What is Free Software?

Free in Free Software is referring to freedom, not price. Having been used in this meaning since the 80s, the first documented complete definition appears to be the GNU's Bulletin, vol. 1 no. 1, published February 1986. In particular, four freedoms define Free Software:

These freedoms are rights, not obligations, although respecting these freedoms for society may at times oblige the individual. Any person can choose to not make use of them, but may also choose to make use of all of them. In particular, it should be understood that Free Software does not exclude commercial use. If a program fails to allow commercial use and commercial distribution, it is not Free Software. Indeed a growing number of companies base their business model completely or at least partially on Free Software, including some of the largest proprietary software vendors. Free Software makes it legal to provide help and assistance, it does not make it mandatory.

Terminology

Free Software is the original term for software that respects freedom, and there are important reasons why this terminology continues to be used today. Free Software connotes freedom, and when translated there is a clear distinction between freedom and price. In French, Free Software becomes "logiciels libre", "software libre" in Spanish, "software libero" in Italian, and "Fri Software" in Danish.

Open Source

On February 3rd 1998, in the wake of Netscapes announcement to release their browser as Free Software, a group of people met in Palo Alto in the Silicon Valley and proposed to start a marketing campaign for Free Software using the term ``Open Source.'' The goal was to seek fast commercialisation of Free Software and acceptance of Free Software by the companies and venture capitalists of the booming new economy. As a means to this end, they made a conscious decision to leave aside all long-term issues (such as philosophy, ethics and social effects) related to Free Software, feeling these posed obstacles in the way of rapid acceptance by economy. They proposed to focus on technical advantages only1.

Often used in good faith by people who refer to what Free Software stands for, the term "Open Source" - originally defined to mean the same thing as Free Software in terms of licenses and implementation - has seen inflationary usage. Nowadays, it is regularly used for everything between Free Software and the highly proprietary "Governmental Security Program" (GSP) by Microsoft2.

Libre Software

When the European Commission started dealing with Free Software on a regular basis, they sought to avoid the ambiguity of the English word "Free Software" and the misunderstandings of "Open Source" alike, which led to the adoption of a third term which has popped up occasionally since around 1992: "Libre Software." This term has proven resistant to inflationary usage and is still used in an identical way to Free Software. So it may pose a solution for those who fear being misunderstood when speaking English.

Footnotes

  1. For reference, see OSI FAQ : "How is 'open source' related to 'free software'? The Open Source Initiative is a marketing program for free software. It's a pitch for 'free software' on solid pragmatic grounds rather than ideological tub-thumping. The winning substance has not changed, the losing attitude and symbolism have." Outside this rather unkind FAQ item, the OSI and its supporters have generally avoided the term "Free Software".
  2. In this program governments and intergovernmental organisations pay substantial fees for a superficial look at some parts of Windows sourcecode in special Microsoft facilities. This may increase "perceived security" but is essentially useless - especially since they do not even know whether what they looked at is what they have on their computers. And of course it does not give them freedom.