Who owns Free Software?

Written by  Publicerat   (updated on  

Conceptions of ownership

Software is an intangible thing. It can be thought of as a set of ideas, and as such, traditional ideas of ownership which affect objects like food and land do not apply to it. Therefore when we talk about intangible things like software, different conceptions of ownership apply. These can be split into four categories:

  1. Authorship
  2. Patents
  3. Copyright
  4. Usage rights

Authorship relates to the original creator(s) of an idea, and allows authors to prevent their work from being used in a way which would damage their reputation. Patents are a separate system which relate to industrial processes, and generally only affect the activities of companies and manufacturing. Copyright is a set of laws which grants exclusive rights to creative work such as illustrations, music, literature, and software. It is a government imposed exclusive monopoly on ideas. Usage rights determine what a person is allowed to actually do with something, like whether they may copy or sell a particular thing. They are a way of understanding how legal restrictions affect a single person, and what rights that person does or does not have.

Generally copyright has the greatest impact on what we can and can't do with software. Software copyright is owned either by the person who wrote the code, or by the organisation that paid for it to be written. This copyright may be privately bought and sold. The only exception is software that is in the public domain, which has no owner and no restrictions on its use 1 2. Most Free Software is not in the public domain. Different Free Software projects have different policies concerning who may be the software copyright owner.

The Linux kernel, for example, has thousands of owners, each of whom hold the copyright to the particular code that they have contributed to the larger project. The Linux kernel's policy is that code contributors retain copyright ownership of their work, but it also requires that all contributions use a Free Software license 3. Other projects take a different approach. OpenOffice, for example, requires that the copyright ownership of all contributions are shared with the company that publishes it (Oracle). Other projects require copyright to be assigned from the author to the sponsoring organisation. In these cases all rights concerning copyright are permanently given up by the author to the organisation. This is true of all GNU projects 4, for example.

Free Software does have copyright owners therefore. Who owns the copyright of Free Software is important for legal procedures, such as updating the Free Software license to a new one (eg. from GPLv2 to GPLv3), and ensuring that the license is complied with (and the right to take legal action when necessary). Once software is Free however, changes to who owns its copyright do not affect your rights to use it, as these are guaranteed by Free Software licenses.

Usage rights

Free Software licenses are unique in that they use copyright law to grant to the public freedoms that are usually reserved for the copyright owner. The 'PL' in 'GPL' stands for 'Public License'; the license hands the most important rights ('The Four Freedoms') to everybody. Critically, Free Software licenses are also irrevocable. Once software has been published under such a license it will forever be publicly available, and no change of heart, corporate merger, or legal argument can further restrict access to it 5.

Everybody 'owns' rights to Free Software therefore; we all have inalienable rights to use it as we wish in a way which is traditionally associated with legal copyright ownership. In this wider sense of ownership we all "own" Free Software. Some Free Software advocates refer to Free Software as being "publicly owned". Non-Free software is often referred to as being 'proprietary', which highlights this distinction in who "owns" rights to the software in question.

Whoever owns the copyright to Free Software always has the most rights to that software. Owners of Free Software choose to use their rights to share their rights as widely as possible. Therefore in a narrow legal sense Free Software is privately owned by software developers, foundations and companies. In a wider sense however we all own Free Software, because our freedom to use, modify, share, and improve it are guaranteed.


  1. Though there are no copyright restrictions on works in the public domain, there may be other restrictions, such as restrictions on the distribution of software deemed to post a risk to national security in the United States, or restrictions from related software patents, for example.
  2. Executable files which are in the public domain do not necessarily have their source code similarly available.
  3. Specifically, the Linux Kernel is licensed as GPLv2.
  4. See the GNU project's statement on copyright assignment.
  5. Only a fundamental change in international copyright law could affect the public's rights to Free Software for the worse. Currently this looks unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.