Free software

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Example of a free-software operating system running some representative applications. Shown are the Xfce desktop environment, the Firefox web browser, the Vim text editor, the GIMP image editor, and the VLC media player. Desktop-Linux-Mint.png
Example of a free-software operating system running some representative applications. Shown are the Xfce desktop environment, the Firefox web browser, the Vim text editor, the GIMP image editor, and the VLC media player.

Free software (or libre software) [1] [2] is computer software distributed under terms that allow users to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, change, and distribute it and any adapted versions. [3] [4] [5] [6] Free software is a matter of liberty, not price; all users are legally free to do what they want with their copies of a free software (including profiting from them) regardless of how much is paid to obtain the program. [7] [2] Computer programs are deemed "free" if they give end-users (not just the developer) ultimate control over the software and, subsequently, over their devices. [5] [8]

Contents

The right to study and modify a computer program entails that source code—the preferred format for making changes—be made available to users of that program. While this is often called "access to source code" or "public availability", the Free Software Foundation recommends against thinking in those terms, [9] because it might give the impression that users have an obligation (as opposed to a right) to give non-users a copy of the program.

Although the term "free software" had already been used loosely in the past, [10] Richard Stallman is credited with tying it to the sense under discussion and starting the free-software movement in 1983, when he launched the GNU Project: a collaborative effort to create a freedom-respecting operating system, and to revive the spirit of cooperation once prevalent among hackers during the early days of computing. [11] [12]

Context

This Euler diagram describes the typical relationship between freeware and free and open-source software (FOSS): According to David Rosen from Wolfire Games in 2010, open source / free software (orange) is most often gratis but not always. Freeware (green) seldom expose their source code. Open-source-vs-freeware.svg
This Euler diagram describes the typical relationship between freeware and free and open-source software (FOSS): According to David Rosen from Wolfire Games in 2010, open source / free software (orange) is most often gratis but not always. Freeware (green) seldom expose their source code.

Free software thus differs from:

For software under the purview of copyright to be free, it must carry a software license whereby the author grants users the aforementioned rights. Software that is not covered by copyright law, such as software in the public domain, is free as long as the source code is in the public domain too, or otherwise available without restrictions.

Proprietary software uses restrictive software licences or EULAs and usually does not provide users with the source code. Users are thus legally or technically prevented from changing the software, and this results in reliance on the publisher to provide updates, help, and support. (See also vendor lock-in and abandonware). Users often may not reverse engineer, modify, or redistribute proprietary software. [14] [15] Beyond copyright law, contracts and lack of source code, there can exist additional obstacles keeping users from exercising freedom over a piece of software, such as software patents and digital rights management (more specifically, tivoization). [16]

Free software can be a for-profit, commercial activity or not. Some free software is developed by volunteer computer programmers while other is developed by corporations; or even by both. [17] [7]

Naming and differences with Open Source

Although both definitions refer to almost equivalent corpora of programs, the Free Software Foundation recommends using the term "free software" rather than "open-source software" (a younger vision coined in 1998), because the goals and messaging are quite dissimilar. According to the Free Software Foundation, "Open source" and its associated campaign mostly focus on the technicalities of the public development model and marketing free software to businesses, while taking the ethical issue of user rights very lightly or even antagonistically. [18] Stallman has also stated that considering the practical advantages of free software is like considering the practical advantages of not being handcuffed, in that it is not necessary for an individual to consider practical reasons in order to realize that being handcuffed is undesirable in itself. [19]

The FSF also notes that "Open Source" has exactly one specific meaning in common English, namely that "you can look at the source code." It states that while the term "Free Software" can lead to two different interpretations, at least one of them is consistent with the intended meaning unlike the term "Open Source". [lower-alpha 1] The loan adjective "libre" is often used to avoid the ambiguity of the word "free" in English language, and the ambiguity with the older usage of "free software" as public-domain software. [10] See Gratis versus libre.

Definition and the Four Essential Freedoms of Free Software

Diagram of free and nonfree software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation. Left: free software, right: proprietary software, encircled: Gratis software Categories of free and nonfree software.svg
Diagram of free and nonfree software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation. Left: free software, right: proprietary software, encircled: Gratis software

The first formal definition of free software was published by Free Software Foundation (FSF) in February 1986. [20] That definition, written by Richard Stallman, is still maintained today and states that software is free software if people who receive a copy of the software have the following four freedoms. [21] [22] The numbering begins with zero, not only as a spoof on the common usage of zero-based numbering in programming languages, but also because "Freedom 0" was not initially included in the list, but later added first in the list as it was considered very important.

Freedoms 1 and 3 require source code to be available because studying and modifying software without its source code can range from highly impractical to nearly impossible.

Thus, free software means that computer users have the freedom to cooperate with whom they choose, and to control the software they use. To summarize this into a remark distinguishing libre (freedom) software from gratis (zero price) software, the Free Software Foundation says: "Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'". [21] See Gratis versus libre.

In the late 1990s, other groups published their own definitions that describe an almost identical set of software. The most notable are Debian Free Software Guidelines published in 1997, [23] and the Open Source Definition, published in 1998.

The BSD-based operating systems, such as FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD, do not have their own formal definitions of free software. Users of these systems generally find the same set of software to be acceptable, but sometimes see copyleft as restrictive. They generally advocate permissive free-software licenses, which allow others to use the software as they wish, without being legally forced to provide the source code. Their view is that this permissive approach is more free. The Kerberos, X11, and Apache software licenses are substantially similar in intent and implementation.

Examples

There are thousands of free applications and many operating systems available on the Internet. Users can easily download and install those applications via a package manager that comes included with most Linux distributions.

The Free Software Directory maintains a large database of free-software packages. Some of the best-known examples include the Linux kernel, the BSD and Linux operating systems, the GNU Compiler Collection and C library; the MySQL relational database; the Apache web server; and the Sendmail mail transport agent. Other influential examples include the Emacs text editor; the GIMP raster drawing and image editor; the X Window System graphical-display system; the LibreOffice office suite; and the TeX and LaTeX typesetting systems.

History

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement (2002) Richard Matthew Stallman.jpeg
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement (2002)

From the 1950s up until the early 1970s, it was normal for computer users to have the software freedoms associated with free software, which was typically public-domain software. [10] Software was commonly shared by individuals who used computers and by hardware manufacturers who welcomed the fact that people were making software that made their hardware useful. Organizations of users and suppliers, for example, SHARE, were formed to facilitate exchange of software. As software was often written in an interpreted language such as BASIC, the source code was distributed to use these programs. Software was also shared and distributed as printed source code (Type-in program) in computer magazines (like Creative Computing, SoftSide, Compute!, Byte etc) and books, like the bestseller BASIC Computer Games . [24] By the early 1970s, the picture changed: software costs were dramatically increasing, a growing software industry was competing with the hardware manufacturer's bundled software products (free in that the cost was included in the hardware cost), leased machines required software support while providing no revenue for software, and some customers able to better meet their own needs did not want the costs of "free" software bundled with hardware product costs. In United States vs. IBM , filed January 17, 1969, the government charged that bundled software was anti-competitive. [25] While some software might always be free, there would henceforth be a growing amount of software produced primarily for sale. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the software industry began using technical measures (such as only distributing binary copies of computer programs) to prevent computer users from being able to study or adapt the software applications as they saw fit. In 1980, copyright law was extended to computer programs.

In 1983, Richard Stallman, one of the original authors of the popular Emacs program and a longtime member of the hacker community at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, announced the GNU project, the purpose of which was to produce a completely non-proprietary Unix-compatible operating system, saying that he had become frustrated with the shift in climate surrounding the computer world and its users. In his initial declaration of the project and its purpose, he specifically cited as a motivation his opposition to being asked to agree to non-disclosure agreements and restrictive licenses which prohibited the free sharing of potentially profitable in-development software, a prohibition directly contrary to the traditional hacker ethic. Software development for the GNU operating system began in January 1984, and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded in October 1985. He developed a free software definition and the concept of "copyleft", designed to ensure software freedom for all. Some non-software industries are beginning to use techniques similar to those used in free software development for their research and development process; scientists, for example, are looking towards more open development processes, and hardware such as microchips are beginning to be developed with specifications released under copyleft licenses (see the OpenCores project, for instance). Creative Commons and the free-culture movement have also been largely influenced by the free software movement.

1980s: Foundation of the GNU project

In 1983, Richard Stallman, longtime member of the hacker community at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, announced the GNU project, saying that he had become frustrated with the effects of the change in culture of the computer industry and its users. [26] Software development for the GNU operating system began in January 1984, and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded in October 1985. An article outlining the project and its goals was published in March 1985 titled the GNU Manifesto. The manifesto included significant explanation of the GNU philosophy, Free Software Definition and "copyleft" ideas.

1990s: Release of the Linux kernel

The Linux kernel, started by Linus Torvalds, was released as freely modifiable source code in 1991. The first licence was a proprietary software licence. However, with version 0.12 in February 1992, he relicensed the project under the GNU General Public License. [27] Much like Unix, Torvalds' kernel attracted the attention of volunteer programmers. FreeBSD and NetBSD (both derived from 386BSD) were released as free software when the USL v. BSDi lawsuit was settled out of court in 1993. OpenBSD forked from NetBSD in 1995. Also in 1995, The Apache HTTP Server, commonly referred to as Apache, was released under the Apache License 1.0.

Licensing

Copyleft, a novel use of copyright law to ensure that works remain unrestricted, originates in the world of free software. Copyleft.svg
Copyleft, a novel use of copyright law to ensure that works remain unrestricted, originates in the world of free software.

All free-software licenses must grant users all the freedoms discussed above. However, unless the applications' licenses are compatible, combining programs by mixing source code or directly linking binaries is problematic, because of license technicalities. Programs indirectly connected together may avoid this problem.

The majority of free software falls under a small set of licenses. The most popular of these licenses are: [29] [30]

The Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative both publish lists of licenses that they find to comply with their own definitions of free software and open-source software respectively:

The FSF list is not prescriptive: free-software licenses can exist that the FSF has not heard about, or considered important enough to write about. So it's possible for a license to be free and not in the FSF list. The OSI list only lists licenses that have been submitted, considered and approved. All open-source licenses must meet the Open Source Definition in order to be officially recognized as open source software. Free software, on the other hand, is a more informal classification that does not rely on official recognition. Nevertheless, software licensed under licenses that do not meet the Free Software Definition cannot rightly be considered free software.

Apart from these two organizations, the Debian project is seen by some to provide useful advice on whether particular licenses comply with their Debian Free Software Guidelines. Debian doesn't publish a list of approved licenses, so its judgments have to be tracked by checking what software they have allowed into their software archives. That is summarized at the Debian web site. [31]

It is rare that a license announced as being in-compliance with the FSF guidelines does not also meet the Open Source Definition, although the reverse is not necessarily true (for example, the NASA Open Source Agreement is an OSI-approved license, but non-free according to FSF).

There are different categories of free software.

Security and reliability

Although nearly all computer viruses only affect Microsoft Windows, antivirus software such as ClamTk (shown here) is still provided for Linux and other Unix-based systems, so that users can detect malware that might infect Windows hosts. ClamTK3.08.jpg
Although nearly all computer viruses only affect Microsoft Windows, antivirus software such as ClamTk (shown here) is still provided for Linux and other Unix-based systems, so that users can detect malware that might infect Windows hosts.

There is debate over the security of free software in comparison to proprietary software, with a major issue being security through obscurity. A popular quantitative test in computer security is to use relative counting of known unpatched security flaws. Generally, users of this method advise avoiding products that lack fixes for known security flaws, at least until a fix is available.

Free software advocates strongly believe that this methodology is biased by counting more vulnerabilities for the free software systems, since their source code is accessible and their community is more forthcoming about what problems exist, [38] (This is called "Security Through Disclosure" [39] ) and proprietary software systems can have undisclosed societal drawbacks, such as disenfranchising less fortunate would-be users of free programs. As users can analyse and trace the source code, many more people with no commercial constraints can inspect the code and find bugs and loopholes than a corporation would find practicable. According to Richard Stallman, user access to the source code makes deploying free software with undesirable hidden spyware functionality far more difficult than for proprietary software. [40]

Some quantitative studies have been done on the subject. [41] [42] [43] [44]

Binary blobs and other proprietary software

In 2006, OpenBSD started the first campaign against the use of binary blobs in kernels. Blobs are usually freely distributable device drivers for hardware from vendors that do not reveal driver source code to users or developers. This restricts the users' freedom effectively to modify the software and distribute modified versions. Also, since the blobs are undocumented and may have bugs, they pose a security risk to any operating system whose kernel includes them. The proclaimed aim of the campaign against blobs is to collect hardware documentation that allows developers to write free software drivers for that hardware, ultimately enabling all free operating systems to become or remain blob-free.

The issue of binary blobs in the Linux kernel and other device drivers motivated some developers in Ireland to launch gNewSense, a Linux based distribution with all the binary blobs removed. The project received support from the Free Software Foundation and stimulated the creation, headed by the Free Software Foundation Latin America, of the Linux-libre kernel. [45] As of October 2012, Trisquel is the most popular FSF endorsed Linux distribution ranked by Distrowatch (over 12 months). [46] While Debian is not endorsed by the FSF and does not use Linux-libre, it is also a popular distribution available without kernel blobs by default since 2011. [45]

Business model

Selling software under any free-software licence is permissible, as is commercial use. This is true for licenses with or without copyleft. [17] [47] [48]

Since free software may be freely redistributed, it is generally available at little or no fee. Free software business models are usually based on adding value such as customization, accompanying hardware, support, training, integration, or certification. [17] Exceptions exist however, where the user is charged to obtain a copy of the free application itself. [49]

Fees are usually charged for distribution on compact discs and bootable USB drives, or for services of installing or maintaining the operation of free software. Development of large, commercially used free software is often funded by a combination of user donations, crowdfunding, corporate contributions, and tax money. The SELinux project at the United States National Security Agency is an example of a federally funded free-software project.

Proprietary software, on the other hand, tends to use a different business model, where a customer of the proprietary application pays a fee for a license to legally access and use it. This license may grant the customer the ability to configure some or no parts of the software themselves. Often some level of support is included in the purchase of proprietary software, but additional support services (especially for enterprise applications) are usually available for an additional fee. Some proprietary software vendors will also customize software for a fee. [50]

The Free Software Foundation encourages selling free software. As the Foundation has written, "distributing free software is an opportunity to raise funds for development. Don't waste it!". [7] For example, the FSF's own recommended license (the GNU GPL) states that "[you] may charge any price or no price for each copy that you convey, and you may offer support or warranty protection for a fee." [51]

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stated in 2001 that "open source is not available to commercial companies. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source." [52] This misunderstanding is based on a requirement of copyleft licenses (like the GPL) that if one distributes modified versions of software, they must release the source and use the same license. This requirement does not extend to other software from the same developer.[ citation needed ] The claim of incompatibility between commercial companies and free software is also a misunderstanding. There are several large companies, e.g. Red Hat and IBM, which do substantial commercial business in the development of free software.[ citation needed ]

Economic aspects and adoption

Free software played a significant part in the development of the Internet, the World Wide Web and the infrastructure of dot-com companies. [53] [54] Free software allows users to cooperate in enhancing and refining the programs they use; free software is a pure public good rather than a private good. Companies that contribute to free software increase commercial innovation. [55]

"We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable – one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could."

Official statement of the United Space Alliance, which manages the computer systems for the International Space Station (ISS), regarding their May 2013 decision to migrate ISS computer systems from Windows to Linux [56] [57]

The economic viability of free software has been recognized by large corporations such as IBM, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems. [58] [59] [60] [61] [62] Many companies whose core business is not in the IT sector choose free software for their Internet information and sales sites, due to the lower initial capital investment and ability to freely customize the application packages. Most companies in the software business include free software in their commercial products if the licenses allow that. [17]

Free software is generally available at no cost and can result in permanently lower TCO costs compared to proprietary software. [63] With free software, businesses can fit software to their specific needs by changing the software themselves or by hiring programmers to modify it for them. Free software often has no warranty, and more importantly, generally does not assign legal liability to anyone. However, warranties are permitted between any two parties upon the condition of the software and its usage. Such an agreement is made separately from the free software license.

A report by Standish Group estimates that adoption of free software has caused a drop in revenue to the proprietary software industry by about $60 billion per year. [64] Eric S. Raymond argued that the term free software is too ambiguous and intimidating for the business community. Raymond promoted the term open-source software as a friendlier alternative for the business and corporate world. [65]

See also

Notes

  1. Access to source code is a necessary but insufficient condition, according to both the Free Software and Open Source definitions.

Related Research Articles

Free software movement Social and political movement

The free software movement is a social movement with the goal of obtaining and guaranteeing certain freedoms for software users, namely the freedoms to run the software, to study the software, to modify the software, and to share copies of the software. Software which meets these requirements is termed free software. The word 'free' is ambiguous in English, although in this context, it means 'free as in freedom', not 'free as in zero price'. A common example is, "to think of free speech, not free beer."

GNU Free software project

GNU is an extensive collection of free software, which can be used as an operating system or can be used in parts with other operating systems. The use of the completed GNU tools led to the family of operating systems popularly known as Linux. Most of GNU is licensed under the GNU Project's own General Public License (GPL).

GNU Project Free software project

The GNU Project is a free software, mass collaboration project that Richard Stallman announced on September 27, 1983. Its goal is to give computer users freedom and control in their use of their computers and computing devices by collaboratively developing and publishing software that gives everyone the rights to freely run the software, copy and distribute it, study it, and modify it. GNU software grants these rights in its license.

Open-source software Software licensed to ensure source code usage rights

Open-source software (OSS) is computer software that is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute the software and its source code to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software may be developed in a collaborative public manner. Open-source software is a prominent example of open collaboration.

Within the free software and the open-source software communities there is controversy over whether to refer to computer operating systems that use a combination of GNU software and Linux kernel as "GNU/Linux" or "Linux" systems.

Free and open-source software Software whose source code is available and which is permissively licensed

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is software that can be classified as both free software and open-source software. That is, anyone is freely licensed to use, copy, study, and change the software in any way, and the source code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve the design of the software. This is in contrast to proprietary software, where the software is under restrictive copyright licensing and the source code is usually hidden from the users.

A permissive software license, sometimes also called BSD-like or BSD-style license, is a free-software license with only minimal restrictions on how the software can be used, modified, and redistributed, usually including a warranty disclaimer. Examples include the GNU All-permissive License, MIT License, BSD licenses, Apple Public Source License and Apache license. As of 2016, the most popular free-software license is the permissive MIT license.

Alternative terms for free software, such as open source, FOSS, and FLOSS, have been a controversial issue among free and open-source software users from the late 1990s onwards. These terms share almost identical licence criteria and development practices.

Richard Stallman American free software activist, and founder of GNU Project

Richard Matthew Stallman, also known by his initials, rms, is an American free software movement activist and programmer. He campaigns for software to be distributed in a manner such that its users receive the freedoms to use, study, distribute, and modify that software. Software that ensures these freedoms is termed free software. Stallman launched the GNU Project, founded the Free Software Foundation, developed the GNU Compiler Collection and GNU Emacs, and wrote the GNU General Public License.

This is a comparison of free and open-source software licences. The comparison only covers software licences with a linked article for details, approved by at least one expert group at the FSF, the OSI, the Debian project or the Fedora project. For a list of licences not specifically intended for software, see List of free content licences.

A proprietary device driver is a closed-source device driver published only in binary code. In the context of free and open-source software, a closed-source device driver is referred to as a blob or binary blob. The term usually refers to a closed-source kernel module loaded into the kernel of an open-source operating system, and is sometimes also applied to code running outside the kernel, such as system firmware images, microcode updates, or userland programs. The term blob was first used in database management systems to describe a collection of binary data stored as a single entity.

gNewSense Linux distribution

gNewSense is a Linux distribution that was active from 2006 to 2016. It was based on Debian, and developed with sponsorship from the Free Software Foundation. Its goal was user-friendliness, but with all proprietary and non-free software removed. The Free Software Foundation considered gNewSense to be composed entirely of free software.

In the 1950s and 1960s, computer operating software and compilers were delivered as a part of hardware purchases without separate fees. At the time, source code, the human-readable form of software, was generally distributed with the software providing the ability to fix bugs or add new functions. Universities were early adopters of computing technology. Many of the modifications developed by universities were openly shared, in keeping with the academic principles of sharing knowledge, and organizations sprung up to facilitate sharing. As large-scale operating systems matured, fewer organizations allowed modifications to the operating software, and eventually such operating systems were closed to modification. However, utilities and other added-function applications are still shared and new organizations have been formed to promote the sharing of software.

License compatibility is a legal framework that allows for pieces of software with different software licenses to be distributed together. The need for such a framework arises because the different licenses can contain contradictory requirements, rendering it impossible to legally combine source code from separately-licensed software in order to create and publish a new program. Proprietary licenses are generally program-specific and incompatible; authors must negotiate to combine code. Copyleft licenses are deliberately incompatible with proprietary licenses, in order to prevent copyleft software from being re-licensed under a proprietary license, turning it into proprietary software. Many copyleft licenses explicitly allow relicensing under some other copyleft licenses. Permissive licenses are compatible with everything, including proprietary licenses; there is thus no guarantee that all derived works will remain under a permissive license.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to free software and the free software movement:

Free-software license License allowing software modification and redistribution

A free-software license is a notice that grants the recipient of a piece of software extensive rights to modify and redistribute that software. These actions are usually prohibited by copyright law, but the rights-holder of a piece of software can remove these restrictions by accompanying the software with a software license which grants the recipient these rights. Software using such a license is free software as conferred by the copyright holder. Free-software licenses are applied to software in source code and also binary object-code form, as the copyright law recognizes both forms.

Copyleft Practice of mandating free use in all derivatives of a work

Copyleft is the practice of granting the right to freely distribute and modify intellectual property with the requirement that the same rights be preserved in derivative works created from that property. Copyleft in the form of licenses can be used to maintain copyright conditions for works ranging from computer software, to documents, art, scientific discoveries and even certain patents.

GNU General Public License Series of free software licenses

The GNU General Public License is a series of widely used free software licenses that guarantee end users the freedom to run, study, share, and modify the software. The licenses were originally written by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), for the GNU Project, and grant the recipients of a computer program the rights of the Free Software Definition. The GPL series are all copyleft licenses, which means that any derivative work must be distributed under the same or equivalent license terms. This is in distinction to permissive software licenses, of which the BSD licenses and the MIT License are widely used, less restrictive examples. GPL was the first copyleft license for general use.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by Richard Stallman on October 4, 1985, to support the free software movement, which promotes the universal freedom to study, distribute, create, and modify computer software, with the organization's preference for software being distributed under copyleft terms, such as with its own GNU General Public License. The FSF was incorporated in Boston, Massachusetts, US, where it is also based.

Linux-libre Version of the Linux kernel without binary blobs

Linux-libre is a modified version of the Linux kernel that contains no binary blobs, obfuscated code, or code under proprietary licenses. Binary blobs are software components with no available source code. In the Linux Kernel, they are mostly used for proprietary firmware images. While generally redistributable, binary blobs do not give the user the freedom to audit, modify or, consequently, redistribute their modified versions. The GNU Project attempts to keep Linux-libre in synchronization with the mainline Linux kernel.

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Further reading