Free software is software that is distributed free of charge either as an end product or a service. It should be free in the sense of freedom and not restricted in any way, and the free software movement promotes and encourages software that respects those principles.
It’s also a term used for software that is given away for free on the internet, with the source code available so that you can make any sort of changes to it.
Free software doesn’t just include open source, as open source is a subset of free software, so you can’t get free software without free software being free.
Free software advocates don’t take anything away from the other two approaches. They just believe it’s a better approach that both encourages software developers to create software that doesn’t cost them any money to develop (and thereby gives them more money to donate to charity) and prevents the government and other organisations from controlling the software’s distribution by imposing non-free restrictions.
There’s plenty of free software on the internet.
But here’s my point. Some people don’t understand it. They are so used to the way software has been distributed in the past that they feel that free software isn’t ‘real’ software. They assume it’s a subset of the other two. I’d like to explain what free software is, so that people understand it and use it, and that the other two don’t become meaningless, but I can’t do it in a way that is simple enough for people to understand.
And when I say people, I mean people who use computers.
If you say “Oh, but what about my computer?! It can’t have free software!” I don’t disagree. But we’re going to talk about free software for computers, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
“Free” in this context
Free is a free as in freedom, not as in free beer. Just as no-one can force you to give up your right to free speech, no-one can force you to give up your right to free software.
I know that many people who use computers feel that they have a right to software that doesn’t cost them any money to use. I’m not going to argue with them. But there’s plenty of free software on the internet. The GitHub website lists hundreds of free operating systems, thousands of web browsers, free word processors, free accounting software, and so on.
But here’s my point. Some people don’t understand it. They are so used to the way software has been distributed in the past that they feel that free software isn’t ‘real’ software. They assume it’s a subset of the other two. I’d like to explain what free software is, so that people understand it and use it, and realize that it’s important for the future of free software.
If you are a user
The term “free software” often gets used in two ways. You can say “This software is free”, meaning that it’s free of charge. Or you can say “This software is free”, meaning that you can change and redistribute it free (libre).
Let’s talk about “free software”, the first definition.
This definition does not say anything about whether or not the source code is available. That is to say, it’s completely independent of the copyright status of the program. So anyone can publish a program under the “free” definition, and use it as they see fit.
Anyone can even release a proprietary software, and sell copies. Some people do it (see the proprietary Windows operating system). Others find the price is simply too high and choose to make money by selling “free” software.
But the user does not have to use proprietary software. For the definition to mean anything, the software itself must be free, so that users are given an equivalent alternative to the proprietary product. There are programs in the free world which are not free in the sense of being free of charge. These programs do not come under the “free software” definition, because the user can’t change and redistribute them. For example, the program “GIMP” (a photo editing program) is completely free, but if you want to share it you have to contact the program’s creator and give him a cut of the money you make off it.
The “free software” definition does not make any reference to price. It is completely independent of that.
Why do I keep saying that? Because the two most common objections to free software are both untrue.
So, use and share the free software.