What is free software?
When we talk about free software, we don’t just mean it has no monetary cost. A common phrase used to describe free software is “free as in speech, not as in beer”. What this means is that not only can you download and use the software but that you are free to examine and modify the source code for that software and give that software away, either as you received it or with your own modifications and improvements.
What makes this possible is free software licensing which comes in a variety of forms. The concept of the public domain for software has existed for quite some time and it’s still in use. However, most free software today relies on copyright to enforce very specific licensing terms. The two forms of free software licenses that concern us most are “copyleft” and “permissive” licenses, exemplified by the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License and the BSD licenses.
The GPL, a copyleft license, essentially says that you’re free to use the software for any purpose and that anyone to whom you give the software must have all the rights you had when receiving the software to study, modify and re-distribute the software.
The BSD licenses, which are considered permissive free software licenses, grant a license to use the software for any purpose but don’t require the creator to share the source code, whether modified or not, with people who receive the software.
Both licenses include a notice that there is no warranty offered with the software. The Devuan operating system ships free software that uses both GPL and BSD licenses.
Why use free software?
Free software benefits from the participation of a global community of free software developers. Many companies pay free software engineers to extend free software to meet their needs and the fruits of that labor are then shared with the community at large. Individual users find free software projects that appeal to them and volunteer their time to fix bugs and add features to make that software more reliable and useful. In contrast, proprietary software source code is jealously guarded and subject to strict, proprietary licensing to prevent people who use it from sharing it.
Given the complexity of today’s computers, one area where free software really shines is software security. Free and open source code is available for everyone to study and as such, many flaws and vulnerabilities are identified and fixed before users can be impacted. For critical vulnerabilities that impact users directly, the free software model guarantees that as soon as a correction is available, everyone can share it. If multiple solutions are found, the best can be chosen or new solutions might be synthesized based on the work of many authors. Compare this with proprietary software where few if any people have access to the source code and it’s up to proprietary software vendors to identify and correct flaws in the software.
Perhaps the biggest reason to participate in the free software ecosystem is that it empowers computer users to make the world a better place. They are free to share their innovations and improvements, find and fix bugs, learn and teach each other and share a sense of adventure and community that can be found nowhere else.
Where can I learn more?
There are several organizations that promote the use of free software, and they’ve written compelling descriptions of what free software is and why it matters to them. Here are two of those:
For more discussion of the GPL and BSD licenses: