How free is free software?

I have personally being using free software (Linux) for some fourteen years now on my desktop computer. Originally I switched to free software because, being involved with the teaching of IT, I like to run the latest versions of the software I use, and balked at the thought of paying a sizeable amount of money every twelve to eighteen months in order to upgrade my operating system. The same would them also apply to my publishing and programming tools.

As it turned out, the Linux distributions I used, provide all the tools I required in one package, and were mostly free. However right from the outset, I was prepared to cough up some cash in order to get the distributions on CDs and later on DVDs.

While I would like to think that all that changed when Novell bought the distribution I am currently using, namely SuSE, it is probably true to say that the SuSE distribution was already becoming fairly costly prior to Novell's takeover.

It is now certainly quite costly and not that easy to get a new release when it is released. Fortunately I discovered a company (PCTech101) in the USA that seems to be able to supply new releases shortly after the release. In addition, they are cheap and incredibly efficient, at least so it would seem by local standards.

Now to get to my point: How free is free software. Well the copy of the SuSE Linux distribution that I am using is certainly freely available. However I payed for my copy and I took the trouble to purchase it, and to then make copies of it. It is also me who has to keep track of a copy when someone borrows it.

It thus always surprises me that folk wanting to borrow the distribution, are rather taken aback when I say I am not prepared to lend out my original. These folk should remember that they too are free to take the trouble and also incur the expenses in terms of their time and cash, in order to acquire a copy of the free software.

Finally I remain surprised that my employers, the University of KwaZulu-Natal has despite being a Novell shop, not make a copy of SuSE 10 available, not even internally.