Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free. (Linus Torvalds)
When you think about something being free, the first and most obvious idea is that you don’t need to pay for it. While important, that is not necessarily what software freedom should be (and is) about. The term “free software” as used today, means that you are free when you are using it. It changes everything, doesn’t it?
When we say a software is free we mean it has freedom, not necessarily “gratis” (as in free beer). While the latter often applies too (as in available without payment, or charge), it does not have to be the case. Counter-intuitive as this may sound at first, free software can be sold for money.
The term free software (in the context most widely understood today and advocated by the FSF), has been coined by the already mentioned Richard M. Stallman in or around 1986. One surviving historical document that mentions software freedom in this context is the first GNU Bulletin, although only two of the four freedoms seem to appear here:
The Free Software Foundation is dedicated to eliminating restrictions on copying, redistribution, understanding and modification of software. The word “free” in our name does not refer to price; it refers to freedom. First, the freedom to copy a program and redistribute it to your neighbors, so that they can use it as well as you. Second, the freedom to change a program, so that you can control it instead of it controlling you; for this, the source code must be made available to you.
This of course was meant to define what the Free Software Foundations (FSF) was, the definition grew later into defining free software and software freedom in general.
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by Richard Stallman on 4 October 1985 to support the free software movement, which promotes the universal freedom to study, distribute, create, and modify computer software, with the organization’s preference for software being distributed under copyleft (“share alike”) terms, such as with its own GNU General Public License. The FSF was incorporated in Massachusetts, USA, where it is also based. From its founding until the mid-1990s, FSF’s funds were mostly used to employ software developers to write free software for the GNU Project. Since the mid-1990s, the FSF’s employees and volunteers have mostly worked on legal and structural issues for the free software movement and the free software community. Consistent with its goals, only free software is used on the FSF’s computers.
Almost thirty years later both the Foundation (along with the movement it supports) and the idea of freedom have matured. Today free software is well-defined and legally supported.
A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Computer scientists, programmers, hackers and nerds have the funny habit of starting to count from zero, instead of one. This is because of how some programming languages do it, which in turn is because of how computers work, which is a topic too advanced for this humble blog).
Copyleft, copyright, copy straight ahead and licensing freely
Over the years a number of licenses have been introduced that ensure software freedom remains intact and protected by law. The GNU General Public License (GPL, now at version 3) is one of the most widely used free software licenses. It is meant to guarantee the above mentioned four freedoms and ensure their protection by applying copyright laws and regulations. Sounds weird, eh? It’s all copyrighted…
Free software licenses are in fact protected by copyright laws in various countries. The GPL license, like many other free licenses, require one to first copyright their work, then apply various clauses to the copyright, stating that they will allow free use, distribution, etc., turning the restrictive copyright into a non-restrictive one, also called a “copyleft“.
Copyleft is not an official legal term, only a play with words. Therefore “copylefted” programs are still copyrighted, but, of course, copyrighted does not necessarily mean non-free, or that they are restricted. It simply means “protected by copyright laws”. “Copylefting” is a term used by the FSF to indicate software that is made free by applying a free license.
Despite what would seem logical, following from the above, "copy straight ahead" does not really exist. Or at least not yet...
Other free licenses
The GNU GPL is not the only free license in existence, in fact, there are plenty others, which share the goal of providing freedom. (We are most concerned with GPL, as it is the one you will most likely encounter in GNU/Linux systems, simply because it is a GNU license.) Free licenses can be applied to software, documentation, and other works as well. A good exhaustive list of free and non-free licenses has been compiled on the GNU website.
Another significant free license, besides GPL, that can be applied to various works is the many licenses available from Creative Commons. This website and all of its contents are for example licensed under a CreativeCommons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International license, that allows anyone to use them as they like, as long as they keep it freely licensed and attribute the work to its original creator. (That is, you should legally mention my name when reusing my text. So much for my ego…)
There is also a choice to place any work into the public domain. In theory, this gives the greatest freedom: the work can be used by anyone, without any restriction, to do whatever they want with it, even making it non-free. And that is probably the only problem with public domain: One can take a public domain work, modify it and put a restrictive license on what they’ve made from it. Still, going license-free is an option, and public domain works can, and are used for good. E.g. much of the penguin images used on this site are in the public domain, making the author of this site eternally grateful for their creators (whoever they might be).
So you know all the dry and uninteresting technical details about free software, but still not sure why you should bother. After all, it is the price-tag, or rather the lack of it, is what interest most people, why should we bother with philosophy?
From one point of view, you’re probably right, you need not concern yourself with philosophy. Some people find thinking too much about freedom can cause their brains to overheat; while others just could not care less; and there are those, who really enjoy all of its benefits but have no time for all those silly details. Fortunately for us, there are people, like those behind FSF, CC, and other such organisations that take care of all this, but still there are undeniable benefits of using free software and maintaining the ideals of freedom, if only by using free software.
Value your freedom, or you will lose it, teaches history. “Don’t bother us with politics,” respond those who don’t want to learn. (Richard M. Stallman)
The most basic way to put why free software is important is by trying to answer who is in control.
Either the user controls the program or the program controls the users (ibid)
By letting your PC run non-free software, you are essentially giving control over your programs, your files, data (your photos, memories, thoughts, everything, you even input into the machine) over to some corporation, that will only allow you to interact with it a certain way. Richard says it all a lot better (and in a very easy to understand way) in the below TED talk (it’s worth watching, only 13 minutes):