"Free" as in "unfettered"

Unix fits the smart display approach best because it was developed from the ground up to fit the same ideas
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor
Jorwell's comment yesterday:
I still don't see what Unix has to do with it

Given that many mini manufacturers were already delivering exactly what you describe back in the eighties (including the smart terminals) I cannot for the life of me see what the operating system has to do with anything.

was interesting. I've used several of those same mini-computer systems, but they were all highly restrictive and completely locked down. Sure DG's CEO product let user's communicate while doing most office jobs, but that was the exception - Digital's "Gold Key", for example, was never much more than a marketing slogan and you couldn't get inside anything from IBM, Wang, Prime, or any of a dozen others to get them to do something both worthwhile and not in the manuals.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to create organizational backbone commnities using non Unix technologies, including Microsoft's client-server ones. It's just very frustrating, very difficult, and very expensive - a lot like using an RV as a sports car or like writing romantic poetry in German without becoming maudlin: not impossible, just absurdly compromised from the gitgo.

The underlying reality is simply that Unix fits the smart display approach best because it was developed from the ground up to fit the same ideas - remember the first versions were developed and funded over management protests and the occasional imposition of commercial management ideas at proprietory vendors like NCR, HP, and IBM have affected development rates and choices much more than they have basic structure and community ideas.

GNU, for example, both in its development and in its current state nicely reflects this reality - and bear in mind that what we think of as Linux is largely a Linux kernel with the same GNU shells and GNU utilities available on nearly every other Unix.

Thus Richard Stallman's brief history of GNU starts from the community he found in place when he arrived at MIT in 1971 and goes on from there to describe the rest of his career, and thus GNU, as an evolving commitment to defending and growing that community.

That's where the "free as in freedom" description of software access as a natural community right comes from - and ultimately why GNU fit so well with Unix because of course the original Unix developers were pursuing many of the same ideas.

Consider, for example, these two two critical bits: from Stallman's history:

Free as in freedom

The term "free software" is sometimes misunderstood--it has nothing to do with price. It is about freedom. Here, therefore, is the definition of free software: a program is free software, for you, a particular user, if:

  • You have the freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • You have the freedom to modify the program to suit your needs. (To make this freedom effective in practice, you must have access to the source code, since making changes in a program without having the source code is exceedingly difficult.)
  • You have the freedom to redistribute copies, either gratis or for a fee.
  • You have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from your improvements.

Since "free" refers to freedom, not to price, there is no contradiction between selling copies and free software. In fact, the freedom to sell copies is crucial: collections of free software sold on CD-ROMs are important for the community, and selling them is an important way to raise funds for free software development. Therefore, a program which people are not free to include on these collections is not free software.

Because of the ambiguity of "free", people have long looked for alternatives, but no one has found a suitable alternative. The English Language has more words and nuances than any other, but it lacks a simple, unambiguous, word that means "free," as in freedom--"unfettered," being the word that comes closest in meaning. Such alternatives as "liberated", "freedom," and "open" have either the wrong meaning or some other disadvantage.


"Free software" and "open source" describe the same category of software, more or less, but say different things about the software, and about values. The GNU Project continues to use the term "free software", to express the idea that freedom, not just technology, is important.

To me, this is a very clear statement of one facet of what's intended - and one that fits with ideas about community and freedom expressed by Ritchie, Kernighan, and many other Unix luminaries going back at least to Corbat and Vyssotsky's early 60s musings on what became the Multics project - and thus ultimately gave rise to Unix.

It's that consistency of ideas which makes Unix -and whether that's Solaris, Linux, or BSD to you doesn't much matter- the right tool for the job: not the only possible tool, but the right tool.

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