Monday, January 4, 2021

What is Free Software?

Would you be able to correctly define free software? Is free software really always free? Do you know which are the four essential freedoms of the free software movement?
Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash

On a previous post we discussed what is open-source. Today we will understand what is "free software" as per definition from the original founders and understand the difference between free and open-source software.

History of the Free Software Movement

To understand free software, it's important to understand the history of the free software movement.

The GNU Project has been campaigning for the free software movement and for users' freedom since 1983. The launch of the free GNU operating system  in 1984 as an alternative to non-free/proprietary operating systems was the first step. During the next decade, the GNU project only developed the essential components of the operating system and the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), a license to release those components designed specifically to protect freedom for all users of a program.

Free Software Definition

So let's jump straight to the topic and define "free software". According to the Richard Stallman, the creator of the GNU Project, the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) 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.”

With that said, here is what you should observe:

  • "free" in the "free software" expression isn't equal to zero dollars but to freedom of speech
  • free software is much more than price. It's about principles.

So let's learn more about the essential freedoms.

The four essential freedoms

According to the GNU Project, a program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:

  • 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.

Free Software x Open-Source software

With all the definitions satisfied, the only question that remains is: is free software equal to open-source? Long story short, no! But it's a long and complex topic which we'll cover in a future post.


On this post we learned about "free software", its origin and the contributions it had from the GNU Project, the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) and the Free Software Foundation. The free software movement plays an extremely important role in today's broader consumer/enterprise landscape and its extremely important for growing Linux and open-source software.

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

Further References

See Also

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