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Understanding the FSF Philosophy

The Free Software Foundation advocates what it calls free software, which it defines in terms of freedom to do things you want to do with the software, not the price of the software. A common phrase to make this distinction clear is “free as in speech, not free as in beer.”

Free software, as the FSF defines it, is different from freeware. This term generally refers to software that’s free of charge, but not necessarily free as in speech.

The FSF defines four specific software freedoms:

These freedoms are similar to the principles espoused by the OSI, described shortly; however, there are some important differences in interpretation, also as described shortly. The FSF elaborates on the implications of each of its principles, and their interactions, at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.

In an ideal world, by the FSF’s standards, all software would be free—distributed with source code and all the freedoms just outlined. Some Linux distributions meet this ideal in isolation; however, some distributions include proprietary software. Sometimes this software is freeware, but other times it’s a bit of proprietary code that enables the vendor to restrict redistribution and charge money to sell the software. Since free software is not necessarily free of charge, selling it is not a problem from the FSF’s point of view, but given the other freedoms, free software’s price tends toward zero as it gets passed around.

The point of all this talk of freedom is to empower users—not just developers or companies. If you can modify a program that does almost what you want it to do so that it does exactly what you want it to do, that fact is a big advantage compared to a proprietary program. If you can then redistribute your modified version of the program, you can help others (assuming they want similar functionality). Thus, the FSF philosophy, when applied, can create a benefit to the wider community.

The FSF philosophy and the licenses it inspires are often referred to as copyleft. This is a play on the word copyright, reflecting the fact that copyright provisions are used to ensure freedoms that are, in some respects, the exact opposite of what copyright was created to do—that is, to guarantee a freedom of users to copy software, rather than to restrict that right.


Published on Mon 24 December 2012 by Gary Hall in Linux with tag(s): fsf