Free software movement

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Richard Stallman circa 2002, founder of the GNU Project and the free software movement.

The free software movement is a social movement with the goal of obtaining and guaranteeing certain freedoms for software users, namely the freedoms to run the software, to study the software, to modify the software, and to share copies of the software (whether modified or not).[1][2] Software which meets these requirements ("The Four Essential Freedoms of Free Software") is termed free software. The word 'free' is ambiguous in English, although in this context, it means 'free as in freedom', not 'free as in zero price'. A common example is, "to think of free speech, not free beer."

Although drawing on traditions and philosophies among members of the 1970s hacker culture and academia, Richard Stallman formally founded the movement in 1983 by launching the GNU Project.[3] Stallman later established the Free Software Foundation in 1985 to support the movement.


The philosophy of the movement is that the use of computers should not lead to people being prevented from cooperating with each other. In practice, this means rejecting proprietary software, which imposes such restrictions, and promoting free software,[4] with the ultimate goal of liberating everyone in cyberspace[5] – that is, every computer user. Stallman notes that this action will promote rather than hinder the progression of technology, since, "It means that much wasteful duplication of system programming effort will be avoided. This effort can go instead into advancing the state of the art."[6]

Members of the free software movement believe that all users of software should have the freedoms listed in The Free Software Definition. Many of them hold that: it is immoral to prohibit or prevent people from exercising these freedoms; these freedoms are required to create a decent society where software users can help each other; and they are necessary to have control over their computers.[7]

Some free software users and programmers do not believe that proprietary software is strictly immoral, citing an increased profitability in the business models available for proprietary software or technical features and convenience as their reasons.[8]

The Free Software Foundation also believes all software needs free documentation, in particular because conscientious programmers should be able to update manuals to reflect modification that they made to the software, but deems the freedom to modify less important for other types of written works.[9] Within the free software movement, the FLOSS Manuals foundation specialises on the goal of providing such documentation. Members of the free software movement advocate that works which serve a practical purpose should also be free.[10]

Views on proprietary software in education

The free software movement argues that schools should exclusively use free software because it encourages students to learn about the software and because it encourages students to be a part of a free and independent society.[11] The GNU Project argues that developers of nonfree software give their software away for no charge to schools so that dependency on proprietary software is induced their students, and that schools should reject the software, similar to how schools would reject a donation of cigarettes.[12]


GNU and Tux mascots around free software supporters at FISL 16

Writing and spreading free software

The core work of the free software movement is focused on software development. The free software movement also rejects proprietary software, refusing to install software that does not give them the freedoms of free software. According to Stallman, "The only thing in the software field that is worse than an unauthorised copy of a proprietary program, is an authorised copy of the proprietary program because this does the same harm to its whole community of users, and in addition, usually the developer, the perpetrator of this evil, profits from it."[13]

Building awareness

Some supporters of the free software movement take up public speaking, or host a stall at software-related conferences to raise awareness of software freedom. This is seen as important since people who receive free software, but who are not aware that it is free software, will later accept a non-free replacement or will add software that is not free software.[14]

Legislation and government

A lot of lobbying work has been done against software patents and expansions of copyright law. Other lobbying focuses directly on the use of free software by government agencies and government-funded projects.


The French Gendarmerie and the French National Assembly utilize the open source operating system Linux.[15]


Congressmen Edgar David Villanueva and Jacques Rodrich Ackerman have been instrumental in introducing free software in Peru, with bill 1609 on "Free Software in Public Administration".[16] The incident invited the attention of Microsoft Inc, Peru, whose general manager wrote a letter to Villanueva. His response received worldwide attention and is seen as a classic piece of argumentation favouring use of free software in governments.[17]

United Kingdom keeps a list of "key components, tools and services that have gone into the construction of GOV.UK".[18][title needed]

United States

In the United States, there have been efforts to pass legislation at the state level encouraging the use of free software by state government agencies.[19]


Uruguay has a sanctioned law requiring that the state give priority to free software. It also requires that information be exchanged in open formats.[20]


The Government of Venezuela implemented a free software law in January 2006. Decree No. 3,390 mandated all government agencies to migrate to free software over a two-year period.[21]


The free software movement has been extensively analyzed using economic methodologies, including perspectives from heterodox economics. Of particular interest to economists[who?] is the willingness of programmers in the free software movement to work, often producing higher-quality than proprietary programmers, without financial compensation[citation needed].

In his 1998 article "The High-Tech Gift Economy", Richard Barbrook suggested that the then-nascent free software movement represented a return to the gift economy building on hobbyism and the absence of economic scarcity on the internet.[22]

Gabriella Coleman has emphasized the importance of accreditation, respect, and honour within the free software community as a form of compensation for contributions to projects, over and against financial motivations.[23]

The Swedish Marxian economist Johan Söderberg has argued that the free software movement represents a complete alternative to capitalism that may be expanded to create a post-work society. He argues that the combination of a manipulation of intellectual property law and private property to make goods available to the public and a thorough blend between labor and fun make the free software movement a communist economy.[24]

Subgroups and schisms

Like many social movements, the free software movement has ongoing internal conflict between the many FLOSS organizations (FSF, OSI, Debian, Mozilla Foundation, Apache Foundation, etc.) and their personalities. For instance there is disagreement about the amount of compromises and pragmatism needed versus the need for strict adherence to values.[25]

Open source

Although commercial free software was not uncommon at the time (see Cygnus Solutions for example), in 1998 after an announcement that Netscape would liberate their popular Web browser, a strategy session was held to develop a stronger business case for free software which would focus on technology rather than politics.[26]

After this, Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to promote the term "Open source software" as an alternative term for free software. The OSI wanted to address the perceived shortcomings in the ambiguous term "free software".[27][28][29] In addition, some members of the OSI didn't follow the free software movement's focus on non-free software as a social and ethical problem; instead focusing on the advantages of open source as superior model for software development.[30] The latter became the view of people like Eric Raymond and Linus Torvalds, while Bruce Perens argues that open source was simply meant to popularize free software under a new brand, and even called for a return to the basic ethical principles.[31]

Some free software advocates use the terms "Free and Open-Source Software" (FOSS) or "Free/Libre and Open-Source Software" (FLOSS) as a form of inclusive compromise, drawing on both philosophies to bring both free software advocates and open-source software advocates together to work on projects with more cohesion. Some users believe that a compromise term encompassing both aspects is an ideal solution in order to promote both the user's freedom with the software and the pragmatic efficiency of an open-source development model. This eclectic view is reinforced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of OSI-approved licenses and self-avowed open-source programs are also compatible with the free software formalisms and vice versa.[10]

While some people prefer to link the two ideas of "open-source software" and "free software" together, they offer two separate ideas and values. This ambiguity began in 1998 when people started to use the term "open-source software" rather than "free software". People in the community of free software used these separate terms as a way to differentiate what they did. Richard Stallman has called open source "a non-movement", because it "does not campaign for anything".[32] Open source addresses software being open as a practical question as opposed to an ethical dilemma. In other words, it focuses more on the development of software than the ethical, moral, political, and societal issues surrounding software in general. The open-source movement ultimately determines that non-free software is not the solution of best interest but nonetheless a solution.[33][10]

On the other hand, the free software movement views free software as a moral imperative: that proprietary software should be rejected for selfish and social reasons, and that only free software should be developed and taught to cope with the task of making computing technology beneficial to humanity. It is argued that whatever economical or technical merits free software may have, those are byproducts stemming from the rights that free software developers and users must enjoy. An example of this would be the unlikelihood of free software being designed to mistreat or spy on users.[34] At the same time, the benefits purveyed by the open-source movement have been challenged both from inside and outside the free software movement. It is unclear whether free and open-source software actually leads to more performant and less vulnerable code, with researchers Robert Glass and Benjamin Mako Hill providing statistical insight that this is usually not the case.[35][36]

Regarding the meaning and misunderstandings of the word free, those who work within the free software camp have searched for less ambiguous terms and analogies like "free beer vs free speech" in efforts to convey the intended semantics, so that there is no confusion concerning the profitability of free software. The loan adjective libre has gained some traction in the English-speaking free software movement as unequivocally conveying the state of being in freedom that free software refers to. This is not considered schismatic; libre is seen as an alternative explanatory device. In fact, free software has always been unambiguously referred to as "libre software" (in translation) in languages where the word libre or a cognate is native. In India, where free software has gained a lot of ground,[37] the unambiguous term swatantra and its variants are widely used instead of "free".[38][39]

The free software movement rebuts that while "free" may be prone to confuse novices because of the duplicity of meanings, at least one of the meanings is completely accurate, and that it is hard to get it wrong once the difference has been learned. It is also ironically noted that "open source" isn't exempt of poor semantics either, as a misunderstanding arises whereby people think source code disclosure is enough to meet the open-source criteria, when in fact it is not.[10]

The switch from the free software movement to the open-source movement has had negative effects on the progression of community, according to Christopher Kelty, who dedicates a scholarly chapter to the Free Software Movement in "Theorising Media and Practice". The open-source movement denies that selectivity and the privatization of software is unethical. Although the open-source movement is working towards the same social benefits as the free software movement, Kelty claims that by disregarding this fundamental belief of the free software advocates, one is destroying the overall argument. If it can be claimed that it is ethical to limit the internet and other technology to only users who have the means to use this software, then there is no argument against the way things are at the moment; there is no need to complain if all morality is in effect.[40]

Although the movements have separate values and goals, people in both the open-source community and free software community collaborate when it comes to practical projects.[41] By 2005, Richard Glass considered the differences to be a "serious fracture" but "vitally important to those on both sides of the fracture" and "of little importance to anyone else studying the movement from a software engineering perspective" since they have had "little effect on the field".[42]

Stallman and Torvalds

The two most prominent people associated with the movement, Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, may be seen as representatives of the value based versus apolitical philosophies, as well as the GNU versus Linux coding styles. In the GNU/Linux naming controversy the FSF argues for the term GNU/Linux because GNU is a longstanding project to develop a free operating system, of which they assert the kernel was the last missing piece.[43]

Criticism and controversy

Principle compromises

Eric Raymond criticises the speed at which the free software movement is progressing, suggesting that temporary compromises should be made for long-term gains. Raymond argues that this could raise awareness of the software and thus increase the free software movement's influence on relevant standards and legislation.[44]

Richard Stallman, on the other hand, sees the current level of compromise as a greater cause for worry.[25][45][46]

Programmer income

Stallman said that this is where people get the misconception of "free": there is no wrong in programmers' requesting payment for a proposed project, or charging for copies of free software.[47] Restricting and controlling the user's decisions on use is the actual violation of freedom. Stallman defends that in some cases, monetary incentive is not necessary for motivation since the pleasure in expressing creativity is a reward in itself.[6] Conversely, Stallman admits that it is not easy to raise money for free software projects.[48]

"Viral" copyleft licensing

The free software movement champions copyleft licensing schema (often pejoratively called "viral licenses"). In its strongest form, copyleft mandates that any works derived from copyleft-licensed software must also carry a copyleft license, so the license spreads from work to work like a computer virus might spread from machine to machine. Stallman has previously stated his opposition to describing the GNU GPL as "viral". These licensing terms can only be enforced through asserting copyrights.[49]

Critics of copyleft licensing challenge the idea that restricting modifications is in line with the free software movement's emphasis on various "freedoms", especially when alternatives like MIT, BSD, and Apache licenses are more permissive.[50][51] Proponents enjoy the assurance that copylefted work cannot usually be incorporated into non-free software projects.[52] They emphasize that copyleft licenses may not attach for all uses and that in any case, developers can simply choose not to use copyleft-licensed software.[53][54]

License proliferation and compatibility

FLOSS license proliferation is a serious concern in the FLOSS domain due to increased complexity of license compatibility considerations which limits and complicates source code reuse between FLOSS projects.[55] The OSI and the FSF maintain their own lists of dozens of existing and acceptable FLOSS licenses.[56] There is an agreement among most that the creation of new licenses should be minimized and those created should be made compatible with the major existing FLOSS licenses. Therefore, there was a strong controversy around the update of the GNU GPLv2 to the GNU GPLv3 in 2007,[57][58] as the updated license is not compatible with the previous version.[59][60][61] Several projects (mostly of the open source faction[58] like the Linux kernel[62][63]) decided to not adopt the GPLv3 while almost all of the GNU project's packages adopted it.

See also

  • GNU Manifesto
  • History of free software
  • Linux adoption
  • Open-source movement
  • Free-culture movement
  • Free Software Foundation
  • Open Source Initiative
  • Software Freedom Conservancy
  • Free Software Movement of India
  • Free Software Foundation of India
  • Free Software Foundation Europe
  • Free Software Movement Karnataka
  • Free Software Foundation Tamil Nadu
  • Swecha
  • Gift economy


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  23. ^ Coleman (2013), p. 116-7.
  24. ^ Söderberg (2007), p. 153-4.
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  28. ^ Kelty, Christpher M. (2008). "The Cultural Significance of free Software - Two Bits" (PDF). Duke University press - durham and london. p. 99. Prior to 1998, Free Software referred either to the Free Software Foundation (and the watchful, micromanaging eye of Stallman) or to one of thousands of different commercial, avocational, or university-research projects, processes, licenses, and ideologies that had a variety of names: sourceware, freeware, shareware, open software, public domain software, and so on. The term Open Source, by contrast, sought to encompass them all in one movement.
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  46. ^ "Richard Stallman on "World Domination 201"". Archived from the original on 2013-06-03. Retrieved 2008-01-31. I cannot agree to that compromise, and my experience teaches me that it won't be temporary. ... What our community needs most is more spine in rejection of non-free software. It has far too much willingness to compromise. ... To "argue" in favor of adding non-free software in GNU/Linux distros is almost superfluous, since that's what nearly all of them have already done.
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  48. ^ "Interview with Richard Stallman". GNU/LAS s20e10. Linux action show. 2012-03-11. Retrieved 2014-08-22. RMS: I’m not gone to claim that I got a way to make it easier to raise money to pay people who write free software. We all know, that to some extent there are ways to do that, but we all know that they are limited, they are not as broad as we would like.
  49. ^ David McGowan (2005), "Legal Aspects of Free and Open Source Software", in Joseph Feller; Brian Fitzgerald; Scott A. Hissam; Karim R. Lakahani (eds.), Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, MIT Press, p. 382, ISBN 0-262-06246-1
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  55. ^ OSI and License Proliferation on by Martin Michlmayr "Too many different licenses makes it difficult for licensors to choose: it's difficult to choose a good license for a project because there are so many. Some licenses do not play well together: some open source licenses do not inter-operate well with other open source licenses, making it hard to incorporate code from other projects. Too many licenses makes it difficult to understand what you are agreeing to in a multi-license distribution: since a FLOSS application typically contains code with different licenses and people use many applications which each contain one or several licenses, it's difficult to see what your obligations are." (on August 21st, 2008)
  56. ^ "Various Licenses and Comments about Them". Retrieved 2021-04-04.
  57. ^ Mark (2008-05-08). "The Curse of Open Source License Proliferation". Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-11-30. Currently the decision to move from GPL v2 to GPL v3 is being hotly debated by many open source projects. According to Palamida, a provider of IP compliance software, there have been roughly 2489 open source projects that have moved from GPL v2 to later versions.
  58. ^ a b McDougall, Paul (2007-07-10). "Linux Creator Calls GPLv3 Authors 'Hypocrites' As Open Source Debate Turns Nasty". Archived from the original on 2008-04-13. Retrieved 2015-02-12. [...]the latest sign of a growing schism in the open source community between business-minded developers like Torvalds and free software purists.
  59. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about the GNU Licenses – Is GPLv3 compatible with GPLv2?". Retrieved 3 June 2014. No. Some of the requirements in GPLv3, such as the requirement to provide Installation Information, do not exist in GPLv2. As a result, the licenses are not compatible: if you tried to combine code released under both these licenses, you would violate section 6 of GPLv2. However, if code is released under GPL “version 2 or later,” that is compatible with GPLv3 because GPLv3 is one of the options it permits.
  60. ^ Larabel, Michael (24 January 2013). "FSF Wastes Away Another "High Priority" Project". Phoronix. Archived from the original on 9 November 2016. Retrieved 22 August 2013. Both LibreCAD and FreeCAD both want to use LibreDWG and have patches available for supporting the DWG file format library, but can't integrate them. The programs have dependencies on the popular GPLv2 license while the Free Software Foundation will only let LibreDWG be licensed for GPLv3 use, not GPLv2.
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  62. ^ Kerner, Sean Michael (2008-01-08). "Torvalds Still Keen On GPLv2". Retrieved 2015-02-12. "In some ways, Linux was the project that really made the split clear between what the FSF is pushing which is very different from what open source and Linux has always been about, which is more of a technical superiority instead of a -- this religious belief in freedom," Torvalds told Zemlin. So, the GPL Version 3 reflects the FSF's goals and the GPL Version 2 pretty closely matches what I think a license should do and so right now, Version 2 is where the kernel is."
  63. ^ corbet (2006-10-01). "Busy busy busybox". Retrieved 2015-11-21. Since BusyBox can be found in so many embedded systems, it finds itself at the core of the GPLv3 anti-DRM debate. [...]The real outcomes, however, are this: BusyBox will be GPLv2 only starting with the next release. It is generally accepted that stripping out the "or any later version" is legally defensible, and that the merging of other GPLv2-only code will force that issue in any case

Further reading

  • Coleman, E. Gabriella (2013). Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691144610.
  • David M. Berry, Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source, Pluto Press, 2008, ISBN 0-7453-2414-2
  • Johan Söderberg, Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement, Routledge, 2007, ISBN 0-415-95543-2

Edited: 2021-06-18 15:09:26