FAQ for giving lectures about Free Software (revision 2)

Shane M. Coughlan shane at shaneland.co.uk
Fri Jul 7 00:03:04 UTC 2006

Hash: SHA256

I have added comments.  You might notice that some points were not
included at this juncture. This is because some suggestions overlapped
with existing text in the Q&A.

Most of the discussion centred around the terms Free Software and Open
Source.  While this is of interest to Free Software people, please do
remember that most people don't care very much about this.  We should be
accurate but brief, ideally explaining the issue in as short a period as
possible in as reasonable a manner as possible.

There are currently three paragraphs of this issue.  It'd be nice if
there were only two.

Another area I think could do with a chopping is "Q: What should I say
if people suggest Free Software is for tree-hugging hippies?"  It's got
good content, but it'd be nice to see it becoming shorter.  Less
defensive.  I was thinking perhaps the entire first paragraph can go?  I
like Ciaran's argument about ensuring rights, and I think it's quite
strong on its own.


Q: How can I give a speech about Free Software?

A: Know your audience!  If you are talking about Free Software, talk
about it in a way that will genuinely engage the target audience. Taylor
your delivery to suit the people, and that way you will get a positive
result.  If you are speaking to media students, don't go into details
regarding engineering methodology.  If you are speaking to computer
science students, don't do a statistical analysis to show a good TCO
(Total Cost of Operation).

Make the presentation fun.  Don't look like a teacher, but more like a
student: don't stay behind a desk, walk around and involve the audience
by asking questions.

Q: What important aspects of Free Software should I highlight?

A: There are many things you can talk about to show the benefits of Free
Software.  The four freedoms (free use, free modification, free sharing,
free improving) are important, but are not the only things you can bring
into a speech.  If you are talking to political students, you might want
to highlight the empowerment aspects of Free Software for developing
nations.  If you are talking to computer science students, you might
want to highlight the advantages of Free Software licenses and the
flexibility they bring to both community-driven and in-house development

It's important to emphasise that Free doesn't mean price, it means Freedom.

Q: What about questions regarding the legality of Free Software?

A: You can point out that Free Software has attracted virtually no
lawsuits.  In the case of SCO the lawsuit is falling apart because SCO
actually have no evidence.  Free Software is not illegal.

The GNU GPL went to court twice, once in Germany and more recently in
USA.  The license
was considered valid in both cases.  More information about this is
available on http://www.fsf.org/news/wallace-vs-fsf and

Q: What about questions regarding quality control in Free Software?

A: The quality of software depends on many factors.  If a project is
well managed it should have a very high standard of quality.  This is
true for free and non-free software.   The problem is that non-free
software precludes the possibility of peer-review.  Proprietary software
is a black box.  You have to trust the company that produced that box.
There is no way to verify your trust.

Free software is not always higher quality, but everyone has the right
to examine it and make improvements if desired.

Q: What about questions regarding sabotage of Free Software?

A: You can point out that Free Software fosters open development.
Someone may try to introduce something bad, but the open review process
means this damage will be spotted and removed.  It is far more likely
that a hostile force could slip something into a closed system.

Examples of Free Software community audits include the backdoors
discovered in Firebird when the sources where released the first time;
or the tentative move to include backdoors in the Linux kernel that
didn't last more than a few hours.

Q: What about questions about the difference between Free Software and
Open Source?

A: "The fundamental difference between the two movements is in their
values, their ways of looking at the world. For the Open Source
movement, the issue of whether software should be open source is a
practical question, not an ethical one. As one person put it, "Open
source is a development methodology; free software is a social
movement." For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a
suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software
is a social problem and free software is the solution."
(From http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html)

It's good to point out that "Open Source" is a term created to
"re-label" (in the words of Eric Raymond) free software and to
facilitate "a marketing program for free software."  The term Open
Source was coined because the term 'free' in English is ambiguous
(though this word is not ambiguous in other languages).

The problem with the term Open Source is that it refers to having access
to source code. But access to the source code is only a precondition for
two of the four freedoms that define Free Software.  Many people do not
understand that access to the source code alone is not enough. The term
Free Software avoids catering to this relatively common misunderstanding.

Remember, we're talking free as in freedom.  We want to ensure that
people are free to use, modify, share and improve software.

Q: How should I characterise software companies like Microsoft?

A: Always be aware that there may be Microsoft people in the audience
that can stand up any time to correct you if you don't stick to the
truth!   You should try to talk about non-free software companies in
general (avoid names) as bad examples of how they treat their customers,
forcing upgrades or taking away their data in unknown formats.

Microsoft is a natural product of a wrong approach.  They are the worst
freedom-restricter, but that's only because they've been the most
successful.  Others are trying very hard to restrict the freedom of
users in the same way as MS currently does.

We need to fix the general approach.

Q: What should I say if people suggest Free Software is for tree-hugging

A: Point out that IBM and Novell back GNU/Linux, an operating system
made from Free Software, for economic and engineering reasons.  Free
Software is not about abstract thought, it is about better development,
distribution and evolutionary models.  These models benefit companies,
consumers and society as a whole.

We are trying to ensure that all software users have a certain standard
of rights.  Software development and usage is still a new activity, and
it's history and philosophical thinking is still relatively shallow.
People using software don't have many rights and those people are being

You can point out that when mandatory labelling of ingredients was
suggested, the food companies were fiercely against it, but today we see
it as a basic right that you should be able to read the ingredients of
food which is sold publicly.

We hope one day these rights will be as standard as food labelling, but
today we can have those rights for ourselves by choosing free software.
 So it's not about avoiding MS, it's about setting a standard for how
you should be treated.

If you're talking to a business audience, you can describe this as a
procurement policy.  Procurement policies usually spell out minimum
requirements and we hope companies (and people) will start setting the

"Software providers must not prevent the company from seeing what the
software does"

"Software providers must not prevent the company from making
improvements, customising, fixing bugs - or commissioning others to do
these things for the company"

"Software providers will not prevent the publication of any improvements
which the collective users of the software make or commission."

Q: Where should I point people to find out more?

A: The Free Software Foundation Europe website (www.fsfeurope.org), the
Free Software Foundation website (www.fsf.org).  Perhaps you could point
people to FSF Latin America, FSF India and Groklaw.

You can obtain some information on presentations given by Ciaran
O'Riordan of the FSFE at http://ciaran.compsoc.com/#roadshow
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