Words to Avoid (or Use with Care) Because They Are Loaded or Confusing
There are a number of words and phrases that we recommend avoiding, or
avoiding in certain contexts and usages. Some are ambiguous or
misleading; others presuppose a viewpoint that we disagree with, and
we hope you disagree with it too.
Other Texts to Read
| “Cloud Computing”
| “Creative Commons licensed”
| “Digital Goods”
| “Digital Locks”
| “Digital Rights Management”
| “For free”
| “Freely available”
| “Give away software”
| “Intellectual property”
| “LAMP system”
| “Linux system”
| “MP3 player”
| “Sell software”
| “Sharing economy”
| “Software Industry”
| “Source model”
| “Trusted Computing”
We don't describe free software as an “alternative” to
proprietary, because that word presumes all the “alternatives” are
legitimate and each additional one makes users better off. In effect,
it assumes that free software ought to coexist with software that does
not respect users' freedom.
We believe that distribution as free software is the only ethical way
to make software available for others to use. The other methods,
as a Software Substitute subjugate their users. We do not think
it is good to offer users those “alternatives” to free
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 General
Public License, but the revised BSD license is compatible with the
To avoid confusion, it is best to
name the specific license in
question and avoid the vague term “BSD-style.”
Describing nonfree software as “closed” clearly refers to
the term “open source.” In the free software movement,
we do not want to
be confused with the open source camp, so we
are careful to avoid saying things that would encourage people to lump us in
with them. For instance, we avoid describing nonfree software as
“closed.” We call it “nonfree” or
The term “cloud computing” (or
just “cloud”, in the context of
computing) is a marketing buzzword with no coherent meaning. It is
used for a range of different activities whose only common
characteristic is that they use the Internet for something beyond
transmitting files. Thus, the term spreads confusion. If you base
your thinking on it, your thinking will be confused.
When thinking about or responding to a statement someone else has made
using this term, the first step is to clarify the topic. What
scenario is the statement about? What is a good, clear term for that
scenario? Once the topic is clearly formulated, coherent discussion
One of the many meanings of “cloud computing” is storing
your data in online services. In most scenarios, that is foolish
because it exposes you to
Another meaning (which overlaps that but is not the same thing)
Service as a Software Substitute, which denies you control over
your computing. You should never use SaaSS.
Another meaning is renting a remote physical server, or virtual server.
These practices are ok under certain circumstances.
Another meaning is accessing your own server from your own mobile device.
That raises no particular ethical issues.
NIST definition of "cloud computing" mentions three scenarios that
raise different ethical issues: Software as a Service, Platform as a
Service, and Infrastructure as a Service. However, that definition
does not match the common use of “cloud computing”, since
it does not include storing data in online services. Software as a
Service as defined by NIST overlaps considerably with Service as a
Software Substitute, which mistreats the user, but the two concepts
are not equivalent.
These different computing practices don't even belong in the same
discussion. The best way to avoid the confusion the term “cloud
computing” spreads is not to use the term “cloud” in
connection with computing. Talk about the scenario you mean, and call
it by a specific term.
Curiously, Larry Ellison, a proprietary software developer,
noted the vacuity of the term “cloud computing.” He
decided to use the term anyway because, as a proprietary software
developer, he isn't motivated by the same ideals as we are.
Please don't use “commercial” as a synonym for
“nonfree.” That confuses two entirely different
A program is commercial if it is developed as a business activity. A
commercial program can be free or nonfree, depending on its manner of
distribution. Likewise, a program developed by a school or an
individual can be free or nonfree, depending on its manner of
distribution. 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 1990s, 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 “nonfree” 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.
To speak of “compensation for authors” in connection with
copyright carries the assumptions that (1) copyright exists for the
sake of authors and (2) whenever we read something, we take on a debt
to the author which we must then repay. The first assumption is
the second is outrageous.
“Compensating the rights-holders” adds a further swindle:
you're supposed to imagine that means paying the authors, and
occasionally it does, but most of the time it means a subsidy for the
same publishing companies that are pushing unjust laws on us.
“Consume” refers to what we do with food: we ingest it, and use it in
a way that uses it up. By analogy, we employ the same word to describe
using other things in a way that uses them up. However, it is
erroneous to speak of “consuming” information, music, books,
software, etc., since using them does not use them up.
Why is this perverse usage spreading? Some may feel that they
sound sophisticated using a fashionable term from economics. However,
the economics they implicitly refer to is inappropriate for the
activity in question. Others may intend to limit discussion to an
economic perspective, rejecting other perspectives such as ethical or
social — which is narrowminded.
See also the following entry.
The term “consumer,” when used to refer to the users of
computing, is loaded with assumptions we should reject. Playing a
recording, or running a program, does not consume it.
The terms “producer” and “consumer” come from
economics and its treatment of material products. Thus, using them
leads people to mistakenly apply to copiable digital data all that
they know about the economics of uncopiable material products. Of
course, this error is exactly the one proprietary software developers
want people to make.
In addition, describing the users of software as
“consumers” presumes they are limited to helplessly
selecting from whatever “products” are available in the
“market.” There is no room in this mind-set for the idea
that users can exercise control over the software they use.
The limited thinking associated with “consumers” leads to
outrages such as the CBDTPA (“Consumer Broadband and Digital
Television Promotion Act”) which proposed to
require Digital Restrictions
Management (DRM) facilities in every digital device. If all the
users do is “consume,” why should they object?
The shallow economic conception of users as “consumers” tends
to go hand in hand with the idea that published works are mere
To describe people who are not limited to passive use of works, we
suggest terms such as “individuals” and
“citizens” — not “consumers.”
The problem with the word “consumer” has
If you want to describe a feeling of comfort and satisfaction, by all
means say you are “content,” but using the word as a
noun to describe publications and works of authorship adopts an
attitude you might rather avoid: it treats them as a
commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money. In effect,
it disparages the works themselves. If you don't agree with that
attitude, you can call them “works” or “publications.”
Those who use the term “content” 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 their real attitude towards these works
and their authors.
Love's open letter to Steve Case and search for “content
provider” in that page. Alas, Ms. Love is unaware that the term
“intellectual property” is
also biased and confusing.)
However, as long as other people use the term “content
provider,” political dissidents can well call themselves
The term “content management” takes the prize for vacuity.
“Content” means “some sort of information,”
and “management” in this context means “doing
something with it.” So a “content management
system” is a system for doing something to some sort of
information. Nearly all programs fit that description.
In most cases, that term really refers to a system for updating pages
on a web site. For that, we recommend the term “web site revision
“Creative Commons licensed”
The most important licensing characteristic of a work is whether it is
free. Creative Commons publishes seven licenses; three are free
(CC BY, CC BY-SA and CC0) and the rest are nonfree. Thus, to
describe a work as “Creative Commons licensed” fails to
say whether it is free, and suggests that the question is not
important. The statement may be accurate, but the omission is
To encourage people to pay attention to the most important
distinction, always specify which Creative Commons license is
used, as in “licensed under CC BY-SA.” If you don't know
which license a certain work uses, find out and then make your
The term “creator” as applied to authors implicitly
compares them to a deity (“the creator”). The term is
used by publishers to elevate authors' moral standing above that of
ordinary people in order to justify giving them increased copyright
power, which the publishers can then exercise in their name. We
recommend saying “author” instead. However, in many cases
“copyright holder” is what you really mean. These two
terms are not equivalent: often the copyright holder is not the
The term “digital goods,” as applied to copies of works of
authorship, identifies them with physical goods—which cannot be
copied, and which therefore have to be manufactured in quantity and
sold. This metaphor encourages people to judge issues about software
or other digital works based on their views and intuitions about
physical goods. It also frames issues in terms of economics, whose
shallow and limited values don't include freedom and community.
“Digital locks” is used to refer to Digital Restrictions
Management by some who criticize it. The problem with this term is
that it fails to do justice to the badness of DRM. The people who
adopted that term did not think it through.
Locks are not necessarily oppressive or bad. You probably own several
locks, and their keys or codes as well; you may find them useful or
troublesome, but they don't oppress you, because you are in a position
to open and close them.
DRM is like a lock placed on you by someone else, who refuses to give
you the key—in other words, like handcuffs. Therefore,
the clear way to refer to them is “digital handcuffs,” not
A number of opposition campaigns have chosen the unwise term
“digital locks”; to get things back on the right track, we
must firmly insist on correcting this mistake. The FSF can support a
campaign that opposes “digital locks” if we agree on the
substance; however, when we state our support, we conspicuously
replace the term with “digital handcuffs” and say why.
“Digital Rights Management”
“Digital Rights Management” (abbreviated
“DRM”) refers to technical mechanisms 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, and ignoring that of the general public on
whom these restrictions are imposed.
Good alternatives include “Digital Restrictions
Management,” and “digital handcuffs.”
Please sign up to support our
campaign to abolish DRM.
It is inadvisable to describe the free software community, or any human
community, as an “ecosystem,” because that word implies
the absence of ethical judgment.
The term “ecosystem” implicitly suggests an attitude of
nonjudgmental observation: don't ask how what should happen,
just study and understand what does happen. In an ecosystem,
some organisms consume other organisms. In ecology, we do not ask
whether it is right for an owl to eat a mouse or for a mouse to eat a
seed, we only observe that they do so. Species' populations grow or
shrink according to the conditions; this is neither right nor wrong,
merely an ecological phenomenon, even if it goes so far as the
extinction of a species.
By contrast, beings that adopt an ethical stance towards their
surroundings can decide to preserve things that, without their
intervention, might vanish—such as civil society, democracy,
human rights, peace, public health, a stable climate, clean air and
water, endangered species, traditional arts…and computer users'
The term “FLOSS,” meaning “Free/Libre and Open
Source Software,” was coined as a way
to be neutral between free
software and open source. If neutrality is your goal,
“FLOSS” is the best way to be neutral. But if you want to
show you stand for freedom, don't use a neutral term.
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.”
The term “FOSS,” meaning “Free and Open Source
Software,” was coined as a way
to be neutral between free
software and open source, but it doesn't really do that. If
neutrality is your goal, “FLOSS” is better. But if you
want to show you stand for freedom, don't use a neutral term.
Don't use “freely available software” as a synonym for “free
software.” The terms are not equivalent. Software is “freely
available” if anyone can easily get a copy. “Free
software” is defined in terms of the freedom of users that have
a copy of it. These are answers to different questions.
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
When using languages other than English, please avoid
borrowing English terms such as “free software” or
“freeware.” It is better to translate the term “free
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.”
This locution 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
A hacker is someone
playful cleverness—not necessarily with computers. The
programmers in the old
software community of the 60s and 70s referred to themselves as
hackers. Around 1980, journalists who discovered the hacker community
mistakenly took the term to mean “security breaker.”
Please don't spread this mistake.
People who break security are “crackers.”
Publishers and lawyers like to describe copyright as
“intellectual property”—a term also applied to
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
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 conception of them as 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
To avoid spreading unnecessary bias and confusion, it is best to adopt
a firm policy not to speak or even
think in terms of “intellectual property”.
The hypocrisy of calling these powers “rights” is
starting to make the World “Intellectual Property”
“LAMP” stands for “Linux, Apache, MySQL and
PHP”—a common combination of software to use on a web
server, except that “Linux” in this context really refers
to the GNU/Linux system. So instead of “LAMP” it should
be “GLAMP”: “GNU, Linux, Apache, MySQL and
Linux is the name of the kernel that Linus Torvalds developed starting
in 1991. The operating system in which Linux is used is basically GNU
with Linux added. To call the whole system “Linux” is
both unfair and confusing. Please call the complete
system GNU/Linux, both to give
the GNU Project credit and to distinguish the whole system from the
It is misleading to describe the users of free software, or the
software users in general, as a “market.”
This is not to say there is no room for markets in the free software community.
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
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 draw business
away from a rival. To equate this campaign for freedom to a business'
efforts for mere success is to deny the importance of freedom
and legitimize proprietary software.
The proper definition of “monetize” is “to use
something as currency.” For instance, human societies have
monetized gold, silver, copper, printed paper, special kinds of
seashells, and large rocks. However, we now see a tendency to use the
word in another way, meaning “to use something as a basis for
That usage casts the profit as primary, and the thing used to get the
profit as secondary. That attitude applied to a software project is
objectionable because it would lead the developers to make the program
proprietary, if they conclude that making it free/libre isn't
A productive and ethical business can make money, but if it
subordinates all else to profit, it is not likely to remain
In the late 1990s it became feasible to make portable, solid-state
digital audio players. Most support the patented MP3 codec, but not
all. Some support the patent-free audio codecs Ogg Vorbis and FLAC,
and may not even support MP3-encoded files at all, precisely to avoid
these patents. To call such players “MP3 players” is not
only confusing, it also privileges the MP3 that we ought to reject.
We suggest the terms “digital audio player,”
or simply “audio player” if context permits.
Please avoid using the term “open” or “open
source” as a substitute for “free software.” Those terms
refer to a
different position based on different values. Free software is
a political movement; open source is a development model.
When referring to the open source position, using its name is
appropriate; but please do not use it to label us or our work—that
leads people to think we share those views.
It's OK to use the abbreviation “PC” to refer to a certain
kind of computer hardware, but please don't use it with the
implication that the computer is running Microsoft Windows. If you
install GNU/Linux on the same computer, it is still a PC.
The term “WC” has been suggested for a computer running
Please avoid using the term “photoshop” as a verb, meaning
any kind of photo manipulation or image editing in general. Photoshop
is just the name of one particular image editing program, which should
be avoided since it is proprietary. There are plenty of free programs
for editing images, such as the GIMP.
Publishers often refer to copying they don't approve of as
“piracy.” In this way, they imply that it is ethically
equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and
murdering the people on them. Based on such propaganda, they have
procured laws in most of the world to forbid copying in most (or
sometimes all) circumstances. (They are still pressuring to make
these prohibitions more complete.)
If you don't believe that copying not approved by the publisher is
just like kidnapping and murder, you might prefer not to use the word
“piracy” to describe it. Neutral terms such as
“unauthorized copying” (or “prohibited
copying” for the situation where it is illegal) are available
for use instead. Some of us might even prefer to use a positive term
such as “sharing information with your neighbor.”
A US judge, presiding over a trial for copyright infringement,
and “theft” are smear-words.
Please avoid using the term “PowerPoint” to mean any kind
of slide presentation. “PowerPoint” is just the name of
one particular proprietary program to make presentations. For your
freedom's sake, you should use only free software to make your
presentations. Recommended options include TeX's beamer
class and LibreOffice.org's Impress.
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 saying, “Copyright protection lasts a
very long time,” you can say, “Copyright lasts a very long
Likewise, instead of saying, “protected by copyright,” you
can say, “covered by copyright” or just
If you want to criticize copyright rather than be neutral, you can
use the term “copyright restrictions.” Thus, you can say,
“Copyright restrictions last a very long time.”
The term “protection” is also used to describe malicious
features. For instance, “copy protection” is a feature
that interferes with copying. From the user's point of view, this is
obstruction. So we could call that malicious feature “copy
obstruction.” More often it is called Digital Restrictions
Management (DRM)—see the
Defective by Design
“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 whitewashes a class of patent licenses that are normally
neither reasonable nor nondiscriminatory. 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 the term “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, writers who do not wish to join in the
whitewashing 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.
“SaaS” or “Software as a Service”
We used to say that SaaS (short for “Software as a
Service”) is an injustice, but then we found that there was a
lot of variation in people's understanding of which activities count
as SaaS. So we switched to a new term, “Service as a Software
Substitute” or “SaaSS.” This term has two
advantages: it wasn't used before, so our definition is the only one,
and it explains what the injustice consists of.
Does That Server Really Serve? for discussion of this
In Spanish we continue to use the term “software como servicio”
because the joke of “software como ser vicio” is too good
to give up.
The term “sell software” is ambiguous. Strictly speaking,
exchanging a copy of a free program for a sum of money
is selling the program, and
there is nothing wrong with doing that. However, people usually
associate the term “selling software” with proprietary
restrictions on the subsequent use of the software. You can be clear,
and prevent confusion, by saying either “distributing copies of
a program for a fee” or “imposing proprietary restrictions
on the use of a program.”
See Selling Free Software for
further discussion of this issue.
People often use the term “sharing economy” to refer to
services such as Uber and Airbnb that arrange business deals between
people. We use the term “sharing” to refer to
noncommercial cooperation, including noncommercial redistribution of
exact copies of published works. Stretching the word “sharing”
undermines its meaning, so we don't use it in this context.
A better term for these businesses is “interpeer transaction
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 nonfree software, but those that
develop free software are not run 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
European Parliament, rejecting software patents in 2003, voted to
define “industry” as “automated production of
Wikipedia uses the term “source model” in a confused and
ambiguous way. Ostensibly it refers to how a program's source is
distributed, but the text confuses this with the development
methodology. It distinguishes “open source” and
”shared source” as answers, but they overlap —
Microsoft uses the latter as a marketing term to cover a range of
practices, some of which are “open source”. Thus, this
term really conveys no coherent information, but it provides an
opportunity to say “open source” in pages describing free
The supporters of a too-strict, repressive form of copyright often use
words like “stolen” and “theft” to refer to
copyright infringement. This is spin, but they would like you to take
it for objective truth.
Under the US legal system, copyright infringement is not theft. Laws
about theft are not applicable to copyright infringement. The
supporters of repressive copyright are making an appeal to
authority—and misrepresenting what authority says.
To refute them, you can point to this
real case which shows what can properly be described as
Unauthorized copying is forbidden by copyright law in many
circumstances (not all!), but being forbidden doesn't make it wrong.
In general, laws don't define right and wrong. Laws, at their best,
attempt to implement justice. If the laws (the implementation) don't
fit our ideas of right and wrong (the spec), the laws are what should
A US judge, presiding over a trial for copyright infringement,
and “theft” are smear-words.
“Trusted computing” is
the proponents' name for a scheme to redesign computers so that
application developers can trust your computer to obey them instead of
you. From their point of view, it is “trusted”; from your
point of view, it is “treacherous.”
Please don't use the term “vendor” to refer generally to
anyone that develops or packages software. Many programs
are developed in order to sell copies, and their developers are
therefore their vendors; this even includes some free software packages.
However, many programs are developed by volunteers or organizations
which do not intend to sell copies. These developers are not vendors.
Likewise, only some of the packagers of GNU/Linux distributions are
vendors. We recommend the general term “supplier” instead.
This essay is published
Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard