What is Free Software
Software is deeply involved in all aspects of our lives, and invisibly integrated into the basic fabric of society. With our reliance on software being increasingly pronounced, how can we ensure that the software we use every day is taking its orders from you, rather than unjustly controlled by Big Tech?
Free software gives everybody the freedom to use, study, modify and distribute software. These rights enable us to understand and improve software, while also helping support other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, privacy, and right to repair.
The Four Freedoms
For any program to be free software, it must uphold the four essential freedoms:
- The freedom to use the program for any purpose. You have the freedom to run the program however you wish, without any restrictions, as well as the freedom not to use it.
- The freedom to study and modify the program. You are free to study the source code of the program, and make your own modifications to it.
- The freedom to distribute the program. You have the freedom to redistribute copies of the programs so you can help others.
- The freedom to distribute modified versions of the program, or the freedom to collaborate on the program. You can share improvements to the program with others, and build better software through joint effort.
If any of the four freedoms is missing, the program is proprietary software, or nonfree software. Contrary to proprietary software, free software gives you control, and comes with many other advantages.
The four freedoms are given by a software license. Whether a program is free or not depends on the terms and conditions of its license. If you are interested, continue reading our introductions to software copyright and licenses.
The four freedoms that free software gives you come with advantages in many aspects, including but not limited to:
- Privacy and security. With the availability of source code, anyone can learn how the software works and make sure it doesn't compromise your privacy and meet expected security.
- Freedom to use. There is no restriction on the use of free software of any kind, such as time ("30 days trial period"), purpose ("For research and non-commercial use only"), or place ("Licensed for one computer only").
- Improvements. You are free to make modifications to the program as you need, and have your own modified version installed. This also undelies the right to repair movement.
- Freedom to share. You can make limitless number of copies of free software and distribute them, without paying extra.
- Collaboration. You are free to share your own changes with others, and incorporate changes from others into your own program. This enables the community to build better software together.
- Competition. Free software enhances competition and resists monopolization.
The Injustice of Proprietariness
Proprietary software, or nonfree software, denies you the freedom to use, study, modify and/or share software. In practice, proprietary software often risks your privacy and security by hiding the source code and prohibiting you from modifying the program.
Microsoft Windows, as soon as it boots, and without asking any permission, automatically sends data to many online servers. Their web browser Edge leaks the sites the user visits to Bing and sends images the user views to Microsoft.
The e-commerce giant Pinduoduo exploits vulnerablities of mobile phones to make its Android malware hard to remove, snooping on other apps and taking control of them. TikTok injects keylogger-like scripts into its iOS in-app browser that can track every tap and input by the user.
These are just a few instances where proprietary programs are designed to harm the users. Besides they go out of many other ways to spy on the users, restrict them, censor them, and abuse them.
Free Software, Freeware and Commercialization
When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Think of "free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer". By saying this, however, we don't mean that free software is not gratis, but that it's nothing about price.
You may purchase a copy of free software and give it away. You may also get a copy at no charge and sell it to someone else. Here, what we are focusing on is the freedom that the software you've obtained gives you. Whether you purchased the program or obtained it at no charge, as long as it gives you the four freedoms, nobody can restrict the way you distribute it, no matter its gratis or paid distriution.
For these reasons, collecting royalties for distrubiting copies of free software, has become an unfeasible thing for free software developers -- they have therefore explored other ways of commercialization. Commercialization? Many would think it being unacceptable. However, commercialization is not a bad thing; it instead turns development of free software from a hobby to an income, which in turn encourages proliferation of free software in general. What is unacceptable is the practice of commercialization that aims to make more profit by compromising user freedom, typically by selling software that prohibits free distribution and modification.
With profiting from distribution of copies being no longer feasible, free software developers has come up with other ways of commercialization while also ensuring user freedom. Some examples are providing paid technical support for free software, and developing and modifying free software in exchange for money.
Free Software and "Open Source"
Free software is often referred to by many as "open source" software. While both terms refers to basically the same thing, they are each based on different values. The free software movement was started by the Free Software Foundation in 1985 to promote computer user freedom and defend the rights of all software users. In 1998, some people splintered off from the free software movement and, with the aim of attracting more business intrest, launched the Open Source Initiative. The term "open source" was coined since as a marketing term of free software, underming the ideas of user freedom.
In order to stay neutral, some people use the term FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) to refer to the two movements as a whole. Some others would choose to say FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). If neutrality is your goal, we suggest saying FLOSS.
As lovers of software freedom, we prefer the term "free software" to "open source". Language is important because it frames how people think about a subject. While both terms describe almost the same range of software, free software is more about your freedom and not just an open way of building software. We hope you support our views as well and make the same choice.
Kickstarting the Journey to Freedom
Using free software is no longer a hard thing today. We have written a series of guides to help you through replacing proprietary programs in your computers (and cellphones) with free ones, step by step. Please continue reading how to switch to free software.
Are you a developer? You can provide even greater help by participating in free software development.
The free software movement needs your help. Share this page with your friends, and let them know free software is even more important now.