What is free software?

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.

Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

From: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

Why free software?

       Why Software Should Not Have Owners

              by Richard Stallman

              Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it
              easier to copy and modify information.  Computers promise to make this
              easier for all of us.

              Not everyone wants it to be easier.  The system of copyright gives
              software programs "owners", most of whom aim to withhold software's
              potential benefit from the rest of the public.  They would like to be
              the only ones who can copy and modify the software that we use.

              The copyright system grew up with printing--a technology for mass
              production copying.  Copyright fit in well with this technology
              because it restricted only the mass producers of copies.  It did not
              take freedom away from readers of books.  An ordinary reader, who did
              not own a printing press, could copy books only with pen and ink, and
              few readers were sued for that.

              Digital technology is more flexible than the printing press: when
              information has digital form, you can easily copy it to share it with
              others.  This very flexibility makes a bad fit with a system like
              copyright.  That's the reason for the increasingly nasty and draconian
              measures now used to enforce software copyright.  Consider these four
              practices of the Software Publishers Association (SPA):

              * Massive propaganda saying it is wrong to disobey the owners
              to help your friend.

              * Solicitation for stool pigeons to inform on their coworkers and

              * Raids (with police help) on offices and schools, in which people are
              told they must prove they are innocent of illegal copying.

              * Prosecution (by the US government, at the SPA's request) of people
              such as MIT's David LaMacchia, not for copying software (he is not
              accused of copying any), but merely for leaving copying facilities
              unguarded and failing to censor their use.

              All four practices resemble those used in the former Soviet Union,
              where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying,
              and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it
              from hand to hand as "samizdat".  There is of course a difference: the
              motive for information control in the Soviet Union was political; in
              the US the motive is profit.  But it is the actions that affect us,
              not the motive.  Any attempt to block the sharing of information, no
              matter why, leads to the same methods and the same harshness.

              Owners make several kinds of arguments for giving them the power
              to control how we use information:

              * Name calling.

              Owners use smear words such as "piracy" and "theft", as well as expert
              terminology such as "intellectual property" and "damage", to suggest a
              certain line of thinking to the public--a simplistic analogy between
              programs and physical objects.

              Our ideas and intuitions about property for material objects are about
              whether it is right to *take an object away* from someone else.  They
              don't directly apply to *making a copy* of something.  But the owners
              ask us to apply them anyway.

              * Exaggeration.

              Owners say that they suffer "harm" or "economic loss" when users copy
              programs themselves.  But the copying has no direct effect on the
              owner, and it harms no one.  The owner can lose only if the person who
              made the copy would otherwise have paid for one from the owner.

              A little thought shows that most such people would not have bought
              copies.  Yet the owners compute their "losses" as if each and every
              one would have bought a copy.  That is exaggeration--to put it kindly.

              * The law.

              Owners often describe the current state of the law, and the harsh
              penalties they can threaten us with.  Implicit in this approach is the
              suggestion that today's law reflects an unquestionable view of
              morality--yet at the same time, we are urged to regard these penalties
              as facts of nature that can't be blamed on anyone.

              This line of persuasion isn't designed to stand up to critical
              thinking; it's intended to reinforce a habitual mental pathway.

              It's elemental that laws don't decide right and wrong.  Every American
              should know that, forty years ago, it was against the law in many
              states for a black person to sit in the front of a bus; but only
              racists would say sitting there was wrong.

              * Natural rights.

              Authors often claim a special connection with programs they have
              written, and go on to assert that, as a result, their desires and
              interests concerning the program simply outweigh those of anyone
              else--or even those of the whole rest of the world.  (Typically
              companies, not authors, hold the copyrights on software, but we are
              expected to ignore this discrepancy.)

              To those who propose this as an ethical axiom--the author is more
              important than you--I can only say that I, a notable software author
              myself, call it bunk.

              But people in general are only likely to feel any sympathy with the
              natural rights claims for two reasons.

              One reason is an overstretched analogy with material objects.  When I
              cook spaghetti, I do object if someone else takes it and stops me from
              eating it.  In this case, that person and I have the same material
              interests at stake, and it's a zero-sum game.  The smallest
              distinction between us is enough to tip the ethical balance.

              But whether you run or change a program I wrote affects you directly
              and me only indirectly.  Whether you give a copy to your friend
              affects you and your friend much more than it affects me.  I shouldn't
              have the power to tell you not to do these things.  No one should.

              The second reason is that people have been told that natural rights
              for authors is the accepted and unquestioned tradition of our society.

              As a matter of history, the opposite is true.  The idea of natural
              rights of authors was proposed and decisively rejected when the US
              Constitution was drawn up.  That's why the Constitution only *permits*
              a system of copyright and does not *require* one; that's why it says
              that copyright must be temporary.  It also states that the purpose of
              copyright is to promote progress--not to reward authors.  Copyright
              does reward authors somewhat, and publishers more, but that is
              intended as a means of modifying their behavior.

              The real established tradition of our society is that copyright cuts
              into the natural rights of the public--and that this can only be
              justified for the public's sake.

              * Economics.

              The final argument made for having owners of software is that this
              leads to production of more software.

              Unlike the others, this argument at least takes a legitimate approach
              to the subject.  It is based on a valid goal--satisfying the users of
              software.  And it is empirically clear that people will produce more of
              something if they are well paid for doing so.

              But the economic argument has a flaw: it is based on the assumption
              that the difference is only a matter of how much money we have to pay.
              It assumes that "production of software" is what we want, whether the
              software has owners or not.

              People readily accept this assumption because it accords with our
              experiences with material objects.  Consider a sandwich, for instance.
              You might well be able to get an equivalent sandwich either free or
              for a price.  If so, the amount you pay is the only difference.
              Whether or not you have to buy it, the sandwich has the same taste,
              the same nutritional value, and in either case you can only eat it
              once.  Whether you get the sandwich from an owner or not cannot
              directly affect anything but the amount of money you have afterwards.

              This is true for any kind of material object--whether or not it has an
              owner does not directly affect what it *is*, or what you can do with
              it if you acquire it.

              But if a program has an owner, this very much affects what it is, and
              what you can do with a copy if you buy one.  The difference is not
              just a matter of money.  The system of owners of software encourages
              software owners to produce something--but not what society really
              needs.  And it causes intangible ethical pollution that affects us

              What does society need?  It needs information that is truly available
              to its citizens--for example, programs that people can read, fix,
              adapt, and improve, not just operate.  But what software owners
              typically deliver is a black box that we can't study or change.

              Society also needs freedom.  When a program has an owner, the users
              lose freedom to control part of their own lives.

              And above all society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary
              cooperation in its citizens.  When software owners tell us that
              helping our neighbors in a natural way is "piracy", they pollute our
              society's civic spirit.

              This is why we say that free software is a matter of freedom, not

              The economic argument for owners is erroneous, but the economic issue
              is real.  Some people write useful software for the pleasure of
              writing it or for admiration and love; but if we want more software
              than those people write, we need to raise funds.

              For ten years now, free software developers have tried various methods
              of finding funds, with some success.  There's no need to make anyone
              rich; the median US family income, around $35k, proves to be enough
              incentive for many jobs that are less satisfying than programming.

              For years, until a fellowship made it unnecessary, I made a living
              from custom enhancements of the free software I had written.  Each
              enhancement was added to the standard released version and thus
              eventually became available to the general public.  Clients paid me so
              that I would work on the enhancements they wanted, rather than on the
              features I would otherwise have considered highest priority.

              The Free Software Foundation, a tax-exempt charity for free software
              development, raises funds by selling CD-ROMs, tapes and manuals (all
              of which users are free to copy and change), as well as from
              donations.  It now has a staff of five programmers, plus three
              employees who handle mail orders.

              Some free software developers make money by selling support services.
              Cygnus Support, with around 50 employees, estimates that about 15 per
              cent of its staff activity is free software development--a respectable
              percentage for a software company.

              Companies including Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Analog
              Devices have combined to fund the continued development of the free
              GNU compiler for the language C.  Meanwhile, the GNU compiler for the
              Ada language is being funded by the US Air Force, which believes this
              is the most cost-effective way to get a high quality compiler.

              All these examples are small; the free software movement is still
              small, and still young.  But the example of listener-supported radio
              in this country shows it's possible to support a large activity
              without forcing each user to pay.

              As a computer user today, you may find yourself using a proprietary
              program.  If your friend asks to make a copy, it would be wrong to
              refuse.  Cooperation is more important than copyright.  But
              underground, closet cooperation does not make for a good society.  A
              person should aspire to live an upright life openly with pride, and
              this means saying "No" to proprietary software.

              You deserve to be able to cooperate openly and freely with other
              people who use software.  You deserve to be able to learn how the
              software works, and to teach your students with it.  You deserve to be
              able to hire your favorite programmer to fix it when it breaks.

              You deserve free software.

              Copyright 1994 Richard Stallman
              Verbatim copying and redistribution is permitted
              without royalty as long as this notice is preserved;
              alteration is not permitted.