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 | “Alternative” | “BSD-style” | “Closed” | “Cloud Computing” | “Commercial” | “Compensation” | “Consume” | “Consumer” | “Content” | “Creative Commons licensed” | “Creator” | “Digital Goods” | “Digital Locks” | “Digital Rights Management” | “Ecosystem” | “FLOSS” | “For free” | “FOSS” | “Freely available” | “Freeware” | “Give away software” | “Google” | “Hacker” | “Intellectual property” | “LAMP system” | “Linux system” | “Market” | “Monetize” | “MP3 player” | “Open” | “PC” | “Photoshop” | “Piracy” | “PowerPoint” | “Protection” | “RAND” | “SaaS” | “Sell software” | “Sharing economy” | “Skype” | “Software Industry” | “Source model” | “Theft” | “Trusted Computing” | “Vendor”
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, nonfree software and Service as a Software Substitute subjugate their users. We do not think it is good to offer users those “alternatives” to 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 General Public License, 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 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 “proprietary”.
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 is possible.
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 surveillance.
Another meaning (which overlaps that but is not the same thing) is 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.
The 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, also 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 issues.
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 simply false, and 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 “content.”
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 been noted before.
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. (See Courtney 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 “malcontent providers.”
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 system” (WRS).
“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 harmful.
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 statement.
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 author.
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 “digital locks.”
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' freedom.
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 definition.
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 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.” 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 free software.”
Please avoid using the term “google” as a verb, meaning to search for something on the internet. “Google” is just the name of one particular search engine among others. We suggest to use the term “web search” instead. Try to use a search engine that respects your privacy; DuckDuckGo claims not to track its users, although we cannot confirm.
A hacker is someone who enjoys playful cleverness—not necessarily with computers. The programmers in the old MIT free 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 “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 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 be.
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” Organization embarrassed.
“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 PHP.”
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 kernel alone.
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 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 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 profit”.
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 sufficiently profitable.
A productive and ethical business can make money, but if it subordinates all else to profit, it is not likely to remain ethical.
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 Windows.
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, recognized that “piracy” 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 time.”
Likewise, instead of saying, “protected by copyright,” you can say, “covered by copyright” or just “copyrighted.”
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 campaign.
“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.
See Who Does That Server Really Serve? for discussion of this issue.
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.
The term “sharing economy” is not a good way to refer to services such as Uber and Airbnb that arrange business transactions 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” to include these transactions undermines its meaning, so we don't use it in this context.
A more suitable term for businesses like Uber is the “piecework service economy.”
Please avoid using the term “Skype” as a verb, meaning any kind of video communication or telephony over the Internet in general. “Skype” is just the name of one particular proprietary program, one that spies on its users. If you want to make video and voice calls over the Internet in a way that respects both your freedom and your privacy, try one of the numerous free Skype replacements.
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 monopolies. The European Parliament, rejecting software patents in 2003, voted to define “industry” as “automated production of material goods.”
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 software programs.
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 “copyright theft.”
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 change.
A US judge, presiding over a trial for copyright infringement, recognized that “piracy” 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 in Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.