Let's say I am installing a distro, which comes with two pieces of firmware: free firmware for chip A, and nonfree firmware for chip B. I install it on a machine that has chip A and chip B, but I choose to only activate chip A. If my system still has the nonfree firmware for chip B, but I never use it, does my system still count as being all free software?

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    I'm not sure I understand the question. Why are you asking this? Is there something you want to do, and your ability is contingent upon the free-software status of this system? If so, what?
    – MadHatter
    Jun 10, 2020 at 14:28
  • I want to set up my system to use all free software, but the distros listed as GNU approved are either a pain to set up or not compatible, so I'm installing Alpine. I know it has nonfree firmware, but I am not using it for my particular wifi card.
    – sugarfi
    Jun 10, 2020 at 14:38
  • Why do you want to do this? I'm sorry to press, but if what you want is to be able to feel satisfied that you're running only free software - and I can completely identify with that desire - then that is achieved when you decide that it is. Nobody else can tell you. Free software is not a thing at rest; it's not something you can point at and go "that's free". It is a set of rights to do certain desirable things. If you can do them with your system, then it's a free system.
    – MadHatter
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:02
  • That's good to know. I was thinking that being free meant that it had to be GNU certified and everything. So I can just not consciously use stuff that violates the 4 freedoms or anything and be ok?
    – sugarfi
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:06
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    "be OK"" again, that's up to you. I would certainly recommend not using software that doesn't give you, in full, the four freedoms, but I don't know that doing so guarantees happiness!
    – MadHatter
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:10

1 Answer 1


Freedom is not a property that inheres in software; it's a set of rights that attach to software through the act of conveyance. Even less does it inhere in an installed system, powered-down, on a table. So it's not very meaningful to speak of your system as being free, or non-free, in isolation.

If you have the rights and capability to exercise all four freedoms with respect to all the software that's installed on your system that you use and care about, I'd say it's free. If there are a couple of additional files full of random numbers on the disc, no harm is done, even if they later turn out to be firmware instructions for some piece of hardware you're not using. Delete those files if you feel bad, or don't.

In my opinion, as long as you can fully exercise the four freedoms with your system, it's free.

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