; this even includes some free software packages. However, many programs are developed by individual volunteers, or by organizations, which do not intend to sell copies. Their developers are not vendors. Likewise, only some of the developers of GNU/Linux distributions are vendors.

Also note Categories of Free Software.

This essay is published in Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.

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