Free software

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Free Geek uses software that is "free" and "Open Source." In many contexts, these two terms are interchangeable. There is, however, a fundamental difference. Free software (by the definition commonly understood 'round these parts) is a kind of Open Source software, but not every Open Source program is technically free.

Open Source software

"Open Source" is a term that describes, primarily, a methodology.

If a program is "open source," that means its source code is available to anybody who has been granted the right to use the software. The Open Source Definition is a formal explanation of this principle, and goes into more detail.

The main advantage of using open source software is practical in nature. Because any user has access to the source code, any user is able (with suitable programming knowledge) to modify the software to meet his or her specific needs.

NOTE: When the term "Open Source" (1998) was coined, the phase "free software" (1970s) had been in use for a long time. But "Open Source" is a somewhat simpler concept, which is why I explain it first.

free software

The term "free software" arises from a movement that is primarily philosophical.

It builds on the concept of "Open Source" software, mainly by adding one important concept: If you modify a piece of free software, and distribute it, you must make the source code available as well.

This concept is made official in a document called the GNU General Public License. The GNU GPL is a software license, which is a legal document in which the creator of the software formally grants somebody else the right to use it. (Unlike many legal documents, the GNU GPL is written for mere mortals and lawyers alike; so go on, have a look.)

For more on this topic, see the Free Software Foundation's web site. They're the good folks who maintain the GNU GPL, and coordinate the release of most of the software we use here at Free Geek.

  • NOTE: GNU/Linux, and all the software we run on it at Free Geek, is free software. There is non-free software that will run on GNU/Linux; Real Player, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and Macromedia Flash are common examples.
  • NOTE: many people mistakenly assume that the word "free" means, primarily, that you don't have to pay for the software. A common explanation for the deeper intent is:
"free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer".
So no, that spyware-laced screen saver your cousin downloaded on his Windows-based PC is not, properly speaking, free software, even though he didn't have to pay for it. In fact, software need not be offered gratis (free of charge) in order to be free software.