The "free as in speech" metaphor is often used to describe free software like that licensed under the GNU Public License (GPL).

But the GPL restricts your freedom to distribute derivatives as closed source, asserting that if you make a derivative work, its source must also be made publicly available (or at least, available to those that buy the code).

Continuing the free speech metaphor, isn't this the equivalent restricting my rights to expression by disallowing private expression. That is, everything I say (in relation to the original work) has to be said publicly, or not at all?

  • I do not follow on "private expression". If you make a derivative code and use it for your own private pleasure, nobody cares, not even if you let your kids and family do it. It is only when you want to go public but not "fully" public that problems arise. Mostly this is directed against commercial derivatives, so that free code is not used to make profit. And one can hardly expect full analogy from a catchy shorthand, code is meant to do a job, not express opinions. – Conifold May 3 '18 at 22:36
  • Freedom is not the possibility to do whatever you want: freedom implies some limits. The GPL puts some limits, and although such limits prevent some actions, freedom is the consequence of such prevention. Such limitations cannot be equated with lack of freedom, but instead, with a strategy to get more freedom. – RodolfoAP Jan 16 at 17:16
  • Following your analogy it's more like "you can write and publish any book you like, but if you plagiarize the work of someone else be honest about it and give back to the community". Of course, plagiarizing is ok in free software, you just can base your work on someone else's, but you can't just take the work of someone, change it a bit and make money out of it. That would invite all sorts of freeloaders. Also, the "free as in speech" formula should not be taken so literally, it just mean "not free as in gift". – armand Jan 16 at 18:07

The freedom in free speech is freedom from restrictions imposed by the state.

Now what freedom from restrictions by the state could "free software" refer to? It can only be the existing intellectual property regime, copyright.

But the GPL depends on the existence of copyright law. It's not just a license that creates a situation which would arise naturally without copyright law.

Sure, without copyright you could not prohibit others distributing copies of your software.

So in this sense, it would be consistent to call a license that grants this right to as many people as possible "free as in speech'" — roughly like this:

(a) you are granted the right to distribute copies of this software or derivatives of it
(b) all derivatives must be licensed under this license

But no more than that.

For such a license, if copyright gets abolished tomorrow, nothing changes. The rights which were explicitly granted are equivalent to the removal of the restrictions.

But the GPL goes beyond that.

With copyright completely abolished the following would be legal, feasible and practical:

  • You could use someone's source code, modify it and distribute the compiled binary. But keep the modified source code secret. The GPL explicitly prohibits this, it forces you to share your source code modifications fully if you distribute a modified binary.
  • You could do Tivoization. The GPL v3 prohibits this.

So ironically, the GPL depends on copyright. If copyright gets abolished, the GPL would be "defanged". You could legally do more than you can do now.

Again, I'm not saying only the BSD or MIT license are free like in "free speech". It's ideologically consistent to propose a viral copyleft license and make the "free speech" analogy.

But the reasoning behind the GPL rhetorics is still flawed. It expands the definition of freedom to be also free from certain restrictive actions by private actors which they could even do without copyright.


Free - what does any word actually mean

Words are only markers of ideas, which summarise a much longer explanation that comes from culture, environment, and context. To bring summary to the use of words, means complex ideas can be written, which achieve their purpose in the fewest number of lines written.

So Free software, only refers to the exchange of money to be able to use the software in the contractual context the contract specifies. Due to the law of copyrights, if you reuse the software or a significant part of it, you have to abide by the contractual rules or you are liable to damages.

Now all of this meaning is wrapped up in the one term "free software". If you want to challenge the legal interpretation of such concepts, go to court and you will understand how our civilisation interprets the words.

  • The Free Software Foundation (and the FOSS movement in general) is quite explicit that free refers to freedom, not price. Specifically, "freedom" to inspect source code. – ChrisJ May 4 '18 at 2:10

Of course, the GPL licence is about ensuring the idea of free remains while allowing individuals the freedom to use [the] free software.

If the root of your question is regarding how GPL might restrict or limit the potential to monetise free software, which is what I believe it is, maybe this will be of use: How exactly does someone make money from free software? And how do programs compete with websites?

Does the GPL require that source code of modified versions be posted to the public?

The GPL does not require you to release your modified version, or any part of it. You are free to make modifications and use them privately, without ever releasing them. This applies to organizations (including companies), too; an organization can make a modified version and use it internally without ever releasing it outside the organization.

But if you release the modified version to the public in some way, the GPL requires you to make the modified source code available to the program's users, under the GPL.

If I know someone has a copy of a GPL-covered program, can I demand they give me a copy?

No. The GPL gives a person permission to make and redistribute copies of the program if and when that person chooses to do so. That person also has the right not to choose to redistribute the program.

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