[[File:Desktop-Linux-Mint.png|thumb|300px|alt=An operating system's computer screen, the screen completely covered by various free software applications.|Example of a modern 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 softwareSee 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. Free Software Movement (gnu.org) Philosophy of the GNU Project (gnu.org) What is free software (fsf.org) Free software is a matter of liberty, not price: users—individually or in cooperation with computer programmers—are 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. Selling Free Software (gnu.org) Computer programs are deemed free insofar as they give users (not just the developer) ultimate control over the first, thereby allowing them to control what their devices are programmed to do.
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, 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, 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.
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 on 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. Beyond copyright law, contracts and lack of source code; there could be additional shenanigans keeping users from exercising freedom over a piece of software, such as and digital rights management (more specifically, tivoization).
It must be noted that free software can be a for-profit, commercial activity or not. Some free software is developed by volunteer Programmer while other is developed by corporations; or even by both.
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". The loan adjective "" 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. See Gratis versus libre.
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. 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, 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, MIT License, and Apache License software licenses are substantially similar in intent and implementation.
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.
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-like 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 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.
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.
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.
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, (This is called "Security Through Disclosure") 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.
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. As of October 2012, Trisquel is the most popular FSF endorsed Linux distribution ranked by Distrowatch (over 12 months). 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.
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. Exceptions exist however, where the user is charged to obtain a copy of the free application itself.
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.
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!". 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."
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." 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. 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.
The economic viability of free software has been recognized by large corporations such as IBM, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems. 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.
Free software is generally available at no cost and can result in permanently lower TCO costs compared to proprietary software. 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. In spite of this, Eric S. Raymond argues that the term free software is too ambiguous and intimidating for the business community. Raymond promotes the term open-source software as a friendlier alternative for the business and corporate world.