Since 2001 the FSFE has been enhancing users' rights by abolishing barriers for software freedom. For 20 years we have been helping individuals and organisations to understand how Free Software contributes to freedom, transparency, and self-determination.

For the next two decades we need your help. We want everyone to be able to control their technology. Free Software and its freedoms to use, study, share, and improve are the key to that goal.

This page has not been translated yet. Please help us to translate this and other pages on fsfe.org, so people can read our message in their native language.

About Free Software

Legal Issues in Free Software

It is important when re-using and developing Free Software (also known as Open Source), to also understand the legal issues surrounding them. Much of these legal issues are focused around Free Software licenses, and the rights and obligations that they provide and impose. Having a basic understanding of these legal issues enable users to effectively use and comply with the requirements of Free Software licences.

You can follow this link for more Frequently Asked Questions that can help you understand the legal implications of Free Software licensing.

What is software licensing?

Generally, a license is an authorization to use, release, or distribute someone else's property. This includes intellectual property such as a piece of text, a song, or artwork. Software licenses are therefore licenses that inform users of how the rights holder over a piece of software (usually the author) wants that software to be used, and what freedoms and/or restrictions it has. Without a license, many uses of the software may be prohibited due to the default application of copyright law.

A Free Software licenses is a software license whose terms allow a user to obtain and enjoy the four freedoms of Free Software; namely, the freedom to use, modify, share, and improve software. Conversely, the opposite of a Free Software license is a proprietary software license, which restricts users from enjoying any of the four freedoms of Free Software. Even software that is distributed free of charge (gratis) can be considered to be proprietary software, as long as any of the four freedoms are restricted.

Copyleft licenses are a type of Free Software licences that allow the user to enjoy the four freedoms, under the condition that those freedoms remain intact in any further distribution of the software or derivative works.

The absence of a license does not make a software Free Software. Software is copyrighted by default, so unless it has been explicitly and validly placed into the public domain, using code without a license may be considered copyright infringement.

Why should software projects use Free Software licenses?

Software is the most important cultural technology of the 21st Century. It is almost impossible to imagine daily life today without it. When others control a tool as important to society as software, they can exert great influence over our lives and actions.

For example, whoever controls the search engines that we use has the power to determine what we find online; whoever controls the software on which our online transactions are run can have access to our personal data. It would be dangerous to democracy if the critical social instrument that software constitutes were controlled by only a small group.

The four freedoms of Free Software can therefore be applied to hand control of the future of software back to the people. A Free Software license is an explicit way of granting these freedoms, so that users of a piece of such licensed software are able to use, study, share and improve the tools that it provides.