Words to avoid when talking about free software (I – General)

The Free Software Foundation has an interesting list about words to avoid or use with care when we talk about free software. It’s quite large, including legal terms, economic, and other type of words. They recommend not to use them because they are confusing or ambiguous. They explain their reasons for not using that words. I will try to summarize the most interesting ones from my point of view, grouping them by topic; I will begin with the “general” words: open/close (for software), ecosystem (for communities), for free/give away/freely available/freeware, hacker, photoshop and powerpoint.

In some of them, I comment my experiences of changing this small piece of language. I always believed that language refers to a particular point of view of the world, and it is important to care and to choose very well the words that we use.

“Open”, “Closed” software

The Free Software Foundation recommends to use “free software” for software that respects your freedom and “propietary” or “non free” for the rest, instead of “open” and “closed” because this words refer to the term “open source” and they don’t want to mix themselves with the “open source camp”; they argue that free software is a political movement and open source is a development model.

My comments: I used to say the words “open” and “close” and later I realised that my friends (non computer-related profession) did not understand anything from that (neither did not ask). Later I began to use “free software” (software libre in Spanish) and “non-free software” (software no libre in Spanish) and they began to ask, not about the terms, because they understand them better, but about the reasons for using one or another. So I think it is an interesting change. Also I use the word “software privativo” in Spanish to refer to non-free (because it deprives you of freedom) and I realised that people catches the idea very well.


They don’t like this word for referring to human communities, because that word implies the absence of ethical judgment (don’t ask how what should happen, just study and explain what does happen).

“For free”, “give away”, “freely available”, “freeware” as synonyms of “free software”

“For free” or “give away software” specifically means “for zero price”. “Freely available” means that is easy to get a copy. “Freeware” has no clear definition. None of these terms remind us that free software is a matter of freedom.


A hacker is someone who enjoys playful cleverness—not necessarily with computers. People who break security are “crackers.”

My comments: I think mass communication media has many to do with this. It is very sad that when you find an article about computing in the general media, generally it is full of miss-understood words, hacker is one of them. On the other hand, it is funny to note that in Spain when somebody does his/her job very well, is really a master, enjoys it and tries to make it enjoyable, we call him/her “a crack”!

LAMP system, Linux system

They remind us that Linux is the kernel but the operating system is GNU/Linux.

Photoshop, Powerpoint

They recommend to use “image editing program” and “slide presentation” instead of that words because that words refer to a particular propietary software and there are other programs to do the same task (for example, GIMP for image manipulation and Impress for slide presentations).

My comments: When I guide my Windows users at help desk telephone,  I began to say “open your internet browser” instead of “internet explorer” and since them I realised that many people has installed free browser as Chrome or Firefox because they ask “which one?” 😉

About larjona

My name is Laura Arjona Reina, I am a libre software user and fan of the free culture. If you want to contact me you can write an email to larjona [at] larjona [dot] net I am @larjona at identi.ca in the Pump.io social network. --- Me llamo Laura Arjona Reina, soy usuaria de software libre y fan de la cultura libre. Si quieres contactar conmigo puedes escribir a larjona [en] larjona [punto] net Soy @larjona en el servidor identi.ca, de la red social Pump.io.
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