Watch Your Language

A contretemps has arisen among free software advocates, once again.  This article in Tech Republic describes online ranting about a fairly bland post on a site hosted by the Linux Foundation.  (I had trouble locating the original post, but it was apparently on Linux.com and thus not an official LF statement.)  Those of you readers who are uninterested in the political squabbles of open source world need read no further.  Those of you who are interested should take a look at the article — for amusement value at least, if you have an ironic sense of humor.

Some free software advocates react badly to any observation that using free software can entail legal risks — an odd point of view for a paradigm based on copyright licensing conditions (and by implication, copyright infringement claims to enforce them). Some react badly to the heretical suggestion that permissive licenses are a better choice. Those reactions will never change.  But part of this particular reaction to the original post was clearly because of the language it used.

So, next time I tell a client not to use the word “viral” or call copyleft licenses “restrictive,” perhaps they will believe me.  (I cringe when I hear these words, and my clients probably cringe when I lecture them about not using these words.)  Copyleft licenses are not viral.  Open source licenses contain no license restrictions, or they would violate the Open Source Definition — restrictions are for proprietary licenses.  Open source licenses do contain conditions, but the difference between restrictions and conditions is a subtle but essential concept underlying the open source licensing model.

All that may seem like pedantry, and I won’t claim I am free from that sin.  But pedantry is a menial sin, and inadvertently starting a war of words is not a good idea.  Maybe we need the equivalent of a “swear jar” for this.  Every mistake requires a contribution to an open source project!

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