Open Source *is* Free Software

September 19, 2009

As in Free Beer

One of the great misconceptions about Open Source software is that it’s not necessarily free. Ironically this misconception was created by the Free Software Foundation. This foundation has been one of the most active (sometimes even activist) protagonists of Open Source Software and maintains the GNU General Public Licence, a software license that gives the user nearly full control over the software published under the license and is regarded as an Open Source licence, if not as *the* Open Source license.

On their website, the FSF has a definition of Free Software, which contains this, often cited, phrase:

“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”. (1)

Why they insist to keep this statement in there I do not know. They themselves must understand that this statement is false, as they created the license. They can define Free Software any way they want, but it does not change the reality of the GPL license. The publisher and user are bound to the GPL license if they publish and use software under this license, not to this definition.

Under the GPL license, the user is allowed to make copies of the software and redistribute these copies under the same license. He does not have to pay anything to the original publisher and is not limited in the amount of copies he may redistribute. He’s allowed to, but not forced to, charge money for redistributing the work. (2)

Defining ‘Free’

It all comes down to how you define ‘Free’ in the context of price. If you define it as ‘no obligation to pay’, then Open Source software *is* free as in free beer. There is no obligation to pay anywhere in the license. And even if the original publisher charges money for the software, he can not stop users of his software from redistributing it for free.

Technically, you are as a publisher allowed, or able, to charge money for software you publish under an Open Source license. However you could also revert this statement: As a user of Open Source software you are allowed to pay. But you are not required to! No one can legally stop you from downloading the software from another location without paying anything. And no one can stop the uploader either. It’s in their legal right under the license. So to say that it’s not free as in free beer is playing a semantic game. In practice, it is free as in free beer.

The Open Source Initiative

The Free Software Foundation is not the only organization supporting Open Source, and the GPL license is not the only Open Source license. Many organizations and licenses exist that proclaim to be Open Source. Because Open Source is not a trademark or otherwise legally protected name, anyone can say their software is Open Source. To prevent abuse of the name and to create clarity about what it means, the Open Source Initiative was created. It states a definition of Open Source and maintains a list of Open Source licenses that adhere to the definition. This list includes the GPL. The definition from the OSI contains ten points an Open Source license should comply with and the first of these immediately makes it clear that all Open Source software is in fact Free, both in terms of freedom as well as in price:

1. Free Redistribution

The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale. (3)

“The license shall not require a royalty or other fee” are the key words here. There is a difference between allowing payment and requiring it. Between asking payment and demanding it. If you are not required to pay… is it free? I think most would agree that yes, if you are not required to pay, it’s free. The publisher can still *ask* for payment, he just cannot *demand* it.

Saying Open Source is not necessarily free is just confusing people. To all pratical intents and purposes, Open Source software *is* free. It’s better for both users and publishers of software that this is made clear from the start.