Monday, January 18, 2021

Free Software and Open-Source: what are the differences?

Contrarily to what you think, free software and open-source are not the same thing
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

On recent posts, we have been discussing free and open-source software and related licenses. Contrarily to what you may think, free software and open-source are not the same thing. Today we will discuss what are the differences between both.

Free Software

In order to understand the differences between both terms, it's important to recap the definition of both. So let's start with this statement from Richard Stallman, the creator of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation:

When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.”

But which are the four essential freedoms? According to the GNU Project, they are:

  • Freedom 0: freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • Freedom 2: freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.
  • Freedom 3: freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
In summary, free software is not about price, but about your freedom.

Open-source software

It's important to understand the origin of the expression "open-source" so we can distinguish it from "free software". The “open source” label was created on February 3rd, 1998, to distinguish it from the more philosophically-focused label "free software." With the label, the Open Source Initative (OSI) was also created to explain and protect the "open source" label. The adoption of the term was swift, with early support from figures in the community, like Linus Torvalds, and by many key individuals, including the founders of, Perl, Python, Apache, and representatives from other organizations.

According to OSI's distribution terms, open-source software must comply with the following ten criterias:

  • Free redistribution
  • Access to the source code
  • Derived Works
  • Integrity of The Author's Source Code
  • No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  • No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
  • Distribution of License
  • License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  • License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  • License Must Be Technology-Neutral


Despite similarities, there are differences between free and open source software. Here's a quick summary:
  • Free software: more flexible licensing model, more geared towards users and their communities, more about your freedom to run the apps you need, distribute the software as you wish and your freedom to distribute copies of it and help the community around you.
  • Open source: free redistribution but with a more restrictive licensing model, more restrictive licenses, can carry "nonfree" conditions, users cannot modify the program they run.
For more information about the differences, read this article.


So let's finalize with concrete, objective remarks: what are the implications of using "open-source" or "free software" for consumers and for organizations?

Implications for Consumers

But what are the implications to consumers for each license. In theory, open source licenses are a little more strict than free software licenses on the freedom aspect (not on the price). That said, if you don't expect to modify that open source program you just installed, it should be fine.

Implications for Developers and Organizations

If for consumers are not directly affected by the subtle differences between the diverse types of licenses, the maintainers should definitely take the differences  carefully into account. As discussed in our post about open-source licenses, when releasing free/open software, it’s essential that companies understand the differences between the multiple existing licenses — including proprietary ones — and choose the one that best fits the objective of the project.

Another important aspect is how much control they want to have on their project. The free software movement places all the cards on the user while the open source initiative is usually more geared towards commercial organizations.


Let's finish by discussing the critics both movements got with time. They are:

  • Free Software: too political, too philosophical, not much financially/commercially inclined.
  • Open Source: too commercial (primarily following the goals of businesses), does not reach the general population, or when it reaches is used for their exploitation (not our own words) by collecting information and even manipulating the user. 
To some extent, the above critics make sense, especially when we consider two critical problems of free/open source projects: funding and developer burnout. Neither of the options addresses those problems.


On this post we reviewed how "free software" differs from "open-source". There's way more differences between the terms "free software" and "open source" than most people imagine but it would be safe to say that most "free software" could be categorized as "open source", but not the contrary. Despite the contrasts, free/open source is the most effective way to build products/services today. As a consumer, understanding the differences between the multiple licenses available would definitely help you in your free/open source journey.

For more information on the topic, please consider reading the references below.


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