Free Software

Free as in Freedom: Think "free speech", not "free beer"

  1. What is Free Software?
  2. Why are these freedoms important?
  3. The Free Software movement
  4. What are "Libre Software" and "Open Source software"?
  5. Free Software and the EU
  6. Links


What is Free Software?

Software is Free Software if it comes with permission for all recipients to do the following four things:

Access to the programs' source code is required for the second and fourth freedoms. "Source code" is the human-readable, human-modifiable form of a computer program - like blueprints or a recipe.

"The Free Software Definition" gives a more complete and official explanation.


Why are these freedoms important?

The need for the freedom to run a program for any purpose is pretty obvious.

The freedom to study and alter a program is required so that anyone can look at what exactly the software is doing, and can change the software if they are not satisfied. Without this freedom, people do not control their computers and don't have control over their data.

The freedom to redistribute copies is required so that people can help each other. If you have a piece of software, and a friend asks you for a copy, you'll want to give them a copy. Or in a company, if one department is using a piece of software to write documents, other departments might want a copy of the software so that they can view the documents, or so that they can also edit the documents. The act of passing on a copy of software is very simple and very useful, so you should be given the freedom to pass on copies.

Finally, the freedom to improve a program and release your improvements. Software will always have errors, limitations, incompatabilities, and annoyances. Software users should be allowed to fix these problems. Either by fixing the source code themselves, or by asking a friend or hiring a programmer. When the problem is fixed, they should be allowed to release their work to the public, so that all users of that software can benefit for their improvements. This permission has allowed software developing communities and developers in distant companies to collaborate to develop high quality Free Software.


The Free Software Movement

In the 50's and 60's, virtually all software was Free Software. The term didn't even exist, it was normal for software to come with these freedoms. In the late seventies, the software world began to change. Some companies began to keep the source code a secret, and they used copyright to make it illegal to copy or redistribute their software.

By the early eighties, it was no longer possible to use a computer without using software which prohibited the user from trying to help themself or others. Collobaration and cooperation between software users was either prohibited or prevented. In 1983, Richard Stallman decided to do something about this:

"So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free."

This was the initial announcement of the GNU project, and the beginning of the Free Software movement. For more info about the GNU project, you can read the brief history, or the detailed history.

Today we have that sufficient body of Free Software. We also have Free Software alternatives for most popular non-Free applications. The current focuses of the Free Software movement are:

  1. Developing and improving Free Software replacements for popular non-Free applications, making it easier for people to migrate to Free Software.
  2. Educating our law makers to ensure that use and development of Free Software is not harmed by new laws of the digital age.
  3. Informing software users about Free Software. This includes individuals, governments, schools, universities, and businesses.
  4. Improving existing Free Software, and developing new programs for everyones benefit.

You can help us

It is best to coordinate and collaborate with others, so look for a local Free Software organisation or community. IFSO exists to fill this role in Ireland. If there are no local Free Software organisations, form one and get the word out. Ask FSF, FSFeurope, or a similar organisation to set up a mailing-list for your country/community. IFSO started out in the summer of 2003 as a handful of people collaborating over a the fsfe-ie mailing list.


What are "Libre Software" and "Open Source software"?

"Free Software", "Open Source software", and "Libre Software", all refer to the same thing. To be technical, there are minor differences in their criteria, but they all refer to software that comes with the four freedoms listed at the top of this page.

Popular examples of software that these three terms apply to include: the GNU operating system, the Linux kernel, SpamAssassin spam blocker, the Freenet file-sharing software, the Apache webserver, the Mozilla web browser, the GNOME and KDE desktops, the FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD operating systems, the productivity suite, the MySQL database, and the Emacs and ViM text editors.

There is a directory of Free Software projects at:

So, why three terms?

"Free Software" was coined in 1983.

"Open Source" was coined in 1998 by some members of the Free Software community "as a marketing arm for Free Software". Their goals were to remove the ambiguity of the word "free" and to hide the issue of freedom in case it was scaring software development businesses away from Free Software.

"Libre Software" is a multilingual term coined by the European Commission in 2000 to avoid the ambiguity of the word "free". The word "libre", in French and Spanish, means "with liberty", or "free, as in freedom". These languages have seperate words ("gratuit" and "gratis") that refer to zero-price.


Free Software and the EU

The Information Society Initiative of the European Commission have a Free & Open Source Software website, which says:

``On the provider side, F/OSS creates new opportunities for software and service providers, which may be a unique opportunity for the European software industry - somehow this may be a proverbial "second and last chance".''

The website also contains a list of "Cases of official recognition/adoption of F/OSS".

The European Commissions' Working group on Libre Software have released a paper titled "Information Society Opportunities for Europe?"

The European Commission have published the "IDA Open Source Migration Guidelines" which details how a company could migrate it's use of office desktop systems to Free Software.