Freedom vs Free Stuff: What is Free Software?

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For those unfamiliar with the programmer’s lexicon, the difference between freeware and free software can be as elusive as the variations between C and C++. While many assume one is simply an abbreviation of the other, the Free Software Foundation assures users that this is not the case. Its Web site instructs visitors to think of free software in terms of “free speech,” not “free beer.”



For users more interested in bootlegging movies than discussing philosophy, freeware is the software of choice. These programs are made available to users at no cost for an unlimited period of time. Yet, price is the only element that separates freeware from other forms of proprietary software. Source codes generally are not provided with freeware programs, and their copyright licenses generally restrict the product’s use, modification and distribution.



Free software, however, is not about price. Started in 1984, the free software movement fights for users’ freedom to copy, modify, redistribute and run software as they see fit. Free software can be sold, traded or given away for free. Proponents of this movement see their computer as an extension of their home, and they think they should have as much authority over their software as they do over their golf clubs.



“Free software is a philosophy,” said Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). “It’s an ethical decision to create software that gives users fundamental freedoms.”



These freedoms are laid out in the copyright licenses of free software programs. The key to these agreements, which FSF refer to as “copyleft” licenses, is that users must not revoke these privileges when they redistribute free software — new users must have the same degree of ownership and access as every previous author.



“In that sense, the freedoms accumulate,” Brown said. “So, when you get a copy of the free software from me, you get freedom. When you pass it on to someone else, they get freedom too. That’s the rule. That’s what copyleft license does. It guarantees users freedom.”



It is this philosophical base that distinguishes free software from another related software type, open source. While both forms allow users to copy, run, modify and redistribute programs as they see fit, open source sees itself as strictly a business model.



Brown said this makes open source weak because if a better model were created, this type of technology would go by the wayside. Free software proponents, on the other hand, think their software has an innate worth, independent of economic variables.



“Regardless of whether there’s a better development model or more money to be made elsewhere, we believe free software is the right thing to do because it’s good for society,” Brown said.



Based on the success of free software in the marketplace, it seems that society agrees.



Mozilla Firefox, OpenOffice, Apache Web Server and GNU/Linux itself are just a few of the well-respected free software products that are used by both tech-savvy college students and Internet bigwigs. Both Google and Yahoo servers run free software, as do businesses such as Red Hat, IBM, Novell and HP, Brown said.



Enhanced security is one of the main reasons many individuals and corporations switch to free software. With spyware piggybacking on many desirable programs, not to mention the prevalence of viruses, cookies and worms, FSF thinks users need to protect and empower themselves with transparent software that they know they can trust.



Brown said that just as people refuse to allow closed-circuit televisions to monitor their actions at home, neither should they let invasive programs track their activity online.



“The people who believe in free software create software to empower you,” he said. “Not to spy on you, not to take your private data, not to install viruses but to give you freedom.”

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