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What is Free Software?

By Bethany Keene
Updated May 16, 2024
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Free software, also known as software libre, or open source software, is a type of software that can be used and modified by the software owner, as well as redistributed. Often, it may be redistributed and sold by the person who has done the modifications, but it still needs to remain open source. Free software is not synonymous with "freeware," which is software that is available for use free of charge, but may or may not be modified. This software is sometimes also free of charge, but sometimes requires a fee to purchase; the "free" in the name refers to the fact that it may be freely used and changed.

This type of software may also be referred to as open source software. All of these terms mean the same thing, and simply refer to the fact that the source code of the software is available to each person who has the software on his or her computer. The source code of the software should remain available in both the original version and any modified versions; if it is not, then the software can no longer be considered free. Of course, people are free to make their own personal changes to the software and not share it with anyone. Just because the freedom to do so exists does not mean it is required.

Free software may be software of any type, and may be used by anyone who wishes to install the software on his or her computer. The Free Software Foundation was first developed in 1985 by Richard Stallman, and provides a list of four specific "freedoms" that help to simplify the definition of free software. These are "The freedom to run the program for any purpose," "the freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish," "the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor," and "the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits."

In addition to the source code for the free software being available to the public, the software must also be accompanied by either a free software license or another notice that provides additional permissions. A manual is usually included with the software as well, which is also typically updated by users who make modifications. This type of software can be beneficial for individuals as well as larger groups or corporations, because the software can continuously be improved and customized based on the users' needs.

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Discussion Comments

By aaaCookie — On Jan 09, 2011

The big difference between free and open source is that open source software allows people to report on bugs, as well as comment on what is good and bad about the program, allowing any user to help influence future versions of a program. As a result, many open source companies give their products for free, but appreciate donations. Some even offer "Premium" or "Professional" versions that require actually purchase, though you can get the basic program for free.

By Catapult — On Jan 07, 2011

@sherlock87, I have had both good and bad experiences with free software. Like you mentioned, there are some great open source software companies out there, and I use them for things like hard drive maintenance, virus scanning, and word processing.

However, I have also accidentally downloaded "free" softwares which, like you mention, harmed my computer. One in particular, iRip, was supposed to help me get music off of my iPod and onto my computer. Instead, it gave my computer a virus. While I have known other people to have good results with that and similar programs, it scared me off of "free" software for good,

By sherlock87 — On Jan 05, 2011

I absolutely love open source software. My computer's anti-virus programs are all from open source companies, partly because most of the brands you have to buy are often over-priced. At the same time, there is a difference between a legitimate open source company and "free" software, which often has its own spy-ware inside, which can still damage your computer.

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