What does free mean?
Many people new to this subject are confused because of the word "free". It isn't used the way they expect – "free" means "free of cost" to them. If you look at an English dictionary, it lists almost twenty different meanings for "free", and only one of them is "at no cost". The rest refer to "liberty" and "lack of constraint". So, when we speak of Free Software, we mean freedom, not payment.
Software described as free, but only in the sense that you don't need to pay for it, is hardly free at all, You may be forbidden to pass it on, and you're most certainly not allowed to modify it. Software licensed at no cost is usually a weapon in a marketing campaign to promote a related product or to drive a smaller competitor out of business. There is no guarantee that it will stay free of charge.
To the uninitiated, software is either free or it isn't. Real life is much more complicated than that, though. To understand what people imply when they speak about free software, let's take a little detour and enter the world of software licenses.
Copyrights are one method of protecting the creators' rights of certain types of work. In most countries, newly written software is automatically copyrighted. A license is the author's way of allowing others to use his or her creation (software in this case), in ways that are acceptable to them. It's up to the author to include a license which declares how a piece of software may be used.
Of course, different circumstances call for different licenses. Software companies are looking for ways to protect their assets, so they often release only compiled code which isn't human readable. They also put many restrictions on the use of the software. Authors of free software, on the other hand, are mostly looking for different rules, sometimes even a combination of the following points:
- It's not allowed to use their code in proprietary software. Since they release their software so that everyone may use it, they don't want to see others steal it. In this case, use of the code is seen as a trust: you may use it, as long as you play by the same rules.
- The authorship's identity must be protected. People take great pride in their work and don't want others to remove their names from the credits or even claim they wrote it themselves.
- Source code must be distributed. One major problem with proprietary software is that you can't fix bugs or customize it, since the source code is not available. Also, a vendor may decide to stop supporting the users' hardware. Distribution of source code, as most free licenses dictate, protects the users by allowing them to customize the software and adjust it to their needs.
- Any work that includes part of the authors' work (also called "derived works" in copyright discussions) must use the same license.
Sometimes people write their own licenses, which can be problematic, so this is frowned upon in the free software community. Too often, the wording is either ambiguous, or people create conditions that conflict with each other. Writing a license which holds up in court is even harder. Luckily, there are a number of Open Source licenses available to choose from. They have the following things in common:
- Users may install the software on as many machines as they want.
- Any number of people may use the software at one time.
- Users may make as many copies of the software as they want or need and also give these copies to other users (free or open redistribution).
- There are no restrictions on modifying the software (except for keeping certain credits).
- Users may not only distribute the software, they may even sell it.
Especially the last point, which allows people to sell the software, seems to go against the whole idea of free software, but it's actually one of its strengths. Since the license allows for free redistribution, once somebody gets a copy he or she can distribute it as well. People can even try to sell it.
While free software is not completely free of constraints, it gives users the flexibility to do what they need in order to get a job done. At the same time, authors' rights are protected – now, that's freedom. The Debian project and its members are strong supporters of free software. We've compiled the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) to come up with a reasonable definition of what constitutes free software in our opinion. Only software that complies with the DFSG is allowed in the main Debian distribution.